CHICAGO—A few days before the beginning of the school year, eight boys from one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city gathered in a sunny room to share their anxieties and hopes. The seniors were worried about applying to college and finding jobs to earn spending money. The one rising freshman among them was nervous about fitting in to his new school. All fo them were amped up about football season, which started that night. But living near Garfield Park on the city’s West Side, the boys also had problems that sounded unlike those of high school students in most other parts of the country.
“My older brother was shot in the shoulder yesterday,” said Jarrell, a football player. “He’s 23.” Another boy spent two weeks in the hospital last year after gang members attacked him. His offense, in their eyes, was going to a restaurant with a childhood friend who’s in a rival gang.
Demarco, an 18-year-old senior, was 6 when he saw someone stab his mother. She survived the assault, and today she’s a single mom, working two jobs to support her kids. But Demarco’s dad was murdered seven years ago. “When my daddy got killed, he got shot 16 times,” he said. In the last year, Demarco also lost his cousin and some friends to shootings. “I felt like I had nobody,” he says.
In Chicago, stories like these too often are followed by similar stories of revenge, a pattern that has helped drive the city’s spiraling homicide rate. Last year, almost one in five of the city’s 764 murder victims was 19 or younger. The purpose of the meeting was to interrupt that cycle. The eight boys are part of a program called Becoming a Man, a 16-year-old group therapy and mentoring program operating in dozens of Chicago schools. It aims to help young men like these learn impulse control—to think more slowly as a way of avoiding the reflexive anger that has led to the deaths of so many young people in Chicago—and learn skills and values that will guide them to productive lives after they graduate.
Demarco joined BAM through his high school a year ago. “I got bad anger problems,” he says. His counselor, Dar’tavous Dorsey, has helped him learn better self-control. “He’s helping me think smarter,” says Demarco. “He’s helping me hold my actions. If something says something wrong to me, usually I’d just spazz out. Now, I just look at you like, ‘I don’t got to talk to you.’ I just stay in my own lane. I became a better person than I was last year.”
BAM and it’s sister program, Working on Womanhood, are part of a larger national trend. Urban schools from Oakland and San Francisco to Philadelphia are adopting social and emotional learning based on mounting evidence that kids in high-crime, poor neighborhoods need help coping with the after-effects of witnessing traumatic violence. While officials at the federal level talk about more muscular law enforcement as the solution to urban crime, these programs present a more affordable alternative that’s preventive, not punitive. And studies show they might be more effective as well. Research by the University of Chicago Crime Lab attest to BAM’s effectiveness: the program reduced boys’ violent crime arrests by 50 percent and increased their high school graduation rates by 19 percent.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been a BAM supporter since 2013 , when he first sat in on a BAM session. “The counselors stepped into a pair of shoes that hadn’t been filled for these young men,” Emanuel told POLITICO. “It’s something I take for granted, because I still talk to my father every day. You don’t realize how important it is, because it’s more implicit than explicit, until you see how young men thirst for it and the void that gets filled for them.”
Emanuel convinced President Obama, his former boss, to visit a BAM group in 2013. Obama later invited that BAM group to the White House, and a BAM participant introduced Obama at the 2014 launch of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative to help young men and boys of color.
Now, BAM and WOW are scaling up in Chicago public schools, with funding from Emanuel’s administration—$3.6 million for BAM and $1.1 million for WOW in the 2016-2017 budget—and $10 million in private donations the mayor helped raise. BAM aims to serve an estimated 6,000 boys this school year, up from 4,100 in 2016-17. It just launched in a second city, Boston. WOW is expanding too, from serving 1,080 girls last school year to about 1,750 this fall. It’s newer, smaller, and less proven than BAM, but internal testing shows it lowers depression rates in girls. That’s an important measurement because girls react to trauma differently: Boys are more likely to lash out, while girls are more likely to take their pain out on themselves.
“You can really expect, in schools in highly disadvantaged neighborhoods, that all the students are coping with something very traumatic,” says Micere Keels, a University of Chicago human development professor working on a trauma-responsive curriculum for the Chicago Public Schools. “There’s a growing awareness that [those] kids are coming to school struggling with cognitive, emotional, and behavioral disregulation because of stress.”
