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February 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 5

Protecting Black Youths’ Emotional Lives

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Exposure to community violence, which disproportionately affects Black youth, erodes mental health. Mentoring programs help teens cope.

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Between his freshman and junior year of high school, Kyle attended six funerals of classmates who lost their lives to Chicago violence. He went to his seventh before the COVID-19 lockdown.  
I first met Kyle in September 2018 when he was 15 years old, through R.E.A.L., a nonprofit youth mentoring program I started in 2000. The program’s main goal is to provide a safe space within the school setting for students to express and confront any personal or community issues they’re struggling with. Program mentors use expressive writing projects, critical literacy activities, and culturally responsive life-skills curriculum to help participating students deal with challenges and to support their mental health. Since its launch, R.E.A.L. (which stands for respect, excellence, attitude, and leadership) has collaborated with more than 20 Chicago public schools and has been credited by principals and teachers with helping improve participants’ attendance, academic achievement, and positive social-emotional growth. Program membership reflects the schools’ student demographics, which has generally been Black youth from low-wage earning families. 
R.E.A.L. partnered with Kyle’s school for two years. The assistant principal selected 20 individuals to voluntarily participate, based on a needs assessment of which students might benefit from extra support. Sessions were held weekly for one hour after school with three mentors, adults who’ve worked with R.E.A.L. since the early years of the program. One of many concerns that surfaced during meetings was community violence. Kyle, who lived in a high-crime area, spoke of either seeing or hearing about muggings, carjackings, homicidal gang retaliations, or run-ins with police. His classmates described similar ­experiences.

Too Many Black Youth Are Exposed to Violence

These teens weren’t alone. R.E.A.L. has worked with many other young people across the city who are at high risk of being witnesses to or victims of community violence. Within Chicago’s own backyard, Black youth as a demographic group are highly affected in terms of exposure to violence (Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, n.d.). According to recent police data, Black residents under the age of 19 make up 23 percent of the city’s population yet represent 17 percent of its shooting victims. Exposure to shootings differs significantly across the city. For example, Black low-income youth living on Chicago’s West and South sides are three times more likely to hear gunshots than their affluent white counterparts on the city’s North side (Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, n.d.). 

Black youth in economically distressed metropolitan spaces have a greater probability of being subjected to violence than any other U.S. population.

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Beyond Chicago, thousands of American children and adolescents living in urban, suburban, or exurban areas encounter violence on a daily basis. But Black youth in economically distressed metropolitan spaces have a greater probability of being subjected to violence than any other U.S. population (Morsy & Rothstein, 2019). An estimated 50–60 percent of these youth are frequently exposed to neighborhood crime—either experiencing violence themselves or witnessing it—in the form of muggings, stabbings, or seeing someone shot by another person (or being shot themselves).  
Frequent exposure to violence and criminality can translate into shared trauma for a generation of Black youth in urban spaces (Katz, 2020). Studies on violence in cities like New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles have identified such exposure as a form of “toxic stress” that devastates these youngsters, often giving rise to depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (Morsy et al., 2019). When these problems are left unaddressed, Black youth can exhibit adverse behaviors in and outside of school, such as isolation, aggression, academic disengagement, substance abuse, and even normalizing ­violence as a defense mechanism to spare them from further emotional harm (Boyd et al., 2022).

“He Should Have Known Which Way Not to Walk”

I’ve witnessed firsthand how community violence can devastate a young person. One evening in November, Kyle and his best friend Terrance left school following football practice. They took a Chicago transit bus and exited at their usual stop four blocks away from where they live. After exchanging a few final words, they went their separate ways. A couple of hours later, Kyle texted his friend, but there was no immediate reply. Around 1:00 a.m., he received a phone call from Terrance’s parents: His best friend had been shot and killed in a back alley, only steps away from arriving home.  
Terrance’s murder was reported on the local news that morning. The school’s principal announced at the start of the school day that counselors were available to meet with students distressed about Terrance’s death. R.E.A.L. mentors had planned to continue a discussion on safe interactions with police during that Friday’s session, but clearly, it was more important to check in on students’ mental state and what they were feeling about Terrance’s murder.  
We began by telling members what we’d heard and asked if they had any thoughts. Kyle responded first, showing no outward emotion. “He should have known which way not to walk,” he said. His peers collectively agreed, insisting that they all know the safest passageways home. Their discussion seemed to partly blame Terrance for being shot, but also condemned ongoing gang violence. Though our mentors wanted to extend the conversation, Kyle and others didn’t seem ready to talk in any depth about what had happened or their feelings about it, especially after Kyle stated, “It is what it is.” Our conversation was clearly meant to end for the time being. Terrance was Kyle’s seventh funeral. 
Over the next few weeks, mentors invited mentees to talk with them individually after program sessions. This approach helped those we mentored share personal insights into what neighborhood violence and the loss of peers meant to each of them, how they were impacted, and what they required moving forward. A majority of our young mentees took part in the one-on-one conversations, expressing deep feelings of anxiety and stress.  
I’ve seen pain like Kyle’s often over the years as R.E.A.L. mentees share stories of community violence and emotional harm, whether from police harassment, knife and gun muggings, or gang killings. I’ve observed youngsters who, upon meeting together for the first time, exhibit a high level of fear and angst. They’re suspicious of their surroundings and others, guarded and irritable. Often, like Kyle, youth in these circumstances ostensibly detach themselves from tragic events and shut down.

