"Khary Lazarre-White's gripping, relentless dive into the inner life of a young African American male named Warrior invites readers into a world where few have dared to venture. In this world, mysticism and madness walk hand in hand with the waking reality of so many young Black men in America, a reality that by any rational measure is itself insane. In Passage, Lazarre-White offers insights and answers to the one question the media never asks when scrutinizing young Black men for their responses to that reality: Why?"
Susan L. Taylor
Editor in Chief Emeritus, Essence Magazine
"Powerful, lyrical and evocatively written, Passage is a transportive story of love and survival, a walk in the shoes of a young man negotiating an uncertain present, a painful past and the promising future he may never have. A stunning debut by Khary Lazarre-White."
Creator & Executive Producer, Boardwalk Empire
Academy Award nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Wolf of Wall Street
"Passage is a work of great originality, pain, and aching beauty. Its protagonist, Warrior, a sensitive, haunted and haunting young man, bears the burden of history: the past is always near, shaping and informing present realities of black boys like himself. As he traverses a dystopic urban landscape, one that is both surreal and all too real, he encounters the depth of Black Rage, the persistence of Black Death, and the tremendous capacity of Black Love. Like Warrior, Passage pays homage to its predecessors, while forging its own path – one that speaks most eloquently to our present and insists that we create a starkly different future."
Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin
William B. Ransford Professor of English & Comparative Literature and African American Studies
Columbia University; author of Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II
"You will not soon forget this gem of a book. With powerful, searing prose, Mr. Lazarre-White has written a book that in Kafka’s immortal phrase wounds and stabs. From the haunting opening passage about Midnight Blue, the reader cannot look away, no matter how much pain spills across these pages; pages which cross the expanse from 1993 Harlem to the slavers of antebellum America. Without the pain, however, the story would ring hollow. This novel is anything but. This is a book about History. And Memory. And Destiny."
Chapter One Bookstore; American Booksellers Association
"Khary Lazarre-White is one of the most transformative men of his generation. As co-founder of Bro/Sis organization he has changed countless lives. In Passage he brings that same sense of purpose to a chilling tale that follows a young man named Warrior. Set in 1993, this rich intelligent work documents how the ghosts of the past still haunt us."
"As Warrior experiences dangers real and imagined, current and ancestral, Lazarre-White, activist and founder of a Harlem-based youth-education organization, infuses his vivid journey with thought- and discussion-provoking symbolism. This is a unique and haunting portrayal of a young black man considering his inheritance, and his destiny."
Named among "The Best New Fiction," by The Wall Street Journal:
"Passage, written in a striking blend of street vernacular and classical declamation, turns Warrior’s daily journey between school and home into a kind of spiritual pilgrimage. Mr. Lazarre-White has written an artfully compact parable of a noble soul seeking deliverance."
The Wall Street Journal
"Khary Lazarre-White’s Passage is a brave account of black survival in white America when a strong family operates as the necessary bulwark… there is honesty in this novel, in Warrior’s daily life and rituals that will chill you at the bone."
Charles R. Larson
Published by Seven Stories Press
Distributed by Penguin Random House
Passage tells the story of Warrior, a young black man navigating the snowy winter streets of Harlem and Brooklyn in 1993. Warrior is surrounded by deep family love and a sustaining connection to his history - connections that arm him as he confronts the urban forces that he faces — both supernatural and human — forces that seek his very destruction.
For Warrior and his peers, the reminders that they, as black men, aren’t meant to be fully free, are everywhere. The high schools are filled with teachers that aren’t qualified and don’t care as much about their students’ welfare as that they pass the state exams. Getting from point A to point B usually means avoiding violence, and possibly death, at the hands of the “blue soldiers” and your own brothers. Making it home means accepting that you may open the door to find that someone you love did not have the same good fortune.
Warrior isn’t even safe in his own mind. He’s haunted by the spirits of ancestors and of the demons of the system of oppression. Though the story told in Passage takes place in 1993, there is a striking parallel between Warrior’s experience and the experiences of present day black male youth, since nothing has really changed. Every memory in the novel is the memory of thousands of black families today. Every conversation is a message both to those still in their youth and those who left their youth behind long ago. Passage is a novel for then and now.
Publication date: September 26, 2017
- October 8 - Washington DC - Busboys and Poets, 4pm
- October 9 - NYC - Barnes and Noble, with Jelani Cobb and Farah Griffin, 7pm
- October 14 - Detroit - Source Bookstore, 6pm
- October 16 - Los Angeles - UCLA, Haines Hall 153 Black Forum Conference Room, 12:30pm
- October 17 - Los Angeles - EsoWon Bookstore, 7pm
- October 18 - San Francisco - University of San Francisco, McLaren 252, 1pm
- October 18 - San Francisco - Book Passages at Ferry Building, 6pm
- October 19 - Seattle - Northwest African American Museum, 7pm
- October 22 - Oakland - Marcus Bookstore, 2pm
- October 23 - Palo Alto - Stanford University, 12pm
- November 1 - NYC - Ethical Culture Society, 7pm
- November 8 - Jewish Theological Center, 7pm
- November 9 - Tavis Smiley Show, PBS
- November 26 - WABC, Up Close, 11am
- November 29 - The Leonard Lopate Show - WNYC/NPR, 1pm
- December 19 - Pod Save the People with DeRay McKesson (to air in January 2018)
- December 20 - I Heart Radio, The Public Library Podcast
Words of Support
"Khary is using his passion to uplift and inspire a next generation through extraordinary work that creates leaders and a sanctuary for children where they can develop a higher vision for themselves."
- Oprah Winfrey
"Khary Lazarre-White is my hero. I believe so deeply in the life-saving work that The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is dedicated to: Values and skills building that empower young people and keep them on course; It is surely one of the most incredible organizations in the nation. Their work is catalytic! Their leadership, their services and outcomes are without peer. Simply put, they the work that few others will or even know how to do."
- Susan L. Taylor
"Khary’s commitment to this critical social justice work with very disadvantaged young people is undeniable. He has dedicated his life to this work."
- Dr. Pedro Noguera
December 12, 2017
We Will Win
Published, Huffington Post
December 12, 2017
Intersectionality speaks to a world-view and perspective – a way to analyze overlapping forms of identity and varied experiences and also systems of oppression, a lens with which to view struggle and freedom that is inclusive and sees liberation as interconnected. It is how one person can see and experience the world through overlapping perspectives of race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, documentation status, and so many more – two of these influences can affect one’s world view; all can affect one’s world view. It is often a deeply internal awakening to reach a perspective of intersectionality; it is also where we will find our solutions.
There is a war in America. It is a war of ideals, of information, of technology and media - and it is a war for the unrealized humanity of the nation. If we are to be honest, to end the charade of arguments framed in political deflection and evasive discourse, then both sides that are engaged in this battle would acknowledge this war. What will America be?
America has always been an aspirational concept. It is a nation founded on a declaration of independence and themes of democracy and freedom and opportunity – and yet, as we know well, the great sin, the foundational lie of the nation, is that the democracy and freedom and opportunity it has pontificated about, has not been for “we the people.” The truth is, American liberty and democracy has always been reserved for the precious few – originally land owning white men. Black people, indigenous people, women, and poor whites were not included in these original ideals.
And so, America has been in a state of war since its founding.
At times this war has been one of internecine battles – fought in corridors of power and influence, in court decisions issued quietly directing the nation’s course. At other times this war has broken into the open – the stark choice the nation faced clear to all: between indigenous people and those who sought to slaughter their numbers in a genocide; between Abolitionists and those who sought to enslave and own human beings; between America and the Southern forces who seceded, created their own treasonous nation, their chief stated goal to continue human bondage; between freedom fighters and white supremacist forces who fought to defeat the gains secured during Reconstruction; between the Women’s Suffrage movement as they fought to ensure full freedom and citizenship for women and others who fought to keep women as second class citizens. The American ideal has been betrayed many times in our history: when the United States Supreme Court forced Japanese Americans into internment camps and much of the nation responded with support or deafening silence; when fascist forces under the name of McCarthyism suppressed speech and political freedom, threatening imprisonment or deportation for ideals; when labor sought to create rights for workers and big businesses fought to continue child labor and grinding inhumane work conditions in the name of profit; when citizens took to the streets to stand for full citizenship for Black people, 100 years after the end of the Civil War, and in response, the power and violence of the state sought to continue Segregation; when college students sought to end a war in Vietnam and were responded to with massive arrests and police violence; when bigotry, social and legal oppression faced Gay and Lesbian people and their allies who believed in full and complete protection for all sexual orientations and identities; when widespread political forces sought to silence and defeat women who had once again created a movement seeking full freedom and opportunity as well as a radical revision of our idea of what makes a man or a woman; and when jingoistic forces of exclusion advocate inhumane policies in response to the undocumented and the dreamers. This has always been a nation of war engaged in battles of ideas. There have always been two sides.
And so, we are in a time, again, when this war has broken into the open. Trump did not create this war or these conditions, but his election opened many eyes to the battles being fought in shadows. It is a battle to determine whether America will live up to its ideals as a nation – will move beyond that aspirational concept to a lived reality, to what America can be. There are some who would call the use of “war” a hyperbolic word. They would be wrong. Today, on one side you have those who fight and struggle for a more humane and human America – one that protects the undocumented, seeks a path into the light and citizenship for those long here; one that believes in the absolute equality of women and women’s right to control their own bodies and reproductive choices; one that believes that the present disparity of wealth and opportunity are untenable, exploitative and destructive; one that believes that the prison system is profoundly unjust, soiled to its core, and needs a foundational transformation, not mere reform; one that believes the environment is in danger, that global warming and climate change must be confronted as a national and international emergency; one that believes that in America, the wealthiest nation in the world, healthcare should be a right for all of its citizens; one that believes that structural racism and state violence must be confronted; one that believes in pluralism, diverse immigration and religious freedom; and one that knows that education creates opportunity, and therefore should not be afforded at a high level to the few but instead guaranteed as a right for all, that all children must have first rate educational access.
And then there are those who stand on the other side.
I co-founded The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, a social justice organization, in 1995. We are committed to working to respond to inequality, to train young people to become empowered as social change agents, to work to expand a vision of equity, racial, gender and economic justice - opportunity and access for all. We are deeply rooted in teaching young people to form and hone a moral and ethical code and to undergo a political transformation that leads to understanding the inequity they face directly, as well as those around the world, so that through this education they can become social change makers. They confront issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, hyper masculinity/patriarchy and poverty – intersected social justice movements in this country that have created lasting political change: the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Anti-War Movements, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Equal Rights Movements, to name a few – all focused on the political education of young people, through consciousness raising and study, with increased understanding of and involvement in the democratic process - whether voting or working to change laws and legislation or marching and demonstrating in the streets of our country.
We will win, in the end, because humanity and justice are on our side – because young people are driving a change in ideals. Great damage will be done to many people during this war we find ourselves in – but we will win. These are not words of didactic puffery and frivolous hopefulness, it is not my nature, but instead I write them from a place of cold, calculated optimism. We, those who fight for a more humane world, must wrap ourselves in this optimism. We will win because 66 million people voted for Hillary Clinton and 63 million voted for Donald Trump and 100 million eligible voters, nearly 43%, did not vote – and we will win the minds of most of these 100 million though our vision and optimism and humanity grounded in unyielding, tough, focused solutions. We will win because demographics are with us - as the nation becomes increasingly people of color, younger, diverse, more inclusive. We will win because we will organize, agitate, push back on lies and misinformation, take to the streets, vote, litigate, create tough art and speak out. We will support one another, break down silos, define our national narrative and embrace common struggles of people everywhere – for their struggles are our own. We will win because the fate of this nation is in our hands.