That can make it very difficult for kids to succeed in school, or in life – unless they learn to cope by thinking slower and smarter.
The program that became BAM started in 1999 when a young counselor named Anthony Di Vittorio was hired by the Chicago nonprofit Youth Guidance to work with kids who were kicked out of class.
Di Vittorio, who goes by Tony D., knew something about this kind of behavior. Growing up on Chicago’s southwest side, the son of a violent alcoholic father, and surrounded by older siblings who had their own addiction issues, Di Vittorio experimented with drugs and tagged along to watch his peers break windows and steal cars. His home, he said, was “chaos,” devoid of any positive male role models. He channeled his anger into break dancing and managed to get himself through high school, college and, by the age of 30, he had earned a master’s in psychology. That’s where he learned the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy that he introduced to the angry young men he was now being asked to help.
Di Vittorio started using conventional therapy techniques, including group counseling sessions and reflective listening. He challenged the kids to respond to their own negative thought patterns with positive, constructive thoughts. He also started a break-dancing club after school and showed movie clips to start discussion. And perhaps most important, he told the kids about his own past.
“I would talk about being traumatized,” Di Vittorio, 49, says, “and what it’s like to not have integrity, and what it’s like to feel anger inside and want to destroy the world.” He broke down the usual barriers between counselors and clients, and the boys responded. “They’d talk about how they’re lacking integrity, how they abuse people, how they have pain and trauma,” he says. Then he’d challenge them. “So now—cognitive behaviorally—what choice do we make? How do we live our life with purpose and mission? How do you have integrity as a young man out there?”
“The boys would leave the group and say, ‘Can we come back tomorrow?’” Di Vittorio recalls. “They were starving to identify with manhood.”
For a decade, Di Vittorio refined his program, merging clinical therapy, mentoring and rites of passage. He started the boys’ one-hour group sessions with “check-ins,” where he and the boys reported on how they felt physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. He introduced exercises, modeled off eighth-graders’ recess games, that taught slower thinking and impulse control. He related the curriculum to six core values: integrity, accountability, self-determination, positive anger expression, visionary goal-setting, and respect for womanhood.
By 2009, BAM was operating in Di Vittorio’s high school and a few Chicago elementary schools. Word spread about the changes BAM seemed to inspire in young men who’d struggled in school, many of whom had also been arrested. That year, the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, which tests and designs programs meant to reduce violent crime, decided to study its effects.
Earlier research by the lab on Chicago’s gun violence epidemic suggested that a lot of youth were getting shot during “impulsive, high-stakes situations that went out of control because a gun was ready at hand,” says the crime lab’s associate director, Julia Quinn. Researchers were intrigued by how BAM used cognitive behavioral therapy to change the way kids in violent neighborhoods think. Instead of fighting back aggressively when challenged, kids in the BAM program were given techniques to help them manage their reactions to others.
As part of the study, BAM expanded to 19 new schools in high-crime, impoverished, segregated West Side and South Side neighborhoods. Boys in the BAM groups were at risk of dropping out of high school and ending up in jail or prison. They had missed an average of eight weeks of school—almost an entire semester—and many had been arrested before.
The study, completed in 2010, found that boys participating in BAM were arrested for violent crimes 45 percent less often than classmates who weren’t in the program; arrests on all charges were 28 percent lower. The effect on arrest rates didn’t persist after the boys left BAM, but another effect did: the boys were 19 percent more likely to graduate from high school. A second randomized study by Crime Lab researchers and the National Bureau of Economic Research, finished in 2015, confirmed the earlier results, finding that BAM reduced violent crime arrests by 50 percent and overall arrests by 35 percent.
“We were surprised by the impacts and how large they were,” says Roseanna Ander, executive director of the crime lab, “especially for a program that’s not super-super-intensive and expensive.” Among programs meant to reduce crime and dropout rates among poor kids, BAM’s results stand out. “Unfortunately, there’s not a long list of programs that have generated really rigorous evidence of impact,” says Ander.
The results are clear, but there’s still some disagreement about component of the programs makes them so effective. Is it the therapy, the mentoring, the rites of passage idea or all of the above? Interestingly, there’s disagreement between the researchers and the program’s founder on what the most important ingredient is.