Needed: Mental Health Care

Mentoring programs that provide emotionally safe spaces for these youth are desperately needed. We cannot leave these young folk to cope alone with trauma-inducing realities in their lives. America’s most disinvested, vulnerable Black youth struggle with limited access to quality healthcare professionals who can help them process crises and manage social conditions like neighborhood violence, depression, anxiety, poor physical health, and academic delinquency. In schools, these young people often fail to receive proper mental health care and the guidance needed to healthily deal with (and perhaps overcome) traumatic episodes they are exposed to (Boyd et al., 2022). 

We cannot leave these young folk to cope alone with trauma-inducing realities in their lives.

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Mentors might not have the same institutional status as licensed social workers, school counselors, or psychologists. But they can be an added protective factor helping meet young people’s mental health needs. 
R.E.A.L. is one of many programs providing such a protective factor. Over the past few decades, many mentoring programs serving disadvantaged youth have made addressing community violence their main focus, providing positive role models and helping youth navigate challenging circumstances that threaten their mental health and futures. National programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BIGS), the National Gang Center, the National Mentoring Partnership, as well as more localized programs like A Safe Place, B.A.M. (Becoming a Man), and Youth ­Outreach Services are engaged in ­providing this kind of support.  
R.E.A.L.’s 20 years of mentoring Black youth through the trauma of Chicago violence haven’t been easy. Because there aren’t enough qualified school counselors available to help students dealing with trauma or in crisis, R.E.A.L. relies heavily upon building trust between our mentors and mentees. We try to have at least three mentors present in group sessions, which usually include between 20 to 30 students. This ratio and duration allow for more individualized attention, less potential for distraction, and greater student engagement on both individual and whole group levels. 
We recruit mentors who come from the immediate community or work inside schools, such as teachers, school aides, church members, or small business owners. Qualities we look for include being youth-centered, having adequate communication skills, having a relative understanding of social and racial justice, and being able to consistently attend R.E.A.L. meetings. Prior to the start of the program, mentors submit background checks and take part in two weekend training sessions that walk them through program goals, curriculum expectations, cultural and racial awareness, and acceptable conduct when interacting with youth.  
While we all wish no student would experience trauma—and the resulting reluctance to trust—this simply isn’t the case. So we engage youth in a month-long curriculum that helps build trust so participants might in time confide in us about personal or community issues. Throughout the course of our academic year with students, we often discover that the violence they see and hear is so deeply rooted in home and community affairs that many can’t or won’t share personally sensitive information with others outside their homes or immediate circles—including mentors, teachers, counselors, and police officers. Thus, trust-building early on is essential.

Key Elements of Mentoring

In addition to trust-building, there are other key elements that any school—or school professional—creating a mentoring program can use to support Black youth through mental health stresses or trauma: 
Create a safe environment. The importance of this can’t be overstated. Black youth are exposed to serious stressors beyond community violence, including hostility, institutional racism, and microaggressions, which can harm their self-identity and self-worth (Patterson & Fosse, 2015). A safe space for these young folk must be one where they don’t have to deal with pernicious racial discrimination or be the target of racial animus from school personnel. We make a safe space within R.E.A.L. mentoring sessions by first establishing rules of conduct for every program member, fostering an environment where everyone feels respected, heard, and supported.  
We ensure our space is devoid of anti-Black assumptions and stereotypes that can make Black youth feel racially inferior. We talk a lot in mentor training about how socialized prejudices lead to discrimination, which can be enacted and supported by hierarchical institutions like public schools. We also stress how, for a space or a community to feel safe for youth of color, there must be a sense that anti-bias is a central part of that community, and the group must be a place where they can build meaningful relationships and, if needed, speak up against intolerance for ­themselves. 

