Building Peace in Chi-Raq

“Peace is a lot like love. In order to have love, an individual must open themselves up to possible rejection and pain caused by another. Just like a community might risk war by opening themselves up to another community. To have peace or love, there is always some type of vulnerability that must be shown. So peace and love are essentially the same thing.” Jeffery Carl- friend and professor

Disclaimer: The names and some stories have been changed to protect and maintain the social work code of ethics and client confidentiality.

The Call

On a regular day at work, I received a phone call at my desk. Usually, I received calls from folks wanting to me do a presentation about my organization to youth throughout the city of Chicago. This call was different, though. It was a former student and alumni, John, on the other line.

John: “Lornett, how’s it going?”

Me: “I’m well John. You sound good and happy today.”

John: “Well, I finally got my record expunged and now I’m relocating to Houston, Texas.”

Me: “That’s great John. I’m happy to hear that.”

John: “I found a construction job down there. My daughter and girlfriend are moving with me too.”

This conversation was one I didn’t think would ever happen when I first met John. He grew up on Chicago’s Westside. His body was covered in tattoos; he kept a buzz cut, liked to wear red and had the classic “don’t fuck with me” look on his face daily. During our first conversation when he started the program, we talked about sports, religion, and metaphysics. Beneath his tough exterior was a deep young man with a troubled past trying to make a positive change in his life. He succeeded.

His only problem today is he’s still a Dallas Cowboys fan.

Restorative Justice Model

For two years at my former job, I facilitated peace circles with a group of young men. This was outside the boundaries of the normal program. In the peace circles, I joined them as equals. We were men creating a safe space.

Community Justice for Youth Institute offers the following information about the origin of peace circles: “Restorative justice is not new, but derives from indigenous and aboriginal traditions around the world. The specific practices used by Community Justice for Youth Institute have come to us by way of Kay Pranis, Gwen Chandler-Rhivers and Sally Wolf, who learned them from the Tlingit Tagish tradition of the Yukon Territories. Our work has also been greatly influenced by the peace and reconciliation work in the townships of South Africa.” I was trained by the Community Justice for Youth Institute on how to facilitate these circles. At my former organization, I applied these principles to conduct what I called “Men’s Seminars.”

We live in an age where many men are trying to figure out what it means to be a man. The young men I worked with were between the ages of 18 to 25 years old. Decades ago, men were expected to become the breadwinners and bring home the bacon. Many blue-collar well-paying jobs were available for young men back then. However, since the recession, youth unemployment has risen. My program focused on job training for young adults, most of whom were young men of color. The unemployment rate for young adults (16-24) in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, broke down as follows by race: white 10%, black 20.7%, Latino 12.7%, and Asian 10%. My hometown of Chicago has been plagued with so much violence that it has earned the infamous nickname of Chi-raq. With all of this, it can be difficult to figure out what it means to be a man in the 21st century, especially with so many competing ideologies behind the concept of manhood, and lack of strong mentorship for young men nowadays.

IMAG0208 (1)
Photo Courtesy of Lornett Vestal and Year Up Chicago 

Building Peace Together

With few exceptions, many of the young men I worked with came from working class and lower class backgrounds. They were from some of Chicago’s most impoverished neighborhoods, such as Austin, Englewood, and Roseland. There were a few exceptions to this when it came to these wonderful young men. Delving into their various backgrounds, I found out they had dealt with gang violence, drug abuse, shame, and guilt. Some of the young men described how, coming to and from the program site, they often had to change from professional dress to street clothes to avoid harassment from peers in their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, some of these young men had buried many of their friends and family before reaching the age of twenty-five. These men were like me. I grew up in one of the rougher areas of Chicago’s Southside and had experienced many of the same things. Each of us was seeking a deeper understanding of what it meant to be both a man and a human being.

Each of these young men brought their own unique perspective to the circle. The circle was completely voluntary, although sometimes I bribed them with snacks and pizza. The young men were happy to engage in honest and frank discussions about various self-selected topics. Every outside guest I invited into the circle understood that we all met in this space as true equals. We weren’t social workers, lawyers, or executives in the circle. We were all equals alongside the young men. Together, we created a safe space where men from all walks of life and racial backgrounds were able to come together to build a sacred ceremony.

You Think You’re Better

We discussed various topics throughout the years, but there were some common themes. Often, the young men talked about how making positive life changes led to them losing close friends. It wasn’t just close friends but also family. Family members accused them of “thinking they were better.” These men lost family and friends all because they (the young men) wanted to change their lives for the better. They had to deal with the fact that the certain family members and friends viewed their positive change for the better as a negative. They lost the respect and support of people whom they once felt close to in their lives.

