Transcription of the episode “Crises and opportunity: A holistic approach to supporting and empowering youth”

Amy H-L: [00:00:01] Hi, I’m Amy Halpern-Laff

Jon M: [00:00:02] And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. In light of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests, we’ll listen to the conversation I had with Jason Warwin, Co-founder and Associate Executive Director of The Brotherhood/ Sister Sol, Bro/Sis, a Harlem-based organization that provides comprehensive support services for Black and Brown youth. First we’ll check in with Jason. Hi, Jason.

Jason W: [00:00:24] Hi, Jon. Hi, Amy.

Amy H-L: [00:00:26] Jason, how have your members and community been impacted by the pandemic and how have you been able to support them?

Jason W: [00:00:35] Yeah. So our community in general has been affected in the same ways that, you know, folks across the City, and unfortunately, across the country, have been affected. It’s been a really difficult time period for a lot of the families that we support. And we’ve been trying to do the best we can as an organization, to assist with physical needs as well as social and emotional needs at this really difficult time.

One of the first things we did when we closed our doors on March 16th was to send out a survey to 500 families that we support to get a sense of their needs during this difficult time. And we were really interested in looking at their needs in terms of food insecurity. And we knew that, you know, a lot of our families had lost their jobs. We were hearing that there wasn’t enough food in many of the households. And so one of the things we immediately started doing was a food distribution every two weeks, a major food distribution. So every two weeks now we’re giving out to 400 families about two weeks worth of groceries, fresh produce, as well as boxed goods.

We’re also dealing with emergency financial needs. The loss of jobs has meant that folks don’t have money for basic needs, whether that’s medicines, whether that’s basic healthcare supplies, can’t pay their bills. So we’ve been distributing direct cash to our community in the form of checks and direct deposits to bank accounts to help them support them with these, you know, everyday needs. We’ve probably given out about $50,000, a little over $50,000 in direct emergency funds in that form.

Another initial need that we dealt with right away was for laptops, for computers and technology at home. All of our young folks had to begin doing virtual classes, and many of them didn’t have the technology at home to be able to do that. So we gave away about 60 computers as well as wifi hotspots because many of them didn’t have wifi at home. So these are the kinds of hotspots that you can utilize wherever you are to gain wifi access.

And another major support that we’ve always provided our young folks, but we’ve seen a really increased need now, is in the area of mental health that our young folks are really dealing with. Increased anxiety, increased depression. There’s also a sense of kind of lack of motivation, just seeing their, their senior year, for example, deteriorate in terms of dreams of graduation ceremony, or dreams of a prom, the idea that, you know, online classes. Folks have come to a point now where they’re really unable to sit in front of a computer for extended periods of time. It is really draining. So thinking about how do we best support them, help uplift their spirits. And we do that in a variety of different ways. Our staff are continuing to have all of their virtual sessions. All of our members are engaged in weekly virtual sessions. But in addition to that, we have mental health providers who are providing one-on-one counseling for anyone within our community who needs it. So those are some of the things that we’ve been doing over the course of the last few months to try and ensure that we are providing the best services and support to our members in our community that we can..

Jon M: [00:04:15] Wow. And on top of that,  there was the murder of George Floyd and the reaction since then. What advice, if any, have you been giving members about participating in the Black Lives Matter protests?

Jason W: [00:04:30] Yeah. You know, this, this is a really a difficult time to be a young person of color, a young Black or Latino person within this environment. The reality of police brutality, the reality of racism, is something that we grew up with. It’s something that we know, but to see it so blatantly and horrifically laid out, you know, on the screen, it’s just another level of pain. And so a lot of the young people that we’re dealing with are just, you know, trying to put into context what they’re seeing and hoping that there will be some form of justice in the aftermath of this.

