I am a social entrepreneur and attorney who co-founded The Brotherhood/Sister Sol – a youth development and community organizing institution nearly 18 years ago.
We are based in Harlem, and as a highly successful and evidence based organization, we have traveled the country, and all corners of New York City, teaching other educators and youth development specialists how to use our model. These travels have inevitably taken me to communities similar to Harlem – communities filled with a rich historical and cultural history, communities filled with hard working people, and also communities facing a plague of violence perpetrated by young men.
Violence is a national scourge in America – last year more people were shot and killed in Chicago than American soldiers were killed in Iraq. The young people I work with think that having young friends who have been killed by gunfire is a normal occurrence. And even those who have avoided the actual violence live in haunted skittish fear of the possibility of violence that pervades their communities. We have raised our children to be afraid for their lives.
This is the America we have wrought.
There has been much written about the need for gun control and for policy efforts to control violence in America. I have written such essays myself. There is no one answer to this scourge: we must respond with education and legislation, gun control and smart policing, pervasive reform of the criminal justice system, and we must also recognize personal responsibility. We must not avoid the responsibility we have as citizens, as Americans, to raise boys to be healthy and strong men who do not see violence as their first form of
communication when they are angry, and enraged and confused.
We must confront our personal and community obsession with violence, the fact that all too often in America we believe that the answer to conflict is found in a gun. We have raised our boys into misguided men, boys who have learned a warped sense of masculinity and manhood. Our boys, in tough communities like Harlem, quickly learn to believe that all they have is their self-respect and in a tragic series of learned and deep seeded responses they adhere to an honor code that is based on defending any perceived slight, any form of disrespect, with
Over the years of my work I have led workshops in many prisons, talking with men who have been incarcerated due to violent actions. Invariably, when their stories come out, their worn faces acknowledge that the violence they perpetrated was unnecessary, chosen, often done in the haze of alcohol – but still chosen, and
they know now, there were other paths.
I have seen all too many teens, and even young boys, so filled with anger and rage and trauma that they seem ready to combust – and their words become the words of machismo, of violent movie characters, rappers and video games “heroes” they have come to revere. They want to hear a chorus in response to their peacock like displays of rage – “Yes, you are a man.
Yes, you are tough. Yes, you are to be feared.” They have a deep seeded need to be acknowledged, for their power to be recognized, and for their voices to be heard.
Unfortunately, all too many of our young men find their voices and respect through violence. They process the trauma that have experienced, trauma due to poverty and lack of access and the violence that has been perpetrated on them, with violence of their own.
America’s problem with violence, it’s pervasive obsession with physical power, it’s level of homicidal violence that is unequaled by any in the so called “developed” world, is one rooted in the fact that so many of our boys have never been taught alternative standards of manhood, They have adhered to a definition of manhood that is based on power and violence and that so often leads to either bravado laced violence against other men, or the physical abuse of women.
They are raised to be tough soldiers, and so, they act as soldiers act on battlefields, and they speak the language of violence. And then, although they struggle to take off the constricting armor of violence, they are brutal to those they love as well.