Other men discussed the burdens of their obligations to family. They had families to support, whether this involved raising their own children or helping to pay their parents’ bills around the house.

The past came back to haunt a few of these men, and they succumbed to the streets and the unreasonable demands of family. Many of the young men still had to deal with their tumultuous lives after these discussions, but for a brief period in time, they came together to support each other in the circle.

These females tho…

Since I was facilitating circles consisting of young men, relationships and sex were constant themes that reappeared time and time again. It was difficult to explain to them that referring to women as ‘females’ wasn’t going to help them with their ‘game.’ Still, it led to some very lively discussions. I often joked with them, “did you mean female monkey or female bear?” since the term female could mean various types of females in the animal kingdom. I conveyed the message from my woman peers that just calling them ‘young lady or miss’ was perfectly fine and acceptable. It would even help them stand out from the crowd of men who still referred to women as ‘females.’

They had learned about sex, dating, and relationships from their peers, family members, the media, pornography and their respective cultures. Ironically, many of the young men had never discussed dating and sex with their peers in such an honest way. Usually, their previous discussions with peers involved talking about their latest ‘conquest’ or about being ‘booed up’ with the cutest lady in class. We had hard discussions about what it means to respect a woman and about the lack of respect for certain types of woman. We pressed each other about our own sexist ideas about women and about our own male privilege. I even shared my difficulties of navigating the dating world as a young black man.

We discussed the men’s own insecurities and their need for love. One young man shared that his constant insecurities led to him being so possessive over a girlfriend that he drove her away. He felt she was too good for him because of her intelligence and beauty. Another young man, named Carl, talked about the struggle of being a 20-year-old husband. At twenty, Carl had wisdom far beyond his years and unwittingly served as a facilitator of the early circles.

We even dove into sexuality and LBGTQ issues. Some young men had a hard time wrapping their heads around transgender people or being a gay man. Their words were at times harsh but honest. Some young men even disclosed their own sexual preference and admitted to feeling uneasy about being a gay man in such a hyper-masculine culture. Homophobia was a sensitive subject to bring up and one young man, Alvin, brought up a brilliant insight in one of our circles in regards to homoeroticism and heterosexism.

In particular, he spoke about his theory of why men acted so tough or hyper-masculine: according to him, men act so tough because we men have our genitals (which men place so much value and self-worth on) hanging on the outsides of our body and thus leaving us very fragile and vulnerable if attacked. In essence, his theory was that we men overcompensate for our painfully obvious weakness. It spoke to the point that no matter how mentally or physically strong a man might be, he is always vulnerable. This is only a sample of some of the insight that I gained from the young men.

Men supporting men

As the facilitator, I made sure that all views and perspectives were treated with respect and that everyone was welcome to bring their authentic self to the circle. I also assured that what was said in these circles would not be used against them. This was a truly safe and sacred space. I only acted has peacekeeper and let these conversations flow how they needed to flow. (I learned from a group of brilliant and beautiful high-schoolers back in 2010 at South Shore High School that no one person should control the circle.) I wasn’t there to give answers or promote my own personal viewpoints. I was only there to share the experience with them. Those who joined the circle found the answers they were seeking inside themselves and among each other. Everyone brought a piece of himself to the circle and made it whole.

We live in a world where men at all economic levels and backgrounds are made to be in competition with each other: for money, power, sexual partners, careers, etc. It’s all about being the so-called ‘alpha male.’ I often introduced the idea of an “evolved man.” What a better way to think about what defines being a man! An evolved man: a man who always improves himself and others around him; a man who continuously seeks more knowledge and personal growth throughout his lifetime; a man who isn’t afraid to make mistakes and learn from them. Now imagine a world where we men truly support each other in a real and compassionate way. Imagine men who are always evolving for the better and in return making their families, communities, and societies better.

I learned a lot from these young men in Chicago. I hope they also learned a lot from each other. Society may have their ideas, labels, and stereotypes about young men that come from the rough neighborhoods all these men called home. Still, I saw myself in all of them. They were smart, funny, intelligent, and brave. Knowing their stories, their goals, their hopes, their successes, and their failures has made me a much better man. Hopefully, they’re a bit better for entering the sacred circle and building peace.


 

Suggested Readings:

Living Justice Press: A nonprofit publisher for restorative justice

Bureau of Labor Statistics- Employment and Unemployment Among Youth Summary

The Community Justice for Youth Institute

Top 10: Ways To Become An Evolved Man by David DeAngelo

 

 

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