But you know, the question of what justice really looks like. I mean, even if those four police officers go to jail. Is that really justice? Does that really change the system that we’re living in? And so I think people are out on the streets now because they realize it’s not just about those few, those four officers or the quote unquote few bad apples that are in the barrel. It’s a systemic problem. And so we’re helping young people to begin to think about what does, what does real change look like? And so that’s one side of it, helping them to develop their critical thinking skills, their kind of understanding and awareness of the social justice issues that are broader than just these few police officers.

And then the other side is really just trying to ensure that they are safe when they’re out there, know that they know what their rights are, that they are trying to avoid confrontations with the police because despite, you know, the general fact that there has been relatively little violence here in New York City, we have seen many, many cases of police abusing their authority. And they continue to do that, you know, with protestors, peacefully protesting here in the City. So we’re going out with our members and protesting with them. We’re planning actions for the coming weeks, but we’re also just trying to make sure that they are able to raise their voices, but to do that in as safe a way as possible.

Amy H-L: [00:06:39] Well, obviously it’s difficult to predict, but what do you expect Bro/Sis programming to look like over the next several months?

Jason W: [00:06:48] So that’s something, you know, we’ve been planning, various options. We were really hoping that we would be able to do in-person programming this summer. We had lots of summer programs planned. The problem is that it looks like the governor and the mayor will not be lifting the pause completely for youth development programs. So we’ll most likely have to do a virtual programming. 

Most of our programming will be virtual this summer, but in the midst of that, we will continue to organize and we will continue to collaborate with our partners and try to find ways to really capitalize on this moment in time. You know, this is a really unique opportunity we have with so many people upset about the way in which the system has treated Black folks. And it’s an opportunity for us to really push for some real systemic change. And that’s going to be as much a part of our summer as anything else.  

Jon M: [00:07:47] Thanks Jason. And now we go to our conversation with Jason from June, 2019.

Jon M: [00:08:02] Hi, I’m Jon Moscow. This is Ethical Schools podcast, where we talk about how to create ethical and inclusive learning environments to support students becoming capable of and committed to creating a more equitable world. Today, we’re speaking with Jason Warwin. Jason is Associate Executive Director and Co-founder of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, an internationally known youth organization based in Harlem. He advocates for a comprehensive, holistic approach to youth development and is a specialist in the design of transformative programs and experiences. His focus during the past two decades has been creating programs that directly support the development of Black and Latino youth in the Americas. Welcome Jason. 

Jason W: [00:08:43] Thank you, Jon. Good to be here. 

Jon M: [00:08:45] Ethics seems to be at the core of what Bro/Sis does. What would be some examples of how this works in practice?

Jason W: [00:08:53] So, yes, certainly ethics is one of the core components of our work and our model. And our Rites of Passage program really begins with bringing groups of young men or groups of young women together and having them create a safe space or what we call an intentional community. And I think the best way to understand how ethics gets involved is to understand the stages, right. So the first stage of bringing together a group of young folks is helping them to bond, helping them to develop an understanding of who’s in the room, helping them to take off the mask that a lot of young people wear when they come in contact with each other. And when you’re able to create that kind of a safe space, you’re then able to help the young folks to open up. And to talk about their lives and their beliefs. And this is where the first kind of component of our ethics works come in. We really begin to help young men to think about what does it mean to be a man or young women thinking about what does it really mean to be a woman? So all of our young folks have to define within their group as a collective. What does it mean to be a man, a brother or a leader, or what it means to be a woman, a sister or a leader. And so in defining these ideals, they are creating their kind of ethical values for the group. In addition to that, they have to create a mission statement. And this again is an opportunity for them to think about what is our purpose together? What are the ideals that we want to live by? What are the ways we want to treat each other? So their value system, their ethics, their morals, all come into play when we’re having these conversations

Jon M: [00:10:32] How do young people come in contact with you?

Jason W: [00:10:35] So generally, we form partnerships with public schools. Um, we’re based in West Harlem on 143rd street. So we have partnerships with schools in West Harlem, Central Harlem, East Harlem, and Washington Heights. And we recruit from within those schools.