Love does not defeat hate in a war of feelings. It does not always overcome. This adage is untrue. Hate has won many of such battles over time - and genocides that have been committed, and wars that have been fought in hate’s name, fill the world’s graveyards to overflowing. Generations have been lost to hate. But love, a righteous love for humanity, a love for inclusiveness of all people, will win. When this kind of love is combined with fierce, unyielding action, then hate does not stand a chance.
And so, yes, we will win.
To be published by NYU Press, in the collection A Crisis of Connection, Spring, 2018
A New World
To be published by NYU Press, in the collection A Crisis of Connection, Spring, 2018
What are the connections between art and activism, between creativity and social change? How is it that stories can heal and transform both the storyteller and the listener? How do art and activism, when interconnected and creatively woven together, inspire and transform the world? When art is inspired by action for social justice, when activism produces profound artistic commentary – connections are made, the “other” becomes understandable, a potentially foreign experience can be brought close, made real, even become your own. Often the experience is displayed through images: the photo of a boy pulled from the rubble in Syria; a migrant child drowned in the Mediterranean; a young girl running from the burning effects of Napalm in Vietnam; the face of Emmitt Till; dogs and water hoses unleashed on children in the American South, the video of the last moments of Eric Garner’s life – sometimes intensified by words: “I Can’t Breathe.”
We live in a time when so many crave connection – even with the onslaught of social media and access to communication around the world, too many of us feel unconnected, unmoored. For this reason, in part, an abundance of constructed or intentional communities are being created, formed around shared ideas, focused on exploration or solutions, music or art convenings, social change efforts, politics, or commonly desired destinations. People are seeking affiliation with people who seek similar experiences in a world of alienation and separation. For many reasons people long to connect.
The word “radical” means to "to grab something at its root." I am the co-founder and Executive Director of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis), an organization where we are dedicated to providing comprehensive youth development, training educators on our model, and working to influence policies that affect our young people. We are a radical organization because we seek to bring a deep political analysis to our work, we organize for social justice, and we help our children grasp things at their root, and once they do – to develop their voices – voices for action and change.
A deep and profound disconnection is felt by many of our young people. They are disconnected, in many ways, isolated and dissociated, because they are still told, each and every day, with unnerving clarity, that they are not expected to fully participate in this nation, that this nation is not fully for them. The reminders and lessons are multiple – and repeated with numbing frequency. One often experiences exhaustion at the repetition, exhaustion at the cyclical nature of your mother’s story and your father’s story becoming your story, of having to continue a struggle as old as this nation.
To be born black in this country, to know the unique experience and reality associated with this identity, is often to feel disconnected and detached from the nation’s narratives, the false stories of origination, the fallacy of a meritocracy. It is to be dulled and enraged. One knows that equal opportunities have not only not been afforded – but instead that one faces a much more difficult path in life due to no other reason than the color of one’s skin, that we live not in a post racial time, but in a virulently racial time. It is to know that to be black and American is an inescapable conflict.
While the immigrant has been central to the development and expansion of this country, historically immigrants of all colors and nationalities, today’s immigrant experience is framed as one of brown people, the “other” - “other faiths” and “other languages.” To see the nation through the eyes of an immigrant, whether the immigrant is one’s self or one is the child of immigrants, and to live in a time when the national discourse is one of vitriol towards your people, your reality, your religion, your language and your very journey to becoming an American – all of this leaves you feeling isolated and unmoored. The policy of deporting millions of people – hard working and industrious people – of building walls and banning faiths – is an attack on you, for even if it is not your specific story, the policy will touch you and your community. Your people.
There is a national conversation around education – yet one that offers few solutions to the systemic issues which economically poor children, overwhelmingly black and brown, face in a failing public school system. If you are a child in such a school, if you know that you are not being prepared to compete in society, that you are not learning the necessary analytical and technological skills to participate fully, and that you have been sold a false map, one that depicts hard work as the inevitable path to success - what feeling could that provide but one of disconnection, a daily reminder of the educational caste system in which your are mired, that you are caught in an educational system of mediocrity? If your community is policed in a racially disparate manner, if you know jails are filled with people from your community, your family and friends, many of whom would not be incarcerated if they merely lived in a different zip code and had committed or been accused of the same crimes or misdemeanors, if they had not been born economically poor, black or brown, then one cannot help but feel disconnected from the platitudes of equality and equity.
For generations, such experiences have produced the simple question: Is this nation my nation? If you are an aware human being, this question is constant. And yet, paradoxically, the answer has always been, and must continue to be: Yes. It may be a conflicted, eyes wide open, steeled, yes, but a yes all the same. For it is a reality of history that black and brown people, the immigrants, those cast aside, the workers, the poorly educated, the expendable - these people have built this nation.
Bro/Sis has been an intentional, formed community since it was founded in 1995. It was created to connect young people to one another, to their historical legacy of the African diaspora, and to a community of elders who would guide and support them. The themes our community was founded on have been a part of our very logo since our creation – Positivity, Knowledge, Future and Community. These are aspirational goals – the connective tissue that binds us. To be a part of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol’s community, to find community with us – these too must be your guiding aspirations: to live positive lives, to always seek knowledge, to work towards a better future for all: to create community. The work to reach these aspirations may be hard; it involves self-exploration and discipline, self-awareness, and at times, profound change – but we know we will travel with others along the way.
As important as the adult guides are to the young people on this journey, the young people’s peers are equally essential – they form a community of children, young men and young women, who will walk together – often acting and believing differently from what society expects of our children in general, and especially of black and brown children from tough urban communities. The building of this community also takes work on the part of the adults - difficult, hard, steady work: to confront who we are – our natures and how we have been nurtured. During one of our many staff meetings, one filled with reflection and tough conversations, a long time staff member said he had never been in a work place before where he had been asked, as an adult, to grow so much, to work on his own issues and development so deeply. To guide our children to be more connected, more reflective, more moral and ethical in their behavior, more steadfast – we too, as the guiders, must do this difficult work.
Art has always been a central aspect of movements for social justice – art spurs creative thinking across disciplines, provides what has been named “imaginative identification,” by Chinua Achebe. Imaginative identification. It is a depth of identification that has the liberating and mighty power to allow us to truly connect to another – not merely to empathize or intellectually understand someone else’s experience, but the more expansive, deeper work of actually imagining the other’s experience as your own. Achebe writes: “Things are not merely happening before us; they are happening, by the force and power of imaginative identification, to us. We not only see; we suffer alongside the hero and are branded with the same mark of ‘punishment and poverty’…” I know of no concept that can better respond to our current crisis of connection, the disparate and divided worlds that so many hide within. Rather, Achebe asks us to truly identify with the crisis, or pain or journey of someone else – someone different – younger, older, from an unfamiliar corner of the world of city, with a different skin color, gender or sexual identity, set of beliefs, or religion.
Richard Wright once said: “The blues were created on the pavements of the city, in saw mills, in lumber camps, in short, wherever the migrant Negro, fresh from the soil, wrestled with an alien reality.” These migrants, black folk from the South, left an old world, and entered a new world. Immigrants in experience if not in name, they used their experiences to create an artistic form that accomplished two things: they formed a common language that bound them to each other, an expression of their pain and lived reality that built community and belonging through music; and their voices expressed an experience that informed a wider world. Their creative expression made them less alien to others and created a sense of belonging for them. For decades – for a century – many of varied backgrounds heard this story, one that was new, even foreign, and yet somehow familiar, and it became their own.
Much of the work we do with young people is based on developing “voice.” By voice we mean the external, the effort that hopefully leads towards Wright’s concept of commenting on their world so that others might understand what they have experienced and seen; and also the internal process, an interior voice that allows them to heal from trauma and make sense of the world. At Bro/Sis we help young people to redefine manhood and womanhood, to confront outworn and sometimes destructive norms of masculinity and femininity, so they can imagine and act on being who they truly are, reclaiming personal identity, often in ways that counter the voices and images they hear and see, and are taught to obey. They learn the glorious and horrific history of their people in America, a history that helped to form them – and this knowledge is liberating as it connects them to a long shared struggle for freedom and equality: a place of belonging.
The educator, Maxine Green has written: "It is a conscious endeavor on the part of individuals to keep themselves awake, to think about their condition in the world, to inquire into the forces that appear to dominate them." We are trying to help young people comprehend and question concepts that have dominated them, to discover their own powers and their ability to transform themselves. Our theory of personal change is connected to a broader understanding of social and political change. One sphere is intimately connected to the other. We provide comprehensive guidance, love, support, and education. We teach our young people, from early childhood to high school age and beyond, to value discipline and form order in their lives; then we create access and opportunities within which they can develop and experience agency. We teach our young people to question the origins of poverty and oppression, the poor schooling they receive, the violence and trauma many are faced with on a daily basis, and then to work to counter these forces. We want them to open their eyes, or as one of our founding youth members expresses it, our work is to help youth to open a third eye. We want them to awaken.
We practice and believe in a holistic approach to supporting young people. Our members experience month-long international study in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. Through community organizing training they learn to become social change makers. They learn the skills and use our platform to speak out against the poor schooling that has been deemed acceptable, the unconstitutional policing that has become a part of their lives; they speak out for access and opportunity and justice. Part of our work involves exposing our youth members to the wonders and diversity of the arts, to the possibilities of college and a life long love of learning, and in our community garden we teach environmental sustainability. Through single gendered rites of passage programming we work to help them hone a moral and ethical code of conduct. Our young people travel on this journey of defining for themselves who they will be in society - and then speaking of it, out loud, in their own creative and deepened voices.
Albert Camus: "A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But on the other hand, in a universe suddenly devoid of illusion and lights, a man feels an alien, a stranger."
There are many times when, as a staff, we debate the best methods and approaches for revealing the illusions and façades our youth are confronted with – we know from our own experience that illusions removed too callously can result in pain. Our children are called “the poor.” The word poor is defined as lacking in value or worth, without quality, inferior, deficient. Many of our children observing the conditions they were born into, initially believe there is something wrong with them, that they are the ones who are deficient or lacking in worth, that they have limited value due to being born black or brown, or undocumented, or with a lack of access, without financial resources. But there is also profound strength to be found in this awareness. This unsettling of a previously familiar world can be the beginning of struggle, the birthplace of great art, the earth from which social justice grows. Once such awareness occurs, a central part of our work is to guide our young people from feelings of strangeness, from this initially alien reality, to an understanding of their connection to generations who pushed back against these realities, and to those currently struggling around the world.
A young member once came to me seeming distracted. Clearly much was on his mind. While he was doing well in school and usually had a comedic and vibrant personality, this day he seemed on edge, and it was obvious he needed to talk. As is common with so many young people who have been traumatized in urban America by what they have seen – his story was slow to come out of him. As youth grow and pass through their developmental stages, it is not what they want from you as a caring adult that changes, or the substance of the conversations they need that alters, but instead, it is your approach as the adult that must change and the tone and rhythms of your questions and advice. They want the same guidance – they need a new language.