They need a space that allows them to openly map and voice what they and their families and friends face, including the thoughts and emotions they’ve internalized while living through social exclusion and the after-effects of community violence.

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Help youth see root causes of the violence. R.E.A.L. uses expressive writing connected to personal experiences and culturally responsive curriculum to give mentees opportunities to explore the root causes of community violence, such as lack of access to a quality education, jobs that pay living wages, safe and affordable housing, healthy food, and healthcare—which leads people to hopelessness. The roots of violence reach deep, tapping into a nexus of problems like these. I developed a program curriculum that helps enlighten mentees on issues of anti-Blackness, highlighting the lived reality of being positioned as a racialized subject through political and economic forces like gentrification, school closures, and neighborhood disinvestment. Young people experience this reality daily. They need a space that allows them to openly map and voice what they and their families and friends face, including the thoughts and emotions they’ve internalized while living through social exclusion and the after-effects of community ­violence.  
Train mentors carefully. R.E.A.L. mentors are instructed on the growth and developmental stages of children and adolescents from physical, social, and psychological perspectives. Such knowledge is critical when working with disadvantaged Black youth, who often have starker psychosocial experiences than more affluent youth. Understanding why Black youth often act and respond in the way they do helps build empathy and avoid possible misunderstandings and ­conflicts between them and adults.  
Engage youth in social activism. R.E.A.L. frequently engages its members in activism, based on school or community problems that emerge from meetings and that mentees want to address. Mentors are trained to recognize the wealth of knowledge the youth they guide already possess that can be tapped to change unjust conditions. For example, while involved with R.E.A.L., Kyle and his classmate crafted a petition to be signed by all school participants and sent to their local alderman, detailing ways to stop crime in the neighborhood. They described approaches like setting up neighborhood patrols, having well-lit streets and alleys, and building equitable partnerships with police.  Actions like this can move youth from a psychosocial state of powerlessness to one where they have an empathetic, multi-dimensional view of themselves and others—while fighting against unjust school or community practices.

From Alienation to Connection

Trauma creates feelings of alienation—and our Black youth need feelings of connection. Many Black youth now find themselves detached from community and family structures that no longer provide them adequate social bonds, guidance, or care (Assari et al., 2018). Seventy-two percent of Black children are born to unmarried mothers. For many of these kids, contact with their father drops off or ends within a few years (Bodenner, 2015).  

In our relationships with young people, it’s about supporting them, encouraging them, and letting them talk it out—being available for them as much as we can.

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Community support systems and resources have also been diminishing. Likewise, struggling urban schools are placed on the “chopping block” of closure, forcing low-income Black students out of their education communities. Mentoring is one powerful measure we can take to build stronger connections and relationships with Black youth, to involve them constructively with society and connect them to positive feelings about themselves and others. 
I attended Terrance’s funeral with Kyle. I wanted to support him in the loss of yet another peer, and I felt he needed a sounding board, a reliable and trustworthy figure to offer gentleness and calm. Mentors in R.E.A.L. have realized that we must be prepared to accept whatever way our mentees deal with grief, privately or openly, and ensure them that grief around the passing of a loved one has no time limit and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. For mentors of young people of color, sometimes support is just about taking the time to take the time, being tuned in to a student so you notice signs of depression or destructive behaviors. In our relationships with young people, it’s about supporting them, encouraging them, and letting them talk it out— being available for them as much as we can.
References

Assari, S., Thomas, A., Caldwell, C. H., & Mincy, R. B. (2018). Blacks’ diminished health return of family structure and socioeconomic status; 15 years of follow-up of a national urban sample of youth. Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of ­Medicine, 95(1), 21–35.

Bodenner, C. (2015, October 11). ‘The breakdown of the Black family,’ cont’d. The Atlantic.  

Boyd, D. T., Jones, K. V., Quinn, C. R., Gale, A., Williams, E. G., & Lateef, H. (2022). The mental health of Black youth affected by community violence: Family and school context as pathways to resilience. Children, 9(2), 259.  

Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention (n.d.). About Youth & Community Violence.

Morsy, L., & Rothstein, R. (2019, May 1). Toxic stress and children’s outcomes: African American children growing up poor are at greater risk of disrupted physiological functioning and depressed academic achievement. Economic Policy Institute.  

Patterson, O., & Fosse, E. (2015). The cultural matrix: Understanding Black youth. Harvard University Press. 

Horace R. Hall is a professor at DePaul University in Chicago and founder of the R.E.A.L. youth program. He is author or coauthor of many books, including Understanding Teenage Girls (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011) and Mentoring Young Men of Color (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).

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