The Voices of Young Men Inspire Us to Push Harder

Author: Andrew Mulinge

As the year comes to a close, the Forward Promise team took some time to reflect on how far we have come as a National Program Office and to fine tune our vision for where we want to go in the new year. As we took stock of the things that were accomplished during our first year as a national program office, there was much to celebrate and for which to be thankful.

To say we “hit the ground running” would be an understatement. Within five months of becoming the National Program Office (NPO) team in January 2017, we officially launched our work with a village-building event in Philadelphia in March, which was attended by over 200 people. We celebrated the reinvestment being made by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to support boys and young men of color (BYMOC) and to raise awareness of the issues of trauma and healing. We released our first call for proposals (Empowerment Grants) in April, and by May we interviewed (BYMOC) from youth programs in Philadelphia and San Antonio for a video on the power of youth storytelling in addressing trauma from daily oppression. By the summer, we identified and convened our National Advisory Committee (NAC), which consists of the top health experts on communities of color in the country, to consult with us on how best to address the emotional, historical, and physical health needs of boys and young men of color. In November, we announced our first cohort of grantees – nine grassroots community organizations who are working in amazing ways to reduce the traumas of violence and disenfranchisement and promote positive health outcomes in BYMOC using culturally responsive interventions.

We have spent a lot of time over the last 12 months talking within the BYMOC field about what BYMOC need to heal from the generational and systemic traumas of existing in their bodies; how healing while being connected to culture, traditions and roots leads to growing as human beings; and, how healing and growing can open the path to thriving in a world that has historically created barriers to any kind of thriving. We have talked about boys and young men of color with people who love and respect them and passionately work on their behalf. Yet, it has always been our intention to hear their voices, and facilitate their agency as the primary experts on this topic. With that in mind, we took advantage of every opportunity this year to invite boys and young men of color to share their experiences and points of view – during our launch event, as members of our national advisory committee, for stories and videos, and at convenings we’ve sponsored or attended.

In November, we took time as a team to retreat so that we could recharge and revisit our goals, vision and message. To bring the purpose of our work into focus, we started our retreat by doing the most important thing: we met with boys and young men of color. The Forward Promise team went together to the Davidson County Juvenile Detention Center in Tennessee, in November. Our collective reflection on that experience served as the last and perhaps the most important reflection point of the year – and our call to action for our work in the year ahead. It was here that our work – and the work of philanthropy was brought more clearly into focus, both collectively as a team and individually. As we went through the security checkpoint and were lead into a classroom to wait for the young men to be brought in, we were not entirely sure what to expect. We observed the way the young men were patted down before being brought into the classroom to meet with us. We each scanned the classroom, reading their affect and body language, as Dr. Stevenson introduced our team to them and shared with them why we were there. One or two young men in the group quickly emerged as the leaders of that group, and we began to connect with their stories and the life experiences they had in common with their peers.

It was both gut-wrenching and inspiring to be in the presence of these young, talented, intelligent young men – some who were clinging to the hope of a future even though they were on the eve of their transition to adult penitentiaries. Their reasons for being their varied as some were facing 50 years and some were soon to be released. We saw human beings, who despite having been let down, traumatized and left to their own desperate devices were still vulnerable, still had a glimmer of optimism, and were still very capable of giving and receiving love and forgiveness – underneath those hardened and stressed exteriors.

“What do you want to ask us?” Dr. Stevenson posed to the group. After a moment of silence, one young man asked, “Why is it – if people, successful older men, don’t want us to be the way we are – that when they pass us on the corner or on the street, they don’t even say anything? They just ignore us.” In other words, why don’t YOU see us?

The experience at the detention center was an urgent call to action for our team. There are troops on the front lines, fighting to be the intervention and a lifeline for boys and young men all over the United States. There are organizations like Forward Promise, seeking to expose and support the examples that are effective and life-altering for our boys and young men. Boys and young men of color need us all – those who work directly with youth and those who work indirectly on their behalf – to be reflective, disciplined, resourceful and whatever else is required to stand in the breach for boys and young men of color, until they can close the gap. This work is urgent because this world needs them too – their gifts, genius, resilience, strength and resourcefulness. Those of us who see their humanity, their value and their potential must work harder. That’s our challenge and our opportunity for 2018.