For the researchers it’s the behavioral therapy, learning new ways of thinking. “It’s necessary but not sufficient to have positive, adult relationships,” says Quinn. Studies of other programs that also have adults engage with young people don’t produce results as dramatic as BAM’s, she says.
The 2015 study seems to back up this theory. Crime lab researchers had BAM kids and a control group from their schools go through a decision-making exercise that made them think a classmate had provoked them and gave them a chance to retaliate. “The kids in the BAM program were physically slowing down, taking time to make decisions about how to respond,” says Quinn. Another crime lab study, of a different CBT program in Chicago’s Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago, found that their participants have acquired slow-thinking skills; so did a study of a CBT program for former child soldiers in Liberia. “We think CBT is helping with meta-cognition, thinking about thinking,” says Quinn.
Di Vittorio thinks BAM’s effectiveness actually lies in something more culturally driven. “I knew the secret sauce which really makes this program work,” BAM’s founder says. “It’s the men’s work, the rites of passage work.”
A typical mentor might tell a 15-year-old boy to stop verbally abusing a teacher, Di Vittorio explains, but a counselor in the role of a rites of passage elder wouldn’t tell him what to do. Instead, he might ask the boy probing emotional questions about how his mother feels when he’s kicked out of class. “‘What’s it like knowing your mom’s terrified, worried about you?’” Di Vittorio says. “Now that boy starts to go there and starts to feel that pain – and we say, ‘Now you’re doing real work.’ It’s therapy, but it’s done from an elder perspective. We’re de-mystifying that machoism, that bravado.”
Di Vittorio thinks the reduced arrest rate among BAM youth is a sign that they’re internalizing the program’s values, which come to mind in provocative situations. In other words, BAM develops a young man’s conscience. “There’s something in their gut saying, ‘Man, don’t do this, this ain’t right,’” says Di Vittorio. “That’s a head thing about choice, but deeper than the head thing, the slow thinking, is a gut thing. It’s an intuitive, visceral process of, ‘I don’t think this is right. This isn’t who I want to be right now.’”
The eight BAM kids from the West Side left their meeting to go on a mission. Lined up by height, the shortest at the front, they walked around a block of homes, single file. It was a trust walk: Only the two leaders, at the front and back, were permitted to look around and give commands. The others had to look straight ahead and follow their lead. Miles from their neighborhood—they had come to Chicago’s South Side for their summer meeting outside school—the kids walked with brisk energy, showing no self-consciounsess about doing something so conspicuously uncool in public.
Halfway around the block, rain started coming down hard. “Jarrell! Turn around!” shouted the boys’ counselor, Dar’tavous Dorsey, to the boy in the lead. But he couldn’t hear Dorsey over the raindrops peppering the street. The four kids in the back of the line broke off, but the four in front kept going. Dorsey ran forward, still shouting, until the last boys got the word and head back, laughing and running through the storm.
Back inside, everyone’s black BAM T-shirts was soaked, and the boys chattered about how they had decided when to make a run for it.
“In my head I’m thinking, no distractions at all!” Jarrell said.
Dorsey ended their circle session with a quick survey—a “check-out” in BAM terminology—asking each boy to describe how he was feeling in one word. He got a mix: Happy. Successful. Energetic. Complete. Spontaneous.
It was a carefree moment, full of camaraderie, and an example of the fun side of BAM, the brotherhood that keeps the boys coming back once every week during the school year. (Chicago schools allow BAM kids to skip one non-core class, such as art of music, for their weekly group sessions.) But the stakes for the boys in this group couldn’t be higher. Eight of Dorsey’s 140 BAM kids were murdered in the past year, he said. Police and Youth Guidance records partially confirm this: Eight students at the school where Dorsey works were murdered in the past two years, according to the mayor’s office. In the scheme of things, the BAM groups’ one-hour weekly meetings are a small amount of time for the counselors to try to overcome the powerful influences acting on the boys when they’re not in school.
“In our neighborhood, it’s mostly killing and gang banging,” said Demarco, the 18-year-old who lost his father to gun violence. “You don’t see no kids want to be successful. Everybody want to be in the streets. They want to kill somebody.
