How a coalition is creating healing pathways for young men of color


Spa days, vacations, and a general focus on recreation, while they may promote well-being, are often over-represented as self-care practices. These activities often focus on the individual while ignoring community-based collective healing practices. As Jeydon Vargas, a Brothers, Sons, Selves (BSS) youth organizer recently reminded his fellow students, community organizing is often linked to healing and youth justice. “People want justice because they want to heal,” he says.

For Jeydon and other young people of color, justice is rooted in reclaiming and transforming the systems and institutions that criminalize them and their behaviors, but it is also about addressing the emotional consequences. and psychology of criminalization. Studies have shown that children and youth who witness violence and are victims of criminalization report struggling with mental health issues such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. For Black, Latino and Indigenous children and youth, this is especially the case given the over-font from their neighborhoods and tribal lands.

When mental health is understood solely as an individual problem, the proposed solutions are also focused on the individual. Although therapy and counseling are important in managing our daily lives, they do not always recognize and target the systems of oppression that impact mental health. Brothers, Sons, Selves and other community organizations are responding by promote living spaces for boys and men of color. An alliance of seven grassroots organizations committed to transforming conditions of racialized criminalization, BSS members know intimately how the struggle against blackness, transphobia and homophobia impacts the lives of young people. BSS has created a space where youth of color are fully embraced, whether female, queer, black or brown, and where they can engage in collective healing and create pathways for mental wellness.

David C. Turner III, director of the Brothers, Sons, Selves coalition, participates in a discussion on gender, sexuality and intersectionality. | Uriel Serrano

Over-policed ​​schools and neighborhoods are often sites of criminalization for boys and young men of color. As Manny shared during a virtual BSS Mental Health Talking Circle, he struggles with paranoia because “a police officer or some random white woman or someone will just look at me and yell that I did something wrong… I could get shot by the police.” Witnessing and experiencing constant criminalization reminds young people of color of their vulnerability to police violence. As Manny described it, racialized policing confirms his suspicions that “the system just doesn’t like black kids.”

As part of BSS’s mission to fight criminalization, the coalition engages in political education that places the experience of Manny and other young men of color in a structural context. In other words, they help young people understand the history of policing and its rise in the United States, going all the way back to slaverythe colonization indigenous peoples and their lands, and global policing. This political education empowers young people to name the systems of inequality that directly affect them and their communities. For some, this is the first step in their healing journey.

BSS also engages in political education through an intersectional lens. For example, discussions of criminalization provide opportunities to understand the specific experiences of undocumented, adoptive, gay, trans, and female-identified youth. Workshops informed by an understanding of difference, including how inequality is experienced differently or similarly across social identities, provide an understanding of how personal and group challenges are linked to economic, social and cultural inequalities. broader health. In the recognition of shared and divergent wounds, collective healing emerges through a process that recognizes individual healing and the need for collective struggle.

These political education workshops and other programs, including healing circles and weekend retreats – when done carefully and in a youth-relevant way, also offers young men like Lequan a space of vulnerability. Lequan, a young BSS leader, described self-hatred as a manifestation of oppression in his daily life; he pointed out the difficulty of talking about trauma with his family because they also have trauma from which they have not healed.

The man smiles in front of the Indian Pomo sign and a whiteboard.
Lequan, a youth leader from the Brothers, Sons, Selves coalition, smiles during a workshop during a weekend retreat in 2019. | Uriel Serrano

Research shows that adults and youth of color from very poor backgrounds suffer from high levels of post-traumatic stress. Yet discussions and concerns about mental health remain taboo. This suggests that young people may not have access to safe spaces – in schools and elsewhere – to share their experiences and emotions. For black children and youth in particular, this is complicated by adultificationwhere children of color are more likely to be seen as adults and less worthy of empathy and nurturing, leading to them not being listened to.

In BSS healing circles and workshops, young men are encouraged to be vulnerable, and healing is about expressing their emotions. Speaking of both pain and joy, the young men connect with each other, learn from each other, and build relationships of trust and love with each other and with BSS staff. Weekly meetings begin with debriefs that invite young people and staff to reflect on their emotions, well-being and joy. Members maintain ongoing relationships through affirmations that remind everyone how precious and beautiful they are. Intentionally embracing love and care fosters an environment where young people can present themselves fully. These approaches run counter to punitive practices that are all too familiar to young people of color.

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Community-based approaches to wellness, social justice and collective healing are of particular importance to Jeydon and other young people, as other resources, such as mental health facilities, can be places of trauma. Jeydon, who identifies as trans, shared his traumatic experience of transphobia in a psychiatric hospital: “Having the staff exclude me specifically because I’m a trans person was a lot,” he said . “They wouldn’t use my pronouns. It really triggered me…because I go to a place where they’re supposed to help me with my mental health, but they can’t affirm me with something… as simple as a pronoun and noun. I was put in solitary because they didn’t know whether to put me with the boys or with the girls. Reflecting on these experiences, Jeydon said that “the community has been there for me more than these systems”.

Jeydon’s experience highlights how refusing to recognize one’s gender identity is felt personally. On the other hand, BSS’s relationship-focused youth organization affirms and embraces young men and their identities. The relationship-centered approach includes creating a community of trust where young people are allowed to engage in discussions and ask questions about notions of masculinity, sexuality and gender, as well as terminology and practices that promote queer and trans inclusivity. Topics can include pronoun use, gender binary disruption, and diversity of gender identities, gender expression, and sexual orientation. As Jeydon shared, “Simple things like asking for pronouns — you don’t know how to validate that feels for a kid.”

Over the years, countless young BSSs have shared that these discussions often do not take place in schools. Yet they are crucial to the mental health of young people, including queer and trans youth, as they give young people the language to name ideologies that impact their well-being and apply harmful gender binaries.

Through political education, gender and sexuality workshops, and relationship building, BSS disrupts patterns of criminalization and creates pathways for healing. While a key component includes organizing to transform institutions that criminalize youth of color, community healing grounded in love and radical care is central to BSS’s work. The approach underscores how the fight for freedom is not just about winning campaigns or transforming policies; it is also about deep care and support for young people to thrive in all areas of their lives.

To learn more about youth mental health, visit well-being is a public media initiative that meets the critical health needs of Americans through broadcast content, original digital content, and impactful local events.


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