As we talked his words flowed. Over the past week he'd been exposed to a level of trauma that would have left well-formed adults needing medication, therapy, even potentially hospitalization. He had experienced this level of trauma because he was born poor and lives in one of the toughest housing projects in New York City – a place society explains away with bad reasons, an explanation based on making those in power and with access and resources feel comfortable, a desire to create a familiar world and order.
In the span of a week, his next door neighbor had been shot and killed, a woman had been burned and thrown off an adjoining building’s roof, and one hot evening the police had raided the housing projects’ collective courtyard and beaten up and arrested four of his friends – all on low level charges of smoking marijuana, “carrying open containers” and “resisting arrest.” He told me all this as if it were an ordinary occurrence. This had been his “familiar” world. Yet now, with growing consciousness, a part of him knew it was truly alien and needed processing. He had been a part of our organization for years, he had travelled with us to Ghana for a month, had seen college campuses and the art of New York City. The too often learned approach to manhood, to value dismissiveness and a tough shell, had morphed: he needed to express. This is one part of healing: understanding that this terror and such attacks on the spirit are not normal, but instead represent a crisis.
Still, part of him thought he should be able to process easily what he had experienced, to merely brush it off, to place the mask back on his face that enabled him to navigate this world, and then go about his daily activities. He came to us because he did not have support elsewhere that would help him through the process. His mother, while a loving and steady presence in his life, was also traumatized, and so when such incidents occurred, she simply prayed to god, turned up her music and continued making dinner. His underfunded school did not have the necessary social workers on staff to help him confront these assaults on his life and find a way forward. He found his necessary support, guidance and love with us – elders trained to help him, to explain that pain and rage and sadness and fear were healthy, that he should not hide these feelings away but do what had so often brought comfort in the past: write and talk. And so he did. He found words for his feelings, exploring what he had experienced in his life, describing the very trauma that had caused him to believe that this level of violence was his acceptable future and conditions. He was not burned and thrown off a roof; he was not brutalized by the police; he was not shot and killed – but part of him felt that this was to be his “ordinary” reality. If so, then such a world would make sense. It was simply what happened. But if not, such a world would need explaining, to be fought against and changed.
He found words to describe the poverty and violence of his world – his sense of deprivation. He said, "Why do I have to experience this? Why am I living in this kind of condition?" Those questions were a part of learning context, of transformation – a step toward an understanding of the world. He needed to hear and to express that it wasn't his fault that he faced this world as a mere boy, that there was nothing wrong with his family, that no child should be confronted with this kind of violence and that no child – none - should be expected to have the skills to navigate such a world. He had to know that in our society, grown and powerful adults allowed his current condition to continue and that he had been born into a world long established on premises of injustice and inequality.
Over 20% of New York residents are living in poverty. New York County has the greatest disparity of wealth of any county in America, with the top 5% earning $865,000 a year while the bottom 20% is allowed to live on less than $10,000. Our school system of 1.2 million children only graduates 35% of its students college ready and without need of remedial support. These are conditions that our society has allowed to continue. Such conditions speak not to this young man’s lack of worth or quality or value – but to ours. We allow children like him to be born into a world where such horrific occurrences are familiar and known. This is allowed by our society because some children’s lives are not deemed of sufficient value.
We often speak of the destruction that violence can reap – the murdered and injured, the families torn apart by gun violence in America. But what of the children born into those communities, neighborhoods rife with violence, where, even if they are never the victim of the bullet, even if they are never struck down, they live with a daily reality and awareness of the presence of violence, the danger that lurks around the corner, the specter that their lives are transient, lacking in security, can be snatched up at any moment? This too causes great violence to the human body, it is destructive of the psyche - it wounds terribly and causes so many children to become inured. They wrap themselves in protective layers, their faces so often become impassive – but the pain runs throughout them, and for some, the rage strikes out. In the end many cannot contain it - to do so would be to ask too much, to become inhuman. They seem to cry out with the poet Nizar Qabbani: “Love me... away from the lands of oppression and repression, away from our city which has had its fill of death.”
To be truly connected to the world it is often necessary to heal from our own trauma. But so many of our children born economically poor, don’t have the access to support systems that might allow them to heal, so they move through life not merely scarred, but actually carrying massive open wounds. What does it mean to be one of our undocumented young people? To be described in the news and popular culture as “illegal” or an “alien?” Imagine, for just one moment, being a child who is described with such words – to be told each and every day that you do not belong, are the other. Imagine being told that your very being, your existence is “illegal.” Use your imagination to identify with this reality. We have members who arrived in New York City from the Dominican Republic or Jamaica or Ecuador when they were just 3 or 4 years old, brought by parents or aunts and uncles, and brought on a family member’s passport. They had no idea they had arrived without the proper paperwork, that their names did not match their social security numbers – that is, until they had already become American in identity, had lived here for over a decade, had, like many other American high school students, done their expected work and had begun, with us, their college preparation process. Suddenly the family whispers made sense - the averted eyes when they needed some form of paperwork began to become coldly clear. When they confronted family members, some of them undocumented themselves and thus also living in the shadows, often the adults struck out, and refused to help the children, afraid for their own status, of being uncovered and found. The children of Bro/Sis slowly learned that America was having a “national conversation” about sending them “back” to a “home” of which they had no memory, that this America had deemed them “illegal.” And they began to wonder: what is home? Can home be the only place you have ever known – if you are not wanted? A personal crisis, had begun, one that affected their entire worldview – for if a child cannot claim a home, she has no foundation. Who are her people? Where is her community? Again a poet’s words, this time Audre Lorde’s: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crushed into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
Self-definition becomes the process and the goal. It is often clarified by talking, reading, and collective conversation – and by the outlet of the arts. Their language, in their poetry and prose, personal oaths of commitment and collective definitions of who they are – all collected in Bro/Sis’ anthologies and performed on our stages; in drawings and paintings that hang from our walls; in the videos and documentaries we make that tell their and our stories – these fill our rooms and atmosphere - an unquestioned home.
“My job is making windows where there were once walls.” Michel Foucault’s words describe our work, the work of helping young people find grounding and community and opportunity. When society has told our children they do not belong, when laws are enforced to tear apart their families, we help them to form windows. We counsel and support them; we hold them and talk with them; we help them to advocate on their own behalf; and we secure legal representation so they can apply for documentation and come out of the shadows. One of our young women, having been supported in this way, was able to quit her job after five years as a nanny, and return to school. She now has a Masters in Social Work – and has dedicated her life to helping others. She wants to make sure that no child experiences what she has experienced – the feeling of being eaten alive.
Nicholas Peart is a name known, now, to many who have followed the news in recent years of police misconduct, harassment and violence. He has been stopped and frisked by the New York City Police six to eight times at gunpoint. He was stopped when going to the corner store to buy groceries for his siblings. He was put in the back of police cars for walking down his block. On his eighteenth birthday, while sitting on a bench on a New York City street, eating McDonald’s with his cousin, he was thrown down onto the sidewalk, a gun to his head, and searched. When the officer saw from his identification that it was his birthday, he laughed, dropped the ID on his prone back and wished him a happy birthday.
Nearly ten million stops occurred in New York City over a 12-year period beginning in 2002 – 84% of those stopped were Black or Latino. Of those stopped, only 6% were arrested, less than 2% were in possession of some form of contraband, almost always drugs, and less than .1% had a gun – the stated policy for the massive stops and infringement on the rights of the citizens of New York City. Though the police are required to have “reasonable” suspicion before stopping and frisking an individual - 90% were completely innocent.
This is a policy that is enforced only in some neighborhoods – and only on some citizens. Nicholas was one of many, but with our support he learned to process these experiences and the resulting rage and pain. He decided to struggle, to fight back, and to do this through the written word and then speaking out. He agreed to become a named witness in the lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights that sought to end the unconstitutional policy of “stop and frisk.” He wrote an Op Ed, printed in The New York Times, entitled “Why is the NYPD After Me?” It became the most definitive commentary on “stop and frisk,” the first-person story of what it felt like to have this experience. Generously, Nicholas allowed other people to identify with his story. Many were able to move beyond the abstractions, however gruesome, of these staggering statistics of over 10 million stops in 12 years, and to understand the personal impact of one story – one young man. He removed the illusions that comforted so many readers, exposing the alien reality New York City allowed its citizens to experience, only because they were black and brown and lived in economically bereft communities. This practice was allowed to continue for the “stranger,” the other. Nicholas provided an undeniable service, a gracious and benevolent offering to those who had been blind, opening their eyes, as they became personally connected to a festering crisis. At the same time, through telling his story, that of one courageous young man, he was able to do work that benefited himself as well, to “inquire into the forces that (sought) to dominate” him and to name them.
His article was read by millions. He has told his story at press conferences and high schools, on college campuses and law schools, for international and national television. Others might have become fearful of taking such a public stand, but he was empowered. One day a New York City elected official contacted us. At the time he was the relatively little-known New York City Public Advocate. He came to The Brotherhood/Sister Sol and met with our young organizers who were working to reform policing in New York City, and he told Nicholas that his own view of the issue had been transformed, he now understood the personal experience of what it felt like to be stopped and frisked, that Nicholas had moved the issue from a general policy to a powerful personal story. Nicholas had allowed him to connect. The little-known Public Advocate become the Mayor of the City of New York, and when he became Mayor, Bill de Blasio dropped the appeal of the previous administration to a Federal Court’s ruling that New York City had violated the constitutional rights of millions of New Yorkers. When the Mayor announced the dropping of the appeal he stood on the stage with the Police Commissioner, New York City’s chief lawyer and Nicholas Peart.
"When the victim is able to articulate the situation of the victim, he or she has ceased to be a victim but, instead, has become a threat." These are the words of James Baldwin - he too was born black and poor in Harlem, with only a high school level education, wrote words that altered national conversations. We want our young people to become this kind of threat – a threat to injustice, to victimhood, racism and sexism and homophobia, but, also, a threat to the destructive ideas that young people internalize into their own bodies and spirits, about who they should be, who they are, to question and change the future of their stories. There is a freedom that comes with imagining a different world. There's a freedom that comes with claiming one's own history.
When teaching history at Bro/Sis, working to remove the illusions in which so many wrap themselves, when helping young people to challenge and question the society in which they live – we often find inspiration from a West African proverb: “When lions have their own historians, hunters will cease being heroes." We all see through a particular personal lens. It takes hard work to see the world through the lens of another, but it can bring profound illumination. A great force is released when we empower young people to tell their own stories. It is destructive of our humanity as a people and as individuals when stories are told only through the lens of those in power, only from the oppressor’s point of view. When we teach the true history of America many children come to understand this proverb.
Who tells the story?
In most of the world there is no such thing as a woman’s name. Due to long- standing patriarchy and systems built on handing down property from man to man – original female names do not exist. A woman may choose not to take her husband’s name upon marriage, but in doing so she keeps her own father’s name. If she has her mother’s maiden name then she has the name of her mother’s father. Even if two women marry each other, and want to share a name, they must imagine a new name, or choose between the names of their fathers. A woman’s name must be created anew.
Who has told us our history? Who names us, literally and spiritually? Whose language do we use when navigating our lives?