“A lot of people in the ’hood, their dreams get broken,” Demarco said. “Your mom could be strung out on crack. Your dad could be in jail.” BAM, Demarco says, helps kids become successful despite what’s around them through everyday advice and trips outside the neighborhood, including college tours. “To be a better man, that’s what BAM’s here for. To see different colleges, see something instead of what’s in Chiraq. We call [Chicago] Chiraq, ‘cause there’s too many killings. It’s killing kids now.”
“BAM saves kids’ lives,” said Jarrell. “During spring break, in the neighborhood I’m from, a couple people died.” Jarrell was on a BAM college tour that week, visiting seven states. “If I wasn’t on that truck, that could’ve been me. They pull you from the hood, they take you different places to see different things. They want your mind somewhere else.”
Jarrell has traveled to 17 states in the many college tours Dorsey organizes for the 140 boys and young men he counsels at a West Side high school. (That’s twice as many kids as most BAM counselors, a workload he took on after another BAM counselor left the job.) In Dorsey’s first year as a BAM counselor, about two out of five seniors in BAM went on to college. This past school year, his second in the job, he stepped up the college visits—and all 38 of his graduating seniors went on to higher education.
Dorsey, 31, has a master’s degree in social work and a gift for getting kids to open up to him. His skills as a mentor may be more important than his degree. Though many BAM counselors are psychologists, therapists, or social workers, some are hired for their potential as role models. “They’re men who just have the ‘it’ factor—they’re cool as hell,” said Di Vittorio, the program’s founder. “We knew the youth will imprint upon them, and we can give them some clinical training.” BAM also requires all counselors to go on a weekend retreat put on by the ManKind Project, a Chicago-based organization that dates back to the men’s movement of the 1980s and 1990s. The retreat is a key part of BAM counselors’ “rites-of-passage work,” an ongoing examination of their challenges and character. Men who won’t make themselves vulnerable, Di Vittorio says, won’t inspire boys to do the same.
Dorsey says he doesn’t present himself as a therapist.
“What I’ve learned that’s successful for me,” he says, “is not, ‘I’m your therapist. I’m your counselor.’ They don’t want to hear that. They shut down.” Many kids say they see him as a father figure. “They want guidance or advice. They don’t want it in a brotherly way.” He gives the guys his work and personal cell numbers and email addresses. The night before the group circle, he talks Jarrell through his anger about his older brother being shot.
But Dorsey does use a basic tool of cognitive behavioral therapy: probing questions that get them to examine the choices they have made—like joining a gang—and the impact those choices have on others.
“I ask them, why do you feel that because someone eyed you the wrong way, you have to retaliate?” he said. “Is that acceptable? How would you feel if the shoe was on other foot and that were you?” Sometimes the kids think and respond that it’s not acceptable, but they’re upset. Dorsey keeps up the questions. “Do you have the discipline to bottle it up? To say I’m going to continue to do what I’m doing because I’m here for a reason?”
In June, a graduating senior burst into Dorsey’s office, cursing. A teacher had asked him to put away his phone. He’d resisted, and the confrontation blew up into an argument with two teachers and a dean, who were trying to find a security officer to arrest him. Seeing his rage, Dorsey handed the senior a pair of boxing gloves, then put on mitts himself to absorb the blows. They sparred, the senior still cursing at the teachers who’d challenged him. Dorsey kept asking him who he was angry at.
Finally, Dorsey recalled, the senior said: “My dad showed up yesterday. I haven’t seen him in six years. He was trying to tell me what to do.”
“He didn’t realize,” Dorsey said, “that was therapy right there.”
Chicago’s gun violence has become a national fixation, from Spike Lee’s 2015 film Chi-Raq to President Trump’s frequent tweets about the “carnage” in the city. Though the country’s third-largest city isn’t its most dangerous (several smaller cities, such as New Orleans, St. Louis and Detroit, have higher murder rates), more total murders happen in Chicago than in any other American city: 764 in 2016, up sharply from 485 in 2015.
That puts tremendous pressure on Emanuel to do something to stem the violence. Crime and policing issues have dogged the mayor—his popularity tanked in 2015 over his handling of the Laquan McDonald police shooting video—and he hasn’t yet announced if he’ll seek re-election in early 2019. Critics also argue that Emanuel’s closing of 50 elementary schools in 2012 and six of the city’s 12 community mental health clinics in 2011 may have contributed to social breakdown. (The mayor replies that crime didn’t spike until years later.) Emanuel argues Chicago needs smarter responses to the violence, including highly professional policing, not the aggressive stop-and-frisk police tactics Trump promotes.
