An African proverb states that if you don’t initiate boys into manhood, they will burn down the village just to feel the heat. So many problems in Southern Arizona today are related to the epidemic of fatherlessness and boys growing up without caring, committed men alongside them. When a boy grows up without positive, reliable male role models in his life, he is at increased risks related to many types of violence, mental health struggles, and addiction.
Historically, men of tribes and communities have shared a collective responsibility to initiate young men into their healthy, responsible identities as men of the community. Since 2009, we have been building a movement to call on the men of Southern Arizona to rediscover this mandate. We aim to strengthen communities by calling men to step up to mentor all teenage boys on their journey towards healthy manhood. When men step into their collective responsibility to mentor the next generation of responsible, caring men, our collective struggles for safety and justice become much more accessible. We aim to plant Boys to Men Group Mentorship circles throughout Tucson so that all boys have access to healthy, reliable, consistent adult male mentorship. Schools are the primary site for our group mentorship circles, and our goal is to be in every school district—and eventually every high school in Tucson.
Our work to strengthen communities by promoting healthy masculinity and manhood underwent an immediate transformation with the order to shelter-in-place. We cancelled our weekly group mentorship circles in 16 schools and the Juvenile Detention Center, our spring Rite of Passage Adventure Weekend, and two major spring fundraisers and family appreciation events. For many of the boys that we normally serve in the school system, the greatest threat to their emotional and mental health can be their homelife.
Grappling with intergenerational trauma, poverty, violence, and neglect, a shelter-in-home order for many of these already vulnerable boys has been a major trial. In addition, because our work is to call on all men in the community to show up for the next generation, we know that adult men are already at increased risks for social isolation, emotional bottling, substance abuse to numb out, and untreated mental health maladies. Under conditions of quarantine, our work took on an unexpected and immediate urgency.
In response, we launched a series of weekly online support circles for teenage boys and for men in southern Arizona. An adaptation of our traditional school-based mentorship circles, these online spaces allow teen boys who are struggling to cope with a new reality at home to access a consistent, transformative space where they can let down their mask, tell the truth about their struggles, and receive help from others.
Many of the boys we serve are already at increased risks for substance abuse, depression, and suicide, and we have found immediate traction in providing these online spaces as a lifeline for them under quarantine. Several school districts as well as youth mental health initiatives have begun to list our weekly online support circles on their COVID-19 Family Resource Materials, and there is nothing else comparable being offered to the boys in Southern Arizona.
We have also opened up our offering of online support circles to men in the community, as we know that there is a high correlation for adult men between being out of work, substance abuse, depression, suicide, and domestic violence. We are currently offering regular online talking circles for men in our community, where they can let down their guard, get relief, and connect to a supporting community of men.
In 2020, there have been so many reasons to grieve, to fear, and to lose our connection with hope.
But, if you want a reminder that will boost your spirits, know this: over a September weekend 16 men gave their time, heart, and energy to sit in a 2-day training devoted to preparing to do transformative work in the lives of teen boys in Tucson. A group of relative strangers, these men practiced radical vulnerability, truth-telling, and grace. We told the truth about where we came from, what we did and didn’t get from our own adult men when we were children, how that impacts us today—and we made commitments to support one another in modeling something radically different for the boys in our community. A diverse coalition of risk-takers committed to doing their part to strengthen their worlds, we all left with an extra helping of such a precious resource right now: hope.
This is men’s work. This is power.
Michael Brasher is the executive director of Boys to Men Tucson, a local nonprofit dedicated to healthy masculinity mentorship that focuses on working with teenage boys in middle and high schools across Southern Arizona.