The populations of Brazil and the Caribbean and the United States are filled with people of African descent due to the “Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.” More black people live in Brazil than in any nation in Africa other than Nigeria. Tens of millions were taken from the African continent and brought to the Americas, and millions died on the way over during “The Middle Passage,” their bodies thrown into the Atlantic Ocean. The poet Amiri Baraka once said that one can walk back to Africa on the bones of Africans. And yet this most horrific atrocity - the very experience that allowed millions to claim Haitian, Jamaican, Cuban, Dominican, Brazilian and American nationality, among so many others – is described in language from the perspective of the traders in human beings, not of the enslaved. For “The Middle Passage” refers to the second leg in the “triangular trade.” Draw the lines on a map: number one, from Europe with goods to Africa; number two, from Africa with cargo of humans to the Americas, the middle one; and finally, the third one, from the Americas back to Europe with goods for trade. For the enslaved, for the Africans, the atrocity, the experience, was not “The Middle Passage” – it was simply The Passage – the only one.
A renaming of their world. This work of art and education with young people is the work of healing from trauma and achieving transformation: it is the work of forming connections that unite and liberate. It encompasses a journey that connects people to their own history, to understand their own realities, and allows them to retell their experiences to others, bringing the light of consciousness, and enabling them to rename their world. This is the work we should aspire to for our young people. This is the work we must aspire to for ourselves. This opening of doors, the effort to remove illusions and flawed stories, fighting back against incomplete or false narratives, this difficult but necessary inquiry allows for the creation of new connections and the space for new stories – stories that reject a world that tells its children that they are without worth, invisible, that their own language cannot be used, that they do not matter, are alien, and do not belong. All of us crave and require community and connection to each other. We can provide and create this reality if we have the courage and commitment to redefine, retell and rename the world
November 21, 2016
The Necessary Work
Published, Huffington Post
November 21, 2016
Election day was a very tough day for all of us at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol. It was a day of despair, sorrow, and anger.
This is not an attempt to analyze what has occurred politically or to set a plan forward - but we as an institution will have to figure that out in coming weeks. This is instead an affirmation of our work - work based in humanity, love and justice.
Donald Trump ran on a platform that is diametrically opposed to all that we work for and believe in - ours is a vision of a more inclusive and equitable world and greater opportunities for our children. We stand, proudly with our undocumented and Muslim children, against sexism and misogyny, against ablelism, against bigotry, against anti-intellectualism and fascism. Donald Trump campaigned on these ideals - and for it he will become President of the United States.
Already many in the media seek to make Trump’s long displayed bigotry and demagoguery palatable and acceptable - his election does not change the bigotry of his campaign. Trump was a bigot on Monday - he remains one today. It must be named. The cloak of the Presidency does not change reality. Every day we will work against him and his insidious policies.
After the election we met with our staff to process what has happened and provide information and background to support them as they work to help our young people understand what is now a re-ordered America. One staff member said that this election was a “referendum on humanity.” These are difficult conversations that so many parents are having with their children and we too will have the necessary conversations with our children.
We are an organization committed to social justice and creating a more equitable and humane world for our children. This has been the case since our inception. And we will remain steadfast in our work. Since our founding our themes have been positivity, knowledge, community and working towards a better future. We need to be focused on these ideals now more than ever. America needs them. Our work has always been to provide support, love, guidance and education to our children and to create a sense of family and belonging - this work is more critical now than ever.
I believe that we have some very very dark days in front of us - difficult times for the issues we care about and the world view we hold dear. These will be a challenging four years. The work of Bro/Sis has always been important, but it is more important today than it has ever been.
We all need a way to direct our sorrow, disappointment, and well founded anger. In times like this we all need community and connection and allies to stand with and find strength from. Our work to educate our children to understand their conditions and become change agents will be a response to the egregious policies of the Trump administration. Our continued commitment to work and organize for progressive change and a more humane world will be a form of revolt against what will now become the official American domestic policy.
The Bro/Sis family - our staff, our alumni and our Board will stand strong for our children - for it is they who are most vulnerable to the heinous and abhorrent policies that will soon come. We believe we must continue to speak out and lead in these times.
Our work continues.
October 29, 2015
Pono – To Be Whole
Published, Huffington Post
October 29, 2015
There is a Hawaiian word, Pono, which means "to be righteous; to be the best one can be; to be whole." For two days last week, in Oahu, Hawaii, a diverse group of people from three organizations met - those that work with Black and Latino youth, with native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and with Native Americans. We discussed the many similarities of our work from Hawaii to Albuquerque to Harlem - our young people are confronted with violence, poor education, lack of job opportunities and often live in communities that are inundated with drugs. The Pacific American Foundation, The Native American Community Academy and The Brotherhood/Sister Sol are working to help young people redefine manhood in ways that confront destructive norms of masculinity, to learn conflict resolution, to seek academic achievement, and to heal from trauma and become whole. We are raising children and teaching them skills and how to navigate this world. We all use ritual and ceremony and tradition with our young people, we all celebrate culture and use it to instill pride, we all utilize the natural environment as a teaching tool that allows our children to get in touch with latent aspects of themselves, and centrally, we all surround them with elders who ensure our young people are mentored, and feel loved and supported and guided - yet also teach them to learn focus and discipline. Over our days together, our Laguna Pueblo brother sang a Lakota honor song that they teach their youth, which translates to: "Don't forget what your parents, guardians and ancestors have taught you, as you move forward in life."
Across thousands of miles we found synergies between what our young people face and the answers that will guide them. What are rites of passage? What are the stages of development in guiding boys and girls to be strong men and women? What are the interconnected tenets, connective tissue, that binds us in humanity and a mutual understanding of a moral and ethical code?
The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis) has had four themes since our founding: Positivity, Knowledge, Community and Future. We have also always focused on the positive and interconnected development of our young people's Minds, Bodies and Spirits. The goals of The Native American Community Academy (NACA) are to build youth to be "confident in their cultural identities," to "persevere academically," to develop wellness physically, emotionally and spiritually, and to become leaders. The Pacific American Foundation seeks to empower children to be resilient and responsible, to be passionate about education and culture and to become leaders. They have a guiding principle that "All knowledge is not taught in the same school."
All of us also teach our young people that if they walk down this path, if they seek to heal and be whole, that they then have the responsibility to give back and help others - to be committed. We teach young people that they have a responsibility to their people, to their tribe, to their family, yes, but also to the larger world - an interconnected humanity. In our nation's history these are the themes that have been central to creating youth leaders, to organizing to end wars, to feeding the hungry, to creating opportunity and to respond to the environmental crisis. As NACA states, we need our young people to seek "Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions." Philosophy. Ethics. Morality. Humanity. This struggle, to heal from personal trauma, to confront the inequities they face, to commit to the greater good - this is brave and hearty work. We know that there can be no political transformation without personal transformation. We challenge our young people to work on themselves. We choose staff that will do the same. As Toni Cade Bambara once wrote: "Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?... Just so's you're sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you're well."
At Bro/Sis we have, for 20 years, worked to create an array of programming for our young people. It is multilayered and diverse: The organization focuses on issues such as leadership development and educational achievement, sexual responsibility, sexism and misogyny, political education and social justice, Pan-African and Latino history, and global awareness. Bro/Sis provides four-six year rites of passage programming, thorough five day a week after school care, school and home counseling, summer camps, job training and employment, college preparation, community organizing training, and international study programs to Africa and Latin America.
What tethers all of the programs is that we have focused and honed goals that are consistent and entrenched. We know that if we reach these stages of development for our young people, that they will be successful and become strong and able adults. Whole. These stages of development, these intended outcomes, are ones that are not ethnic specific or class specific - we as a society need to work to better help all of our children find their moral and ethical center. I saw, over these two days of meetings with my colleagues - Lakota, Laguna Pueblo, Hawaiian, Cherokee, Pacific Islander - that we walk hand in hand with our children; that we seek the same futures for them. At Bro/Sis we work, tirelessly, so that our children can:
- Develop a personal self definition that encompasses respect for themselves, their family and the larger community
- Gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for their cultural and historical legacy as Black and Latino people
- Develop into critical thinkers who can analyze personal and societal issues and who are committed to self and community development
- Broaden their knowledge of social issues and increase their participation in community activities
- Find their creative voice
- Develop a powerful sense of self-worth and belief in their ability to achieve
- Improve their academic performance and develop a life long love of learning
- Increase their involvement in the workforce, internships and travel
- Learn the life skills essential for survival and success
- Create a personal testimony of their values, beliefs, and goals that reflects an understanding of their moral responsibility to others
These have been the goals of Bro/Sis since 1995. What was so affirming in my meetings with the staff from NACA and PAF was that I heard our words in their words and their words in ours. As we stood in a circle for our closing ceremony, as one participant gave thanks in Lakota and another in Hawaiian and I in English, across thousands of miles and differing ethnicities and interconnected and yet distinct histories, we spoke the same language. And our children are the better for it.
February 10, 2015
Published, Huffington Post
February 10, 2015
It seems as if we live in a time inured to passion and the impulse to freedom. I see, so often, all too many intimidated by the power of hope. Afraid to speak its name. So many people driven by calculated decision-making, the complete focus on the forming of a "personal brand," the creation of benign and safe art, the lack of an ability to articulate a calling -- the complete and utter infatuation with the virtual world. We are becoming a society that is consumed with the virtual, not the aspect of it that brings information and freedom and access, but instead that aspect that allows for charade and façade -- a profoundly vacuous existence that feels safer than the world of truth which can be dirty and messy -- but lived.
So often plugged in and invested in distraction, who will be our poets? So many seek to live through the experiences of others, maniacal about sharing snippets of their lives, but in curated photos of a desired life, an avoidance of the present. What of the moment of experience? The there. The now. Who will be our philosophers?
Yes, passion can force others away, it can burn hot and become exclusionary, but it can also bring near and be inclusive. Due to inspiration, it can invite others to walk, hand in hand, an attraction born of the very freedom it promises -- a freedom to feel, to have one's sight altered, one's experience embellished. The challenge Baldwin writes of is to take chances -- to strike out and use one's individuality to create and transform.
There is a danger in this kind of hope, this chance taken, as it can be unrealized, but when successful, the very world can change, relationships can deepen and art can be created that is tough, altering, affecting and illuminating. Too often we seek solace in safe spaces, we fear exploration. We will find fewer answers and create fewer questions in the insular world in which so many live -- the safety that so many seek. That is the great risk.
I have worked with young people for 20 years, young people who come from some of the most desperate socio-economic conditions allowed to continue in this nation. Everyday I am inspired by their endurance and capacity to heal and overcome the inequities they face, the traumas they have experienced. However, I am also concerned that too many of them are comfortable in just being -- I see a lack of dreaming, a lack of follow through and courage to be different -- a lack of passion for life.
Some of this lack of passion comes from the very experience of suffocating poverty -- a level of deprivation that exists for all too many in this country. It is one of the great injustices of America -- that this level of deprivation is allowed to exist, and that it leads to all too many becoming inured to possibility. The weight of life, of consistent disappointments, of unrealized desires, can result in a kind of numbness, as if one is wandering through the world seeking direction. I have seen, in ways that have scarred me and left me changed, how the twin oppressions of race and class can strangle vision, suppressing the desire to fight back -- to struggle for change. Many simply seek to survive.