BAM and WOW, Emanuel said, are part of his strategy to reduce youth violence by giving kids more opportunities; he said he has also doubled the city’s funding for summer and after-school jobs for teens. “It provides young men somebody they can turn to, to ask questions, seek guidance, and know their own strengths to say no to certain things,” Emanuel told POLITICO. “It creates their own sense of family, and network of friends, who will help them make right choices, not bad choices.” This January, Emanuel announced a new mentoring initiative to serve 7,200 boys. A projected 75 percent of them will get their mentors through BAM.
With city funding and Emanuel’s help with fund-raising, BAM and WOW are growing. BAM and WOW now make up most of Youth Guidance’s $27 million budget: BAM is growing to $13 million this school year, WOW to $4 million. About 60 percent of private donations to Youth Guidance are earmarked for BAM or WOW.
Inside and outside school, adults are noticing BAM’s influence. Chicago police commander Kevin Johnson said BAM members in South Side neighborhoods such as Roseland have also joined block clubs, anti-violence marches and peace circles where teens and police officers meet to talk about police encounters. “They seem like a different sort of kid,” Johnson said, “more respectful, more engaged in the community, more positive and outgoing.”
In school, BAM and WOW kids are doing better. “I do know from the principals that their attendance in school is up, their graduation is up,” Emanuel said. They’re also less likely to get caught up in the criminal justice system, the principals tell him.
The two programs are an “integral part” of the Chicago Public Schools’ safety strategy, which has moved away from zero-tolerance discipline policies and toward de-escalating conflict and problem-solving instead of punishment. It’s working: Chicago’s schools are seeing year-to-year reductions in suspensions, expulsions, and referrals of students to police. “We attribute a lot of that to programs like BAM,” says Jadine Chao, the school district’s chief of safety and security.
BAM and WOW are also part of a national trend toward social-emotional learning and trauma-sensitive education. In Chicago, the district’s Office of Social and Emotional Learning, founded in 2010, works with Youth Guidance to decide which schools to include in expansions of BAM and WOW. Its 30 staffers train teachers and administrators to adjust their approaches to discipline to consider that kids acting out may be trauma victims who need mental-health support. The office also helps schools set up lessons in classes or homerooms on empathy, decision-making, and conflict resolution.
Schools across the nation are also embracing social and emotional education for kids who’ve grown up in violent neighborhoods. San Francisco schools that adopted a meditation program for teens, Quiet Time, have seen fewer suspensions, better attendance and better academic performance. Mindful Schools, a Bay Area nonprofit, offers a meditation curriculum for kids who struggle with self-control, which it says has impacted 1.5 million students worldwide. The University of Chicago Crime Lab is currently studying a similar meditation program, also called Quiet Time, developed by the filmmaker David Lynch’s charitable foundation. Schools from Philadelphia to Boston to Seattle have adopted Second Step, a social and emotional education program for elementary and middle school students.
Micere Keels, a human development professor at the University of Chicago, is trying to help the Chicago schools go further. She’s designing a trauma-responsive curriculum for teachers to give them new ways to manage classrooms in the toughest parts of town.“You can really expect, in schools in highly disadvantaged neighborhoods, that all the students coping with something very traumatic,” Keels said. “There’s a growing awareness that [those] kids are coming to school and really struggling with cognitive, emotional, and behavioral disregulation just because of stress.”
Some brain-science studies have found that many teens exposed to violence experience post-traumatic stress disorder, Keels said. “A kid staring out the window who seems disengaged in classroom activities might actually be having flashbacks of incidents they’ve seen in the neighborhood. Sometimes in a minor interaction with another student, they overreact very aggressively, [because it] triggers feelings of being unsafe.”
In 2010, as BAM expanded, Youth Guidance decided to found a similar program for girls. Like BAM, Working On Womanhood is a mix of therapy and mentoring based on core values. Girls are less likely to be the perpetrators of the violence that grabs headlines, but they are nonetheless deeply affected by the violence they encounter.
