How Masculinity Training Is Curbing Teen Violence In Chicago

The art and science of Becoming A Man.

Changing gender roles are key to accelerating the culture shift around changing the way we work and live. Redefining Masculinity is an editorial package that investigates what it means to be a man in 2017—and beyond. Read more about the project here.

About two months ago, Anthony DiVittorio, 49, equal parts grizzled and joyful, and with a voice that hits the nasal Chicago “a” in the way only natives can, joined a circle of freshmen at a high school in the northwest of his city. This was a meeting of Becoming A Man, the mindful masculinity program he founded that teaches “social-emotional learning,” “mindfulness,” and “de-automatization,” without trotting out much of that jargon. To reach boys as they turn into men, it takes action. In this case, it's a drill pulled from military boot camp: hundreds of jumping jacks, then dozens of squats, push-ups and standing crunches called “steamrollers.”

The attitude isn’t “macho, patriarchal bullshit,” DiVittorio says, where you just have to man up and gut through all these exercises. Rather, the counselor asks the kids to use the skills they’re building—like mutual support and deep breathing—to get through the ordeal. But instead they laughed, complained and generally half-assed it.

Afterward, the students, DiVittorio and the counselor sat in the circle talking about—processing—what they’d just done. When asked if they’d completed the mission, the students murmured yes, they had, at least technically.

“Do I have your permission to challenge you?” DiVittorio asked. They said yes, so he did. The guys hooped and hollered through their classroom workout, but didn’t support each other like they intended. “Where’s the integrity with that?” he added. The room paused, the guys looked at each other, and then came what DiVittorio refers to as a “Scooby Doo Moment”: something clicked for a student, and his tone of voice changed, along with the energy in the room. “We’re not going out like that,” a student said, showing leadership, and got the rest of the boys to go through the same grueling exercises with extreme focus. Then they processed the experience in the circle again. “What’s it like to be back in integrity?” DiVittorio asked.

This is the essence of Becoming a Man, which DiVittorio founded through the Chicago nonprofit Youth Guidance in 2001. Since then, BAM has gone from having one counselor—DiVittorio—to 79, and will serve some 6,000 students across Chicago in the forthcoming academic year. The program has drawn the backing of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and President Barack Obama. This fall, BAM will expand into a new city for the first time, with a pilot program of 150 young men in three schools in Boston.

In BAM’s version of mindful masculinity, boys learn to articulate their values, are trained in social-emotional skills to live in accordance with them and are held accountable when they slip up. When asked by researchers about the impact the program had on them, kids’ responses are peppered with two key words: “want,” in the form of career goals and better relationships, and “keep,” as in persisting through challenges when they’d otherwise give up.

The program is also a leader in bringing evidence-based, real-world interventions to the front of the public policy conversation. In partnership with the University of Chicago, BAM has been studied in randomized control trials, the gold standard of social science research. Results have been promising: A 2013 analysis found that within a randomly assigned sample of 2,740 youths, participating in the program was associated with a 44 percent reduction in violent crime arrests. A 2017 follow-up study in the prestigious Quarterly Journal of Economics found similar violent-crime arrest reductions, greater engagement at school and increased graduation rates by 12 to 19 percent.

BAM is a ray of calm light within the storm of American aggression. While the national crime rate is still about half of its peak in 1991—a trend at odds with public perception—a handful of cities are driving a recent increase in murder. According to a recent New York University report, Chicago, Baltimore and Houston account for about half of the increase in murder rates in major cities between 2014 and 2016. Since gun violence tends to happen between people who already know each other, a relational program like BAM might be especially suited to solve the problem.

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