I have also worked with some who have bravely joined historic movements for change, and they have made me profoundly proud -- of their bold commitment to struggle to make America live up to its founding documents and adhere to its articulated aspirations, to become the realization of liberty and equality and access for all -- the centuries-long dream of the enslaved, the indentured, the immigrant, the undocumented, the poor. But these have been the exceptions. All too often, the light that inspired these youth when they became, suddenly, politically aware, was extinguished. Instead, they sought only basic security. Though I understand this -- I hope for more for them.
I have seen this phenomenon as well within the halls of some of the leading academic institutions of the world. I remember when I began my law school studies at Yale. I was deeply fortunate to have the opportunity of the education Yale provided, and yet was struck, on a daily basis, by the insular and exclusionary perspective that was so rampant there: that leadership and change could come only from the world of elite education.
When I began my studies, I was sure I would find many fellow students deeply focused on the major challenges of the world -- climate change, gender inequity, international human rights struggles, the pervasive inequity of the legal system, continued unrealized equal opportunity for all without regard to race and class. And while I encountered teachers and colleagues who struggled with these great issues of our time, more focused on expanding privilege, amassing personal wealth, on easy and comfortable employment. I do not expect the majority of those with greater access to sacrifice for the greater good in large numbers, but I hoped that they would know the glory and greatness of participating in the struggles for humanity.
There is ample room for lives to be filled with complexity of purpose and personal desire, with sustenance and pleasure, with bread and roses. There is no reason one cannot be committed to the struggle for human rights, equity and peace, and also seek to travel the world and see it's beauty, to drink great wine, eat wonderful food and love hard. We need social justice fighters and artists. And many great individuals have been both. As Walt Whitman once wrote: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes."
A challenge must be to understand both technology and the virtual world, and also the power of human touch and connection. To understand and use technology, of course, but not to become so entrapped by the vapid, how, like an opiate, it can keep one from becoming engaged with the actual struggles, change, art and experiences of authentic and real human beings. More must choose a path that is connected to the greater good.
We must use our gifts, our education, our awareness, our scars and opportunities -- our lived experience -- to work on the issues that bind us, as well as to seek answers and solutions to those that suppress and divide us. To be free is to be able to expand and deepen oneself through work and experience, while also working to create opportunity for others, to take on the status quo when it is unjust, to create art that challenges power and expected norms. Speak. Write. Create. Agitate. Challenge. Be large. Seek multitudes. It is our only hope.
September 24, 2014
A Well Formed Soul
Published, Huffington Post
September 24, 2014
In his recent Op-Ed, "Becoming a Real Person" David Brooks explores the importance of developing one's "moral self" and the lack of elite universities and colleges focusing on this development. His Op-Ed is, in part, a commentary on the essay written by William Deresiewicz that has gone viral -- "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life." Brooks writes that: "People in authority no longer feel compelled to define how they think moral, emotional and spiritual growth happens." He calls this work an "abandoned ground." This abandoned ground is the earth that The Brotherhood/Sister Sol tills each and every day -- planting seeds, cultivating and helping our youth to grow.
Based in Harlem, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is a comprehensive youth development organization founded in 1995 and based on the themes of positivity, community, knowledge and future. We work to develop and hone the moral codes of young people -- helping them to investigate their sense of morality. It is the foundation and essence of our work. We work, in part, in single gendered environments -- collectives of girls guided by highly skilled female youth workers, and boys by equally committed and skilled male youth workers, over 4-6 years, as they define what it means to be women and men, leaders and brothers and sisters in their community. From the age of 12 until 18 these young people learn a curriculum that teaches them both history and ethics.
The need for developing a moral center in individuals and groups accompanies our more traditional academic curriculum. We investigate the essence of conflict resolution as we confront bias with a direct focus on sexism, misogyny and homophobia. Each collective, or chapter, chooses a name that represents them -- a statement to the world: Endure and Inspire, Intrinsic Kings, Legacy, Eternal Sisters, Sol Axe. The youth are taken through a process of writing and re-writing a personal oath of dedication, a statement to the world regarding how they will live their lives, the moral and ethical path they will follow -- and they present this statement to their peers and a ceremony represents their passage into the next stage of their adult development.
Brooks writes: "Everyone is born with a mind... but it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self." While Brooks focuses on Deresiewicz' theory that it is elite schools that have abdicated their responsibility to develop these skills and provide opportunities for their development - I have seen, all too often, that this essential work is also not done in the public schools, most of them mired in mediocrity, that my youth members attend. Their schools are not teaching them to focus on developing analytical skills or to find meaning in experience -- all too often the focus is solely on rote memorization. Yet one's freedom is found in both intellectual and emotional introspection -- the ability to find one's own meaning and vision of the world. This connection of the head and heart that Brooks writes of, this connective tissue, when established, is what produces great artists and innovative reflective thought, it is the creative path that can so often lead to meaning and a connection between the individual and the community.
We teach our young people at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol that they are intertwined with the larger society, that they must reject the fundamentally American and ever increasing focus on the individual, the self and material accumulation. It is a difficult time to be an adolescent -- hard to raise a child. They are inundated with social media that guides them to consume the vapid and degrading, to imitate the most surface and selfish and violent, and to accept gross inequity. This is a barren path to walk.
We have worked for 20 years to decrease poverty and to help our members build long term stable lives. We of course recognize the economic security that children born into economic poverty need to achieve. The latest census for New York City has only re-affirmed what we all knew -- that the county with the greatest disparity of income in America is New York County, or Manhattan, where the top 5 percent earns nearly $900,000 a year and the bottom 20 percent survives on less than $10,000. We know that our youth are young people who face assorted suffocating pressures of income inequality, inadequate education, and who so often see and experience violence and deprivation that produce harrowing trauma. For these reasons we know that our youth must heal and develop the skills of endurance and analysis, must form a moral and ethical code that allows them to understand the conditions they were born into and the strength needed to overcome these conditions. They must become critical thinkers who also focus on growing their spirits and becoming emotionally strong. Since our founding we have framed the holistic development of our youth as one that guides them on the path to understand and develop their minds, bodies and souls. What does it mean to be men and women? How can we redefine gender roles and assumptions in a way the rejects patriarchy, violence and hyper-masculinity? What does it mean to be strong when you are raised in a community rife with violence and in a country consumed and addicted to violence? How do you achieve success and also happiness? What does it mean to be a committed mother or a father? What is your responsibility to community? What do you believe in and to what will you dedicate you life?
Brooks states that there are three possibilities for a university -- a commercial focus on career, a cognitive focus to acquire information, and a moral purpose -- building an integrated self. Our formal theory of change is to provide support, guidance, education and love to our members; to teach them to form discipline and order in their lives; and then to provide opportunities and access so that they may develop agency. As an organization that works with some of the most economically disadvantaged youth in New York City -- we see all three areas of focus as our integrated commitment. We augment our members' school-based education and help them to achieve academically, to develop a life long love for learning, and to expose them to a wealth of information and learning -- and we also offer pathways to college and workforce. That said, no focus is more central than the focus on the self. We provide a protective and nurturing space for our youth to reflect and experience, to wander intellectually and curiously, seeking to understand the world, all the while confronting issues of morality and the spirit. We know that through this process our members will gain, both, as one of our founding Brotherhood chapters named itself, "Knowledge of Self," and also a well formed soul that is interconnected to the wider world, to the greater good, but also one that is steeled and strengthened and inward facing. A well-formed soul in possession of knowledge of self -- feet firmly planted on reclaimed ground.
January 24, 2014
The Path of Poet-Educator Activists
Published, Huffington Post
January 24, 2014
Lyrical Circle began in 2002 as a program dreamt up and initiated by youth members of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, the comprehensive youth organization I co-founded in 1995.
That Lyrical Circle exists is a testimony to them. Two members, at the time 13 and 17 years old, Elizabeth Acevedo and Melvin White, came to us and said they needed a place to write. They were poets and needed a space that would support the development of their craft and the refining of their voices. These youth recruited their friends, friends of the mind -- to paraphrase Toni Morrison's words in Beloved -- and built their own program. Their call became Lyrical Circle, an award-winning, widely respected collective of some of the truly baddest poets in the land. The Brotherhood/Sister Sol published a collection of their work, Off the Subject, in 2006 and reissued it in 2013 -- it speaks to the transformative power of art education, and of developing voices, and the intersection of social justice and the arts.
Lyrical Circle met every Friday night in our building, from 7 to 11 p.m. While they welcomed visitors, and I was honored to join them on occasion, they were a close-knit, tightly held collective; their love for each other was evident and is binding. They received assignments on specific words or subjects for future weeks; they read their completed assignments; they shared new pieces; and they were pushed to refine their voices and develop new styles and approaches to the art form. When they read particularly hot pieces, their fellow members waved their pens in the air and nodded their heads in deference, the poet's form of a standing ovation. Reverence for truly spitting fire.
The poets of Lyrical Circle, young women and young men, are from assorted ethnic backgrounds, Black American, Puerto Rican, Haitian, and Dominican. All come from economically poor backgrounds -- the kind where similar, all-too-common realities are faced. All attended, at one time or another, educationally disadvantaged schools in New York City, schools that stifle dreams every single day. All were raised in the historic Black and Latino/a communities of New York City: Harlem, the South Bronx, Bushwick, the Lower East Side, and Washington Heights. And while many of their experiences and foundations have been similar, they have taken different paths, experienced different highs and lows.
Some of these poets were driven to write by a belief in change, a hope that they could make a difference, while others were driven by rage at what they had seen and the sense of hopelessness that pervaded them. Pain comes through many of their pieces, and the release of that pain through their poetry has been a cathartic experience that all poets know well. Some Lyrical Circle members have been homeless for nights or for months or lived on other's couches for years; some have used illegal drugs as an attempt to self-medicate; some have been incarcerated; some have been violent to others; and some have been violated. One writes of first handling a gun at the age of six. Another writes of the sexual assault she experienced at the hands of her father. They speak on it all. These are young women and men who, when only in high school, revealed the conditions that society allowed them to face, what they endured, and yet, how they stood strong and overcame. It is their spirit that resonates.
From varied backgrounds and assorted perspectives, even what they want from the art form differs. Some of these young people saw their poetry as a way to break into Hip Hop, MCs who wanted music to be a career. Others are poets who loved to perform, but were not interested in professional careers, only that their voices were heard. Finally, there are those who had no interest in performing; they came to LC shy, nervous to even read out loud what they had written privately or memorized in their heads, but it came out of them still, the written word demanding to be let out. Their poems are flows, lyricisms, and the words of wordsmiths. Some called themselves MCs and grabbed hold of the mantle of Hip Hop, emanating stage presence. Some called themselves poets and hope to fill the pages of books with their words. Some stated simply, "I just write. That is what I do."
Lyrical Circle. A group of poets of a similar mind, poets who value the word, who seek to critique society, and who are not rappers, but are Hip-Hop, walking. Rap is the music; Hip Hop is a way of life, a worldview, a way of dress, a culture, an attitude, a vibe, and a lifestyle. While Rap has been taken over in the last decade by nihilistic, materialistic, oppressive, and misogynistic voices, while modern-day minstrels are some of the most visible voices now in what once was our musical form, others have remained true to the craft. Hip-Hop as a culture has been around now for over 30 years, its form and attitude slowly evolving, its approaches changing, ebbing and flowing. What used to be an essential voice of political outcry has been commodified and sold, altered and commercialized. And yet, in the face of this, many have stood strong, their voices still revealing truth, commenting on the world, calling to action. Lyrical Circle are these types of word warriors.