Gail Day, WOW’s program director, said 84 percent of the nearly 1,100 girls in the program have experienced five or more traumatic events—most of which are acts of violence, ranging widely from being slapped to witnessing a murder. About 30 percent of WOW girls have seen someone else shot or shot at.
“Our girls internalize a lot of those stressors that are associated with trauma,” Day says. “Instead of going out and getting a gun, and shooting someone, they repress it, they internalize it. And then when something triggers it, it comes out in aggressive behavior, depression, and social anxiety.”
Trauma can create a vicious cycle: Victims or witnesses can become more likely to act impulsively and aggressively themselves. If you’ve seen someone shot, or someone close to you has been shot, Day said, you can develop anxiety, a lack of trust and hypervigilance.
Last year, WOW had counselors in 21 Chicago-area schools, compared to BAM’s 62. WOW is newer than BAM, and less proven. No outside researchers have evaluated it yet, though the University of Chicago Crime Lab is in talks with Youth Guidance about conducting a study. But WOW’s self-testing has found that the program improves girls’ mental health. Girls who enter WOW with severe depression were markedly less depressed once they went through the program, while girls with mild or moderate depression improved slightly. That reflects WOW’s focus on girls’ emotional health. Unlike in BAM, all WOW counselors are therapists with master’s degrees.
On the third day of school, 10 girls gathered in a converted classroom at their high school in the near-west suburbs of the city. It was the first time they’d been together since last June. Dressed in purple shirts with Working on Womanhood written on them, the girls played what seemed like a simple concentration game—a girl would say the name of another girl and toss her a ball across the table in between them. Then a second and third ball would be added. Anytime someone dropped a ball, the whole group had to start again. The girls giggled excitedly as the balls flew around the room; they cheered when they completed a full round.
As the buzz subsided, their counselor, Nicole Lemon, got them talking. “What do you remember from last year’s group that relates to the group juggle?”
“No matter what’s going on,” says Dasia, a senior, “you’ve always got to stay focused on the task at hand.”
“Does anybody remember what CBT is?” Lemon asks.
“I know!” says one girl. “You gotta think through what you’re going to do before you do it.”
“Say you’re in the hallway and someone bumps you,” says Lemon. “It might be an accident! What are you thinking?”
“Maybe that girl ain’t even thinking about you!” says a student.
“That’s the idea,” says Lemon. “It’s to start to change those negative thoughts.”
Girls who’ve gone through WOW say they’ve gotten better at self-control, are doing better in school, and have come to see their counselor as a role model for smart decision-making in stressful situations. Ciana, a 17-year-old senior, jokes that she’s going to get a bracelet that reads, “What would Miss Lemon Do?” Her freshman year, she fought often with her mother and often ended up in the dean’s office for misbehavior. Thanks to WOW, she now talks back to herself rather than acting on impulse.“I’m not that get-in-trouble girl anymore,” she said
This summer, Ciana was working at a movie theater, trying to help a woman who’d bought the wrong ticket when the woman started cursing at her. “I thought in my head, ‘What would Miss Lemon do?’” She walked away, calmed down, and started working with her manager. But the same woman, along with her family this time, found her again. “She’s literally threatening to kill me, jump me, all of that,” Ciana recalled. She told herself to keep a smile on her face: “Calm down. It’s not that serious. Guests do this all the time. They’re always mad.” Her general manager later complimented her for keeping her cool, and said she would’ve been written up for discipline had she gotten into an argument with the customers. “I walked in the next day with a smile on face,” she said. “I was proud of myself.”
Ciana’s plans for the next two years include keeping her grades up, as she did last year, and heading off to college—Miami University in Ohio is her dream school. She raves about the effect her WOW counselor has had on her. “Miss Lemon doesn’t care what you did in your past,” she said. “She just wants to make sure your future is secure.”
BAM and WOW’s values and self-discipline lessons are built to last beyond high school. Jodeci, now 20, joined BAM in his freshman year in high school. Now a graduate, he said he enrolled in one of Youth Guidance’s workforce development programs. BAM’s lessons still help him stay in his “highest mind,” he said, focused on his goals and career path.
Jodeci said he repeats lessons from BAM to friends and others in his neighborhood. “You’ve got a better choice than this,” he said. “You don’t have to sell drugs to make it, to get a job. Who are you trying to impress? The only person to try to impress is yourself.”
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