My father served two tours in Vietnam, which meant there was a lot of discipline in my home. Though he grew up in a violent household, his discipline with me never crossed the line into abuse. He’s been my primary influence in developing positive masculinity, and to this day I continue to look to him for guidance.
Statistics tell us that if you grow up in a home with violence, you have a higher potential of becoming the victim or the abuser. My work with Expect Respect is to help show young men that statistics don’t have to be their reality—that they have a choice to make about how they are going to treat their loved ones. Relationships with the people who raise us are the foundations from which we build our own relationships. If youth don’t recognize this, they’ll go from relationship to relationship carrying the baggage of their abusive situations.
Relationships with the people who raise us are the foundations from which we build our own relationships.
I facilitate 24 school-based weekly support groups at two middle schools and two high schools. The kids
on campus are your usual bunch of adolescents—full of energy, rambunctious, and happy to see their friends. The majority of young men who participate in my sessions are black or Latino and have experienced violence in their lives. They are, therefore, identified as at-risk. They’re referred to me by their counselors, teachers, social workers, and peers, but ultimately it’s their choice to participate in Expect Respect.
When these young men come to their first session, they are reserved and unwilling to talk about themselves. Most of them haven’t had the space to process the things that impact them because they’ve been “talked at” by a lot of adults in their lives, and because they also feel the need to “pose” to protect their fragile interior from their peers. Youth have a lot to say, but nowhere to bring it. And that’s a big part of what Expect Respect does—we provide young people with the freedom to find strength in their vulnerability, and opportunities to listen without judgement. The beauty of the group is when one young man takes the first step to be vulnerable and then others slowly follow suit as they begin to trust one another.
It takes a lot of time and energy for the youth to build rapport with each other and with me as their facilitator. The first few sessions are devoted to developing trust, which is essential for the deeper work to begin. Once, when we were talking about the use of power and control in relationships, we did an activity where the young men partnered up and one person acted as a puppet by mimicking the actions of the other. Isaiah was then able to talk about how he feels like he’s calling the shots at his house because his parents are rarely home. Though I follow curriculum for each session, as a facilitator I have to be responsive to what’s happening within the group at that moment. It’s about improvising. I’m there to guide discussion, but it is my students’ space to talk about things that are important to them.
…We provide young people with the freedom to find strength in their vulnerability, and opportunities to listen without judgement.
At this stage in their lives, youth’s biggest influences are peers and mainstream media. When we talk about the content of the music they listen to—mainly rap—money, sex, and cars are mentioned as symbols of power. Whatever popular culture is feeding them, they’re digesting it without much thought on how it might influence their relationships. We take time to address gender stereotypes, and dating rights and expectations. Young people are not having these conversations on their own. We give youth an opportunity to think about what Lil Wayne or Fetty Wap are saying in a song by asking: “How might these lyrics normalize violence in relationships?” or “What is that video saying about men and women?”
Before participating in Expect Respect, these young men deal with conflict by fighting. Angelo explained life as a game of chess—that we are meant to take it all. Young people, including my students, talk about being “savage,” which means doing what you want when you want with no regards for the consequences. In group, I’m constantly challenging them to think about how their responses impact others around them. With each session, my students become more aware of their interactions at school, and see opportunities to process conflict in healthier ways. They start to connect the dots, and learn to hold each other accountable for their actions when they’re in difficult situations with their peers or teachers.
I’m constantly challenging them to think about how their responses impact others around them.
I have a two-month-old daughter and a two-year-old son, and I take my role as a father seriously. As young as they are, I see their eyes and ears pay attention to everything my wife and I say and do. I’ve got to build a good relationship early on so that when things get difficult for them, they can come to my wife and me for help. Am I nervous about bringing up my kids in today’s world, like the one these young men are growing up in? I can only control the things I can control, but I have to trust the process.
As I think of all the young men I’ve worked with over the years, I realize that many of them will start families of their own. I remember reading that 80 percent of all men will become fathers in their lifetime. Hopefully I do my best to show my kids—and my students— how a man should treat a woman, and all people. If they have rigid views of what it means to be a man, they’re missing out on life.
EXTRA: People should expect respect—and fun—out of relationships. Have your students take this quiz to find out if their friendships or dating relationships are healthy (or not).