All are talented voices, some of the most critical, passionate, honest, insightful voices of clarity and commentary that we have today -- not youth voices, but just voices. They are important, essential voices commenting on the world we all live in. If only our politicians and government officials, our professional so-called spokespeople, had the honesty and power of these young people.
Young people today are the most-often-discussed, least-heard-from constituency in America. Their issues, culture, complications, anger, violence, rage, and educational level are constantly debated and discussed, and where are their voices? Lyrical Circle. They are vital voices of their generation, commenting on poverty and racism, on sexism and misogyny, on war and peace, on Iraq and Sudan, on rape and loss, on love and pain, on illegitimate governments from the pages of history and ones in power now, on hypocrisy and truth. Lyrical Circle. They write about their skins, the world through their eyes, the lives they live and those they dream of. They are sharpening their swords for the many battles of ideas that they are engaged in and the many battles to come. Their words are freedom thoughts and calls to arms.
Two of the poets are now public school teachers and seven of the poets are arts educators. These poets are now graduates from New York University, the New School, George Washington University and Fordham. One is in pursuing her Masters in Fine Arts; another earned a Masters in Theater Arts Education, while another is an award winning documentary filmmaker who uses poetry throughout his medium.
Their art has led them to perform in Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Cambodia, Tanzania, Germany, Ecuador, South Africa, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Sudan, Brazil, Singapore and many other nations. They have experienced incredible performances and career highs, and have struggled with difficult times and loss; some are still struggling to find their way -- and yet, as with so many gifted artists, their journeys are not linear. They are successful and they stumble. But their guiding light remains the word. Their profound ability and gift, their craft for pulling back the façade and providing vision remains their poetry - their words.
Five of the member of LC founded Peace Poets -- a collective of artist educators. Frank Lopez. Enmanuel Candelario. Frantz Jerome. Luke Nephew. Abraham Velazquez. Their mission is to focus on human rights education: "We are young artist educators committed to teaching with a focus on our collective liberation. Our goal is to create safe spaces that allow us to deconstruct race, class and gender as a community." They have worked with survivors of war, with the families of those who have been disappeared, and with children who are recovering from trauma. The Peace Poets will be releasing their album this year. Their initial single is Water Got No Enemy. Here is the first single and example of their work -- poets, educators, activists: www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5GlbhTRlrY
The definition of a radical is arising from or going to the root. We have witnessed our youth come to an understanding of the roots of injustice and inequity -- as they seek their truth. The inclusion of art into any curriculum can provide such transformative experience. Our poets have walked far and will walk farther still -- as they seek these roots -- carrying with them the tools of their humanity, the weapons of their truth -- their lyrics, their commentary. After all, they are poets.
October 22, 2013
A Moral Commitment to Our Children – Choices and Investments
Published, Huffington Post
October 22, 2013
One day, a few years ago the president of a leading national foundation attended a Brotherhood rites-of-passage workshop. Founded in 1995, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is a youth development program that serves children, mostly from the neighborhood of Harlem, in New York City. We offer long term, comprehensive and holistic services, surrounding our members with education and developmental programming. Refusing to choose between the usually polarized values, we provide support, guidance and love, as we teach discipline and order. Essential to our process and demonstrated successful outcomes are access and real opportunities that enable our members to develop agency and grow.
On this day, a group of seven or eight alumni members had returned to work with a group of nearly 20 teenaged members. This was one example, among many, of our male alumni returning to support the younger generation. They spent over two hours talking about the central issues they faced -- in their communities, their families, in their schools and in society in general. The culmination of the workshop was that together, these young Black and Latino men, ages 15-23, created a "Survival Guide for Black and Latino Young Men in Harlem."
It is a powerful document that calls societal forces to task, speaks plainly about economic and racial injustice, takes responsibility for personal failures, acknowledges the lack of family support -- and yet states, unequivocally, that while recognizing these realities, and because they knew the obstacles so well, they would overcome them and be successful; there would be no excuses. It was one of many powerful sessions -- the kind of unique power that comes from harnessing the passion, truth and vision of young people, of providing space for exposure, investigation and reflection and then directing it.
It was a hot June day, and the room where the session was held was in a school building in East Harlem. The large windows of the classroom looked out onto a busy thoroughfare and housing projects as far as the eye could see -- East Harlem being the area of the United States most densely populated by public housing. Through this window one could see rolling traffic, famous graffiti walls, elevated trains, school children walking home, hard working people working and also crews of young men, some merely hanging out, some smoking weed or drinking, some possibly selling drugs and invariably some gang affiliated.
The visiting president of the foundation was struck by what he saw in the room that afternoon, and he asked a powerful question of one of the recent alumni members. He pointed to the group of young men on the corner and said: "Why are they out there?" And then turned his finger to the young men in the room and finished, "While you are in here?" The alumni member the question was directed towards is a son of Harlem. He is a first generation American born to Dominican immigrant parents. He graduated from the very high school where the group sat at that time, and now had returned as a teacher, a model. When he graduated he had never read a complete book as a school assignment. Never. His mother worked as a cleaning woman, sweeping the Ivy League floors of Columbia University, a few blocks away but in reality worlds away from their Harlem home. At the time this story occurred he was a sophomore at Brown University, another Ivy League school. This alumni member responded: "They are in here. And we are out there."
Much of the national dialogue on juvenile justice focuses on cases where juveniles have committed atrocious, heinous acts of violence, acts that clearly demand that the adolescent be secured in some kind of facility. This essay does not focus on these cases. Such incidents do not represent the majority of crimes for which young people are incarcerated in our country. Instead, all too many youth are being incarcerated for low-level criminal activity, non-violent drug offenses and situations in which alternatives to incarceration are possible, in which socio-economic conditions along, poor choices and subjective policing, have led to incarceration. We have found, over nearly twenty years, that by providing the skills to change one's conditions and by helping young people to learn critical thinking skills, the vast majority will choose a proper path. There is a fine line between a young person who commits a low level criminal act and can be taught to correct his/her life, or even a young person who is on the verge of such acts, and a young person who crosses over that line, committing acts that lead to incarceration. I want to focus here on that line.
We have had members who have sold drugs. We have had members who have joined gangs. We have had members who have used illegal drugs. We have had members who have committed robberies. With the proper supports, with guidance, with high-level representation when arrested, they have all chosen alternative paths of life. No member or alumni member of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis) is in prison or jail, no member is on parole, and only two, out of hundreds, are on probation.
Bro/Sis works in economically distressed communities and we engage in no sifting when choosing our membership. All who want to be a part of Bro/Sis can be a part -- our membership represents the diversity of Harlem and we work with a population that ranges between the ages of 8-22, with the majority being 12-18 years of age. Nearly 80 percent of our young people come from single parent homes. Some of our youth come from stable homes where their parent(s) provide a nurturing environment and we are another hand in raising the child. Others come from families destroyed by the social ills of our times, by drugs, incarceration, homelessness, poverty and in some cases simply poor parenting. For these children, we may be the most stable element in their lives. Yet, no matter the family, all of our members face risks that can lead to them being incarcerated. They all walk the same streets that are inundated with drugs and violence, and all are confronted with the same damaging images of masculinity and femininity -- with "manhood" defined as primarily a capacity for violence and emotional irresponsibility, and "womanhood" defined as passivity and sexual objectification. Our members attend schools that are almost all in a state of sustained mediocrity at best, or at worst, a chaotic holding facility. All of our youth are confronted with invasive policing and are afforded few job opportunities. Relentlessly faced with these negative forces and pressures, all are, in the phrase of James Baldwin, "expected to make peace with mediocrity."
In response, we surround our members with positive forces and opportunities. Bro/Sis operates like a well-constructed family, with levels of responsibility and tiered achievement, with high expectations and guidance on how to reach them, with caring adults who represent different examples of success and are committed, wholeheartedly and without question, to our members' success and interests. We provide single gendered rites of passage programming over a period of four to six years during which our members define manhood or womanhood, leadership and brotherhood or sisterhood, while honing a moral and ethical code by which to live. Our approach works.
Our society continues to spend more money on incarceration than on education. The State of New York spends up to $210,000 a year to incarcerate a child in one of its juvenile facilities; the City of New York also spends in excess of $200,000. A study of these children found that 89 percent of the boys and 81 percent of the girls were re-arrested upon release. The City of New York spends approximately $18,000 a year to educate a child. Bro/Sis spends approximately $6,000 a year per child in our program. A society invests its resources in accordance with the kind of society it wants to be.
The political discourse of the day is only beginning, and only in some quarters, to focus on our fellow citizens most in need -- the ones who fill failing schools and a pipeline to prison, who continue to feel a suffocating lack of opportunity. Yet, there is a proverb that states: It is when the riverbed is dry that we can change the flow of the river's waters. We believe youth are educated to transform their own lives when they learn the staggering odds they face, are taught the skills to overcome these odds, and are afforded the support, guidance, access and opportunities to overcome them. This work of educating youth to create change both within and without brings perspective -- an understanding of the challenge: that the force of the river is mighty, and the effort to change its flow will be massive, but to change its course, we must know where the river comes from, and the direction in which we wish to send it. With this knowledge comes a map to redirect their lives.
It is quite difficult to overcome obstacles that are unseen or unnamed. It is much like asking a runner to navigate an obstacle course with no map in hand, or even with the knowledge that the runner is in maze. If we are seeking to truly teach and empower young people to save their own lives we must hone young people's critical analysis, to delve into the systemic societal issues that are beyond the symptoms, to become change makers who question, who follow a moral and ethical code that leads away from prison walls and toward a commitment to social change and self development.
The question for us is what kind of society do we wish to be? Do we seek to be a moral and ethical society? Do we want to live in a society that recognizes that many young people will make mistakes, and may commit crimes, but that if they are not egregious we must believe in redemption through alternatives to incarceration? Do we want a society of equal and equitable policing and enforcement of the law? Or instead, do want to continue policies that are unsustainable, economically and morally?
Will we recognize that we cannot incarcerate children at a cost of $210,000 in facilities that display a recidivism rate nearing 90 percent, that we cannot continue to have the largest prison population in the world, that we cannot maintain a school to prison pipeline, that we cannot continue to place children in environments where they have such limited access and opportunity and resources, where they are unfairly and over-policed, because it is immoral and inhumane? We know that with the proper support systems and education, with guidance and opportunity, those young people who stand on the precipice of engaging in illegal acts, those who are faced with a path of crime and damaging life choices, will choose another way. We know that while the necessary investments in educational and youth programs are extensive, they pale in the face of the resources presently used to incarcerate and punish these children. The choice is clear, and sharp and profound. The continued prosecution and imprisonment of our children does not speak to their lack of morality, but to our own.
August 26, 2013
The Future of New York City: A Family Story
Published, Huffington Post
August 26, 2013
I was raised in politics and within movements for social change. It is through this lens that I see the current New York City mayoral election. It is one of the most important elections I have experienced.