We have a cohort model and we have intensive longterm involvement with our young folks. So if it’s a secondary school, we’ll generally start with the kids in sixth or seventh grade and stay with them all the way through graduation of high school. Or if it’s a traditional four year high school, we’ll start with the kids in the ninth grade and stay with them for four years until they graduate.

Jon M: [00:11:12] One of Bro/Sis’s best known programs is the Rites of Passage. What is that? And how does it work?

Jason W: [00:11:20] Yeah, so the Rites of Passage program is our kind of flagship program. It’s what we started with. And when we first started the organization, we were just known as The Brotherhood. So we were only working with young boys and expanded after three years. And for basically two decades now, we’ve been working with young men and young women, but our Rites of Passage program is a single sex program. So we have programs for boys and programs for girls, chapters for boys and chapters for girls. And essentially there are four phases to the program.

As I mentioned, you know, the first phase is what we call bonding and community building, where the young people are really coming together, creating a name for themselves, having all kinds of fun activities where they are getting to know each other, opening up. And establishing a bond, really creating a safe space where they feel comfortable talking about what’s going on in their lives. We meet with them on a weekly basis for a two hour meeting. And those sessions always start out with a check-in. I mean, that’s really just an opportunity for the young folks to go around in a circle and talk about what’s happened in their lives since the last meeting. And as you can imagine in the initial stages, that’s a sometimes superficial things, you know, “Oh, I went to see a movie this weekend” or “so and so got into a fight this weekend.” But over time, those sessions become deeper and deeper. And members really begin to talk about everything that’s going on in their lives, their personal views, and what’s going on in their families, and their emotions. As the space becomes safer, the young folks become more and more comfortable to open up.

And at the end of that first phase of the program, that first year in the program, the members have to commit to creating a brotherhood or sisterhood. And so they create a name for themselves, they create a mission statement and they create the definitions. So if it’s a young women’s group, they create a definition of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a sister, and what it means to be a leader. And if it’s a young boys group, then they create a definition of what it needs to be a brother, what it means to be a man or what it means to be leader. And they define these things specifically because these are the ideals that as a group, they’re going to be striving to live by. So the mission statement is what holds them together. The definition of man or woman is what they’re striving to achieve. The definition of brother or sister is how they’re going to treat each other and other folks in their lives. And the definition of leader. For us, it’s kind of unique because you know, there are some who believe that there are leaders and there are followers, and we actually believe that everyone should be a leader. Everyone should see themselves as a leader. Everyone should be able to define for themselves what they believe in,  make wise decisions in their lives and guide themselves along the positive path. And that’s what we feel it means to be a leader. 

The second phase of the program is where we begin to engage them in deeper conversations around our focus issues. And so that’s what we call critical thinking and global awareness and developing knowledge of self. We want them to understand how race and class and gender all intertwine within our society. We want them to have a broader understanding of the effects of drugs on our communities and on our bodies. We want them to have an understanding of homophobia and its effects and environmental justice, et cetera, so that they begin to develop a broad understanding of the issues that affect their lives, but also begin to think about how to overcome the challenges and how to create change.

And the third phase of the program, or the third year, they begin to develop a personal oath of dedication. So this is a personal statement, a personal testimony to the world of who they are and what they believe in and what they want to achieve with their lives. For many of us in this world, you know, we have never had to actually put down on paper what it is we believe in, what it is we want to accomplish, but we ask our youth to go through that process at a young age to really define their beliefs and define what they want to achieve with their lives.

And then in the last phase, it’s really about a lifetime commitment. Now you stood on your own two feet. You’ve stated to the world, you know, who you are, what you believe in, and now it’s time to live by those ideas. So they take on a leadership role within the organization. They begin to work with younger kids in the organization. But they’re also at a stage where they’re really thinking about the next step in their lives, which is either in college or the workforce or going out into the world and making their mark. 

Jon M: [00:15:46] What do you think it is–I mean, there are obviously a lot of youth organizations. What do you think makes Bro/Sis such as transformative experience for young people?