My father was born in North Carolina and participated in the civil rights movement that formed him as a young black man coming of age at a time of great change and revolt. That experience led to a life of work focused on labor and human rights with a profound commitment to equity under the law. He has worked in executive level positions for three mayors of New York City (Koch, Dinkins, Bloomberg), one governor (Cuomo) and served an appointee of a president (Clinton). I learned politics at his knee.
The killing of Trayvon Martin occurs within a historical context of the devaluing of Black life, of the acceptance of the enslaving of Black bodies, of the creation of a system of segregation based at its foundation on not recognizing Black men as fully human, and, now of the over-incarceration of Black men that is the prison industrial complex. In order for this devaluing to occur Black boys and men must be dehumanized, our humanity lessened, and then we become threats, gangbangers, convicts, criminals, those outside protected norms, to be brutalized and killed with impunity. In this case, like so many, Trayvon’s killer was not punished for taking yet another Black boy’s life.
My mother is the daughter of a Jewish immigrant from Russia, a man who fled pogroms against Jews and brought a view of a better world to these shores. Though having no formal education, he was a fierce intellectual who became a radical, leading union organizer, worked for equality for all and was jailed for his beliefs, in addition to being called in front of United States Congressional House Un-Activities Committee where he refused to "name names." He saw the rise of fascism in Europe and volunteered and fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War in the fight to defeat Spain's fascist leader, General Franco.
It was no surprise then that his daughter would become involved in the Women's Movement and develop into a leading feminist writer and voice. Her work has dealt with themes of women's voice, of African-American autobiography and her long work in academia focused on diversity.
In my family, politics is our form of religion. It is what we discuss at the dinner table, at family get-togethers, in the morning over coffee, even on vacation.
I have worked for 18 years a non-profit entrepreneur and serve as the executive director of an organization that I co-founded and that works with youth from some of the most economically disadvantaged backgrounds found in our city -- to help them transform their lives, to break cycles of poverty, and to hone their moral and ethical codes. We are an evidence-based program that has been awarded and recognized and modeled throughout the country.
"Founded in 1995, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis) provides comprehensive, holistic and long-term support services to youth who range in age from eight to twenty-two. Bro/Sis offers wrap around evidence-based programming. The organization focuses on issues such as leadership development and educational achievement, sexual responsibility, sexism and misogyny, political education and social justice, Pan-African and Latino history, and global awareness. Bro/Sis provides four-six year rites of passage programming, thorough five day a week after school care, school and home counseling, summer camps, job training and employment, college preparation, community organizing training, and international study programs to Africa and Latin America.
We are locally based, with a national reach, as Bro/Sis publishes assorted curricula and collections of our members' writings; trains educators from throughout the nation on our approach; and our leadership is invited to speak and present at educational and policy convenings and conferences across the country.
Our theory of change is to provide multi-layered support, guidance, education and love to our membership, to teach them to have self-discipline and form order in their lives, and then to offer opportunities and access so that they may develop agency."
This work has anchored me in the urgent need for a transformative vision for New York City. This city faces three major crises: poverty, education, and a lack of middle class housing that allows for the stabilizing and entrenchment of families. We need a debate of a progressive vision for our city. We need to have a conversation focused on big ideas and transformational plans.
There are three viable candidates for mayor on the Democratic side -- Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and former Comptroller William Thompson. Due to the nature of political campaigns these days, and the scandal-focused news cycle regarding this specific election, we have not had the solutions-focused debate we need for the benefit of our City. After 20 years it seems likely that we will have a Democratic mayor and the city will not vote for an acolyte of former Mayor Giuliani who returns us to those polarizing years. And so voters must ask, which candidate articulates a vision for the city that will deal with the major issues it faces? Which candidate displays an understanding of policy and structural issues that will allow for true leadership with regards to these issues? Who is ready to handle these big problems?
Last year, the census completed in New York City found the disparity in wealth at levels that threaten the foundation of our beloved City. In Manhattan, the disparity was starkest. The lowest fifth of the population made $9,681, while the highest took home $391,022. The wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites made more than 40 times what the lowest fifth reported, a continually widening gap surpassed by only a few developing countries.
There has been wide spread focus on the dearth of middle-class housing options -- opportunities for an essential part of New York City to truly make it here and build the kind of multi-generational familial ties that serve as the fiber and substance of communities across the boroughs.
The debate regarding education has been vociferous, strident and often profoundly simplistic. Whatever successes and failures over the last 12 years, whatever the new Common Core standards will now bring, there are major structural issues facing a school system of 1.1 million children:
Only 61 percent are graduating from high school; of those who do graduate, only 25 percent are college-ready and without need of remedial classes.
To allow hundreds of thousands of children to continue to not graduate from high school, to allow hundreds of thousands more to be unprepared to compete in a new innovative economy is an abomination. We still have not had an honest political conversation about the transformational approaches and changes needed to fix public school education and the documented reality of the role of poverty in this educational inequity.
An interconnected, multi-faceted and long-term agenda is needed to affect the issues of housing, poverty and education. The city's future depends on this next election. In recent years, with the gridlock on a national level, it has become cities across America, including New York under Mayor Bloomberg, that have become the sites of innovation and big thinking -- now is the time to go far further to respond to what we face.
We need major business in New York City and we need to ensure a climate that allows for the largest employers to remain here. We need a financial engine. In fact it is what can help to drive such an agenda. That said, we also need a concerted effort to engage in the building of massive units for working and middle class New Yorkers. We need to have Marshall Plan to reduce poverty, with a particular focus on those communities where it is most entrenched. We must create infrastructure projects, modeled on Roosevelt's Works Projects Administration, that employ a wide swath of New Yorkers and ensure our city remains a hub for innovation and technology and is at the cutting edge of transformation and environmentally sound development. We must use our massive CUNY system to educate the populace to do this work. We need to bravely and honestly detail an educational plan that is not based on the current fad, or supposed "silver bullet" of the day, but instead is based on the expansive changes that are necessary. There are those who will say this is too expensive to do -- I would contend it is too expensive not to do. The very future of our city depends on it. While I have my ideas for how to tackle these profound challenges for the future New York City, it is the mayoral candidates who must articulate their vision for such transformation.
My parents met as young, idealistic social workers, one the daughter of an immigrant and one the first college graduate of his family who left the South for the opportunities of New York City. They met on a picket line organized by a union that led to the creation of District Council 37 that now numbers over 170,000 members, including my 90-year old grandmother. My grandfather arrived via Ellis Island with no financial means, and worked in a factory and as an organizer. A self-taught man, he sent his daughters to City College and Queens College. My family is three generations of artists and activists, government employees and entrepreneurs, teachers and union members. Our love affair with New York City runs throughout these generations. What will the next mayor do to ensure that these kinds of family stories are still possible?
August 9, 2013
A Father’s Kiss
Published, Huffington Post
August 9, 2013
I was walking through the airport and I was stopped in my tracks by images on the television – no sound – just images. The images were several rotating photos of a Black man, middle aged, dark brown skinned, thick beard, wearing a baseball hat, with eyes that smiled strongly with pride as he kissed, hard, affectionately, and without restraint, the face of a Black teenaged boy. It was the possessive, knowing, protective kiss of a father to his son. The image touched me as it reminded me of the way my father kissed me as a child and still kisses me as a man – this is an image that is all too infrequently shown in our media. I was so captivated by the man’s face that I didn’t focus on the teenage boy’s face. As my eyes moved to his face, I realized it was Trayvon Martin.
The shooting of Trayvon Martin can be analyzed among the long line of the killing of young Black men and boys in America. In the case of the killing of Trayvon, as in so many others, it is so important that the language is accurate – a boy was killed. Not a man. Since the founding of this nation Black men have been seen as threats – threats to order, to the structured caste systems of slavery and segregation, as physically intimidating, sexual predators, and in need of control. This control was enforced through the Constitution and laws, via courts, jails, and organized terror groups like the KKK and lynch mobs. This fear was legally codified over nearly 200 years. In addition to the law, media has had a long and sordid role in the objectifying of the Black male as a threat – from Vaudeville images to Hollywood, film and television, to music. A central aspect of this image has been to turn Black boys into men, and thus threats - long before they are men. And yes, Black people have internalized these images and now contribute to this presentation of the Black male as hyper-masculine, hyper-sexual, beings to be feared. The mantra: you do not respect us? Then you will fear us.
The killing of Trayvon Martin occurs within a historical context of the devaluing of Black life, of the acceptance of the enslaving of Black bodies, of the creation of a system of segregation based at its foundation on not recognizing Black men as fully human, and, now of the over-incarceration of Black men that is the prison industrial complex. In order for this devaluing to occur Black boys and men must be dehumanized, our humanity lessened, and then we become threats, gangbangers, convicts, criminals, those outside protected norms, to be brutalized and killed with impunity. In this case, like so many, Trayvon’s killer was not punished for taking yet another Black boy’s life.
Imagine if the images of Black boys that we were inundated with were not those of threats, but those of gentle children? Imagine if young Black boys, instead of being told in urban communities to act like men, were supported to be what they are, children and boys? Imagine if the media did not portray images of Black boys as aggressive, but instead overwhelmed us with images of Black boys being kissed and held, as Trayvon was by his father, Mr. Martin. Imagine if norms of manhood allowed even more fathers to shower their sons with emotion and love? Mr. Martin has spoken of the loss of his son as losing his “heart and soul.” He has said that one “never moves on” from such a loss. His words remind me of my grandmother, who when burying her second child, told me it “unnatural” and a “bitter pill to swallow.” Mr. Martin’s proud and brave grieving, his unapologetic emotion in the face of a grievous loss, runs counter to the image of the Black man as stone faced and without emotion. All too often Black men believe that to show emotion is to show weakness. However rage and anger are accepted expressions and characteristics of the hyper-masculine man – and these are of course emotions. The lesson Mr. Martin displays is a powerful one – that emotion - pain and love and mourning - are not signs of weakness, but signs of strength and of wholeness and of manhood. I am profoundly fortunate to have learned this lesson from my father. Trayvon, in his short life, was profoundly fortunate to have such as father as well.
My father kissed my hello and goodbye when I was a boy. He continues to kiss my brother and me as men. My brother and I are both over six feet, both over 200 pounds - strong Black men. And still today, I notice people on the street who look twice when my father kisses us. When I was a boy and my father would take us to elementary school and kiss us goodbye for the day, some fellow students, corrupted by their own misguided images of manhood, would taunt me and call me a “faggot.” When my older brother would kiss me goodbye, they would do the same. After several fights the taunts stopped, but I remained aware that I had been raised by my parents differently from how so many others were raised.
This more human image of Black manhood can save our Black boys from so much internalized pain, from so much loss of self, and make them whole. This showering of love allows Black boys to be children, to learn to be strong and properly heal from the trauma that all humans face in their lifetime. Unfortunately this open love from Black men to their children cannot protect Black boys from violence, and racism, and prejudice and guns. Trayvon’s life was taken by one historical legacy and image – Black boys being seen as threats. There is nothing that can be done to bring him back. The brave image of Mr. Martin can be used to advance an all too infrequently highlighted image of Black fatherhood: Mr. Martin loving, and kissing and embracing his son - his boy, a child, as did my father.
July 30, 2013
Violence, Manhood & Masculinity – an American Story
Published, The Grio
July 30, 2013
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 violence. 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.
This reality has been deconstructed by a legion of scholars in social science, science and by writers and poets - many of them feminists - both women and men. This conversation has happened in pockets of society that are either too small or widely unheard and thus the conversation does not reverberate. We are one of a mere few organizations that have published curricula that speak to these issues – it is one of our salient and most essential values – to teach our young people to analyze and critique ideas of masculinity and femininity that are destructive to society and themselves.
At The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (BHSS), for 18 years, we have guided boys to define what it means to be men, and leaders and brothers. We have helped them to form these definitions through a 4-6 year rites of passage program that seeks to help them hone ethical and moral codes by which to live. We teach them their history and also the current inequitable realities they face, and we train them in developing the skills they need to overcome these conditions. We empower them to live as they want to live - and reject the degrading and damaging definitions of masculinity that confront them. We teach them to be comfortable in different forms of manhood, to work to counter sexism, to analyze and reject the misogyny they are exposed to in the media, in their communities and often in their homes. We teach them as well to reject homophobia, to reject bigotry toward people simply because of whom they love, and to reject the notion of manhood being represented only by heterosexual men.
This work is difficult and it takes years. We must help these young boys to remove hardened layers from their psyches, protective scars of what they have been told they should be, to chip away like stone masons - not to create men, but help them reveal the manhood that lives within themselves – one defined by self, and their own spirits and self love. In these efforts we work to help boys heal from trauma. The teenaged pregnancy rate in Harlem is 15% - BHSS members and alumni have a rate less than 2%. One out of three Black men in America between the ages of 20-29 are under supervision of the prison system – either on probation, parole or incarcerated. After 18 years no members or alumni of our organization is incarcerated and less than 1% have a prior felony. Our approach works.
Frederick Douglass, a man who, many years before other leaders, saw the interconnected struggle for Black freedom and the women’s movement, once wrote: “It is easier to build strong boys than repair broken men.” America’s response to unmatched levels of violence has been to create a massive prison industrial complex, an immoral and unethical, system to cage it’s citizens. That a large percentage of those incarcerated are non-violent drug offenders is deemed immaterial. Those who break the law will be demonized and will pay. A man I know who served over twenty years in prison says often that he has been inside many of America’s correctional facilities and he has yet to find one that corrects anyone. These are institutions of punishment and profit. It is too expensive to incarcerate millions of young men in coming decades. We know this approach does not work. In addition, mass incarceration is immoral and unethical. Those who advocate it should be judged for their actions – propagating an unjust and inhumane profiting from the caging of human beings. This too is a form of violence. However, the work of building strong and free boys, those who reject a destructive predetermined idea of manhood, those who reject a definition of masculinity based on domination and violence, those who will choose other paths instead of guns and destruction, this is profoundly moral and ethical and necessary work. It may be difficult, but the benefit to society, to families, and to our communities is immeasurable. It is time to build strong boys.
July 30, 2013
Black on Black and White on White Violence: An American Story
Published, Huffington Post
July 30, 2013
A disproportionate amount of the murder victims and perpetrators of homicide are Black and brown men. That said, there is also a fundamental problem in America with "white on white violence."
I am a strong advocate for sensible gun control. In addition to this advocacy, I have worked every day for 18 years to try and reduce violence in Black and Latino communities -- teaching boys/young men to resolve conflict nonviolently, to redefine manhood and walk away from negative behavior: to develop opportunities for these young men, guiding them on the path to increased understanding of the value of education, it's role in breaking cycles of poverty.
In my work to review and advise on violence reduction and gun control for several NYC wide initiatives, and in my work looking at the constitutional law implications of such efforts, I have reviewed assorted policing and FBI violent crime data. These reports are clear regarding the connection between poverty, gender and gun violence. The vast majority of those who commit murder are economically poor -- regardless of race. Almost all are men. I have been reviewing this data for years and last year's numbers are representative of the last decade:
- In 2011, of the 12,664 murder victims in America, 50% were Black and 46% were white.
- In 2011, 52% of the offenders in these murders were Black and 45% were white.
- One other stat: 90% of perpetrators were men.
So, as the FBI crime statistics make clear, while we must work to decrease Black on Black crime, we also must call for a focus on white on white crime. The vast majority of homicides are "intra-racial" -- that is Blacks kill other Blacks and whites kill other whites. If nearly 46% of homicide victims in America are white, there are thousands of white victims of murder each and every year killed by other whites. What of their lives?
While my work with The Brotherhood/Sister Sol has focused on teaching young men to be nonviolent, to confront their ideas of what it means to be a man, to search for and value opportunities to advance themselves; it is also quite evident that the widespread access to guns is an issue. I believe that the mentally ill should not have access to guns, that the gun-show loophole should be closed, that there should be background checks for all purchases of guns, that ammunition should be registered as well, and that certain high volume guns should be banned.
People of good faith can disagree on this issue without vitriol and viciousness that some use -- ethically we must be concerned with the death of American children, regardless of class and color. We must seek collective solutions. I have many family members from North Carolina who were raised with and still have guns. I don't think that Americans should be barred from owning guns. On the other hand, no reasonable person thinks that everyone should have access to nuclear weapons or anti-aircraft weapons, and thus all reasonable people believe in some kind of restriction of arms. The question is, where do we draw the line?
I care about all those who die from gun violence -- no matter their ethnicity. Too many people, of all colors, die from gun violence in America. The only moral response to widespread violence in America -- is a moral call to reduce it. In recent days, in response to the outrage at the verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin -- the acquittal of George Zimmerman - so many commentators have responded to this widespread anger at the verdict with a supposedly counter response: questioning why there is no outrage in response to violence in urban areas, focusing on "Black on Black crime." They speak as if this work were not being done, as if our outrage were not already widespread.
This is a fundamentally false narrative. One of the central reasons for the precipitous drop in homicide all across America's major cities, all across America, has been the work of local community and faith based groups on the ground, working day in and day out to reduce male violence. There are hundreds of groups working to decrease such crime - through education, mentorship, job training, gang prevention and negotiation efforts, violence interruption efforts, and rites of passage work focused on developing a moral and ethical code. Unfortunately this front line difficult work is rarely covered by the media.
American's plague of violence is clear -- it strikes all communities -- and people cannot make up their own facts. We don't have only a problem of Black violence in America -- we have a problem of male violence -- and thus white male violence and Latino male violence. I will write it again: 90% of the perpetrators of homicide are men. White men, as well as Black men commit murder in this country in a way not seen in nearly any other developed nation. Do we need personal responsibility? Yes. Do we need to do a better job of raising children? Yes. Do we need to teach youth to reject violence as an answer? Yes. Do we need to work to lessen poverty in our country? Yes. Do we need to intensify a critique by writers, educators, and scholars on the impact on our children of media, film, music, and video-gaming celebrating violence? Yes. Do we need to focus, with an unyielding attention and analysis, on our glorification of war and the dehumanizing of those with whom we engage in war? Yes.
But in addition to these urgent needs, we need better enforcement of gun laws already on the books as well as the passing of additional new sensible laws. I think gun control is part, and only part, of the solution, but it is an essential part.
July 25, 2013
Gun Policy and Bloodshed in America
Published, Huffington Post
July 25, 2013
The continued lack of reform to control guns and gun violence in America is shameful and immoral and constitutes an abdication of the responsibility of those in political power. Children are dying all across America in numbers not seen in any other democracy that is not at war. This continued inaction is a stain on this nation, made in human blood, and one that continues to expand, day by day.
I am a social entrepreneur and I have worked in Harlem for 18 years, through my organization, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, to decrease violence and gang activity. I have been dedicated to teaching young people to resolve their conflicts in more humane ways and to turn away from violence. I am an attorney who has focused on constitutional law issues and advised the New York City Council on a 5 million dollar effort to reduce gun violence in New York City, as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s and George Soros’ Young Men’s Initiative, which seeks to engage disconnected young men via a 140 million dollar multi-pronged approach. The effort to decrease gun violence must be multi-faceted, diverse, intelligent and innovative. There is no single answer.
The overwhelming majority of Americans supported the effort to deepen gun control in America – and the majority of gun owners believe in background checks, in ensuring the mentally ill do not have access to guns, and in closing the gun show loophole. The inability to pass what is in fact a quite moderate bill, displays the broken reality of the American legislative system in which a super majority, as opposed to a simple majority, is needed to pass nearly any bill. This tactic has been disproportionately used in recent years to block the political will of the people. However, this issue of gun control legislation is not merely one of politics. It strikes to the core of the vision of the America we want to see. This debate raises moral and ethical questions regarding what in fact it means to be an American.
The horrific shooting and mass killing in Newtown opened more fully a national dialogue on the issue and afforded a blood soaked opportunity to seek change – change that is essential for America to become a more moral, ethical and just society. Every day over 30 people are killed by gunfire in America – every day. Whether these deaths occur in suburban areas like Newtown, CT or in the urban areas of Chicago or Harlem should be irrelevant.
Thousands of children and innocent people are dying in this country each year. The disproportionate number are Black and brown young men – those deemed the most expendable. America purports to be a land of freedom, but what kind of freedom do our children experience when they face death or fear the specter of violence each and every day? Urban areas are overrun by violence, guns and gun violence. These are all too familiar realities for our children – and as they live each day in fear of these realities, America’s political and policy class hides behind fraudulent claims of infringement of rights and liberty. Where is the liberty for the children of the tough streets of Chicago, Detroit, Oakland or Harlem?
America has a history intertwined with violence, it is one of the bedrocks upon which America was built and expanded, and until we come to terms with this history and continued obsession, we will continue to be among the world’s most violent societies. What has not been spoken of much is the role of gender within this issue of violence – the terrible toll that is taken by male violence, by the lack of any systematic analysis of the relationship between violence and the kind of false and hyper masculinity that is rampant in America. Women experience anger too, but are almost never associated with violence of this kind. In fact, when they are violent, it is almost always in response to terror. We cannot be held hostage to the NRA nor be swayed by some misguided “originalist” interpretation of the 2nd Amendment that claims that all citizens have a right to have access to all guns at all times. The 2nd Amendment guarantees access to bear arms, not all arms. Clearly a responsible and rational society puts in place some restrictions.
Those who have been affected by gun violence, those who are among the millions of responsible gun owners, those who want a more humane and ethical America, must join hands and organize, must advocate and vote, must demonstrate and yes, educate our children to believe that a responsible and decent and moral America will not stand by and allow children to be shot and killed while we do nothing. America is an ideal, a journey, and history will judge us by the America we form and create, the America that we, under our watch, allow to come to pass.
- Selected as a Practitioner Resident Fellow to the Bellagio Center, Rockefeller Foundation
- Featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and awarded Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network Use Your Life Award
- Robert W. Crawford Achievement Prize, National Recreation Foundation
- National Guild for Community Arts Education Leadership Award
- Brown University inaugural Alumni Association Young Public Service Award
- Ford Foundation Leadership for a Changing World Award
- Andrew Goodman Hidden Hero Award
- Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation Art for Life Award
- NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund/Shearman & Sterling National Law Scholarship Award
- Named to Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s 30 United States Leaders in the Fight for Black Men – activists, politicians and writers who are working to change the future for African American men
- Fund for the City of New York Union Square Award for Grassroots Organizing
- Union Square Award for Special Achievement
- Abyssinian Development Corporation Harlem Renaissance Award
- Black Girls Rock Soul Brother Award – one of only three men to received a award in BGR’s history