Jason W: [00:15:58] I think the bottom line is the level of commitment that our staff have to the young people we serve. So one, when we bring people into our organization, we ask them to make a minimum four year commitment. As I said, we work on a cohort model, so we want our staff to be here throughout that process. And so when you look at our staff now, I think the average tenure is actually closer to a decade. Folks come into our organization and they tend to stay. Over half of our staff, our programmatic staff, now are alumni of the organization. So these are young folks who’ve come through the program, gone off to school, gained an education, and come back now and are working with younger folks who are just like them. So there is a level of family within the organization, that sense of family, that sense of home, that sense of this is not just an institution.

This is a place of love. And I think the young folks who come into our organization really feel that, and that is addictive. You know, that feeling of community, all of our staff were on 24/7 call. Right. And so it’s expected that any young person that you work with, is a part of your program, they have your cell phone number and they know that they can call on you at any time, for any reason.

There are some programs that are specifically focused on academics or specifically focused on sports. Our organization does all of it, where we see a young person and try to support the whole child. Right. So there isn’t any call that could come in where we’d say, well, that’s not what really, that’s not really what we deal with. And kids see that and they feel that and understand that. And I think that keeps kids involved and engaged in our organization. And lastly, I think, you know, the way we talk about the organization is that it’s, uh, it’s forever, right. That you join us. You become a part of our family and you are a part of our family for the rest of your life. And I think we have, you know, 20 years worth of young people, who’ve been through our organization and who are committed to the ideals that they’ve stated for themselves since the beginning. And I think as the young folks coming in see that, but they also recognize that they’re a part of something much bigger than simply a youth development organization. 

Jon M: [00:18:17] So obviously from what you’re saying, selection of staff is obviously really key. How do you select staff? What the process, both in terms of logistics and also what are you looking for? 

Jason W: [00:18:30] Yeah, so we are, you know, we’re very selective about the folks who we bring into the organization. We really have kind of a fourfold process for bringing in folks, especially folks who are going to be working directly with youth. And so we have the  traditional requests for resumes and cover letters and, you know, reviewing those for people’s background and experience. And that is the first kind of cut we would make when we’re hiring.

But then we have an interview, a first interview where we will go through their experience. And we generally want folks who have worked in youth development in other places first. For the most part, we’re not hiring youth development folks who this is their first time working with kids. So we’re looking for folks who have experience. It’s a benefit to have a certain level of education, you know, to have a BA and even a master’s, but that’s not a requirement. And indeed, you know, we have had some of our youth development staff who do not have degrees who’ve been some of our best youth workers, but we go through that second phase of the cut. 

And then there’s a third phase, which if they made the first two cuts involves really getting into a deeper conversation about their ideas, about their values and their ethics, and do they match that of our own? So we will give them scenarios and ask how they would deal with certain kinds of scenarios. If a child were to come to you and tell you that they were pregnant, how would you deal with that? If a young person came to you and said that they thought they were gay, how would you respond to that young person?  And give them scenarios to see how they would act in the moment. And to kind of understand what their ethical views are around some of the more controversial issues. 

If they pass that round, and the final round is they come in and they actually facilitate a workshop for a group of young people, and we observe that workshop and we get feedback from the young people themselves.

And that’s how we make our final determination. So it’s not an easy process to get in. And, uh, I think it’s one of the reasons why, you know, we have been successful as well in terms of really making sure that we hire the right people to work within our organization.

But it also, I think, speaks volumes to the youth and to the staff who’ve come in themselves how seriously we take this work and it’s not, we don’t believe it’s not just anyone that can do this. We really are looking for folks who are extremely dedicated and extremely skilled. 

Jon M: [00:21:03] One of the things that I know that Bro/Sis does is an international studies program. And obviously a lot of the youth that you’re working with, you know, have not gone internationally before. In fact, a lot of them haven’t gone necessarily out of their neighborhood before. So why do you see this as important? What does it look like? And, and probably most importantly is what do the young people, you know, tell you or show you is the effect? 

Jason W: [00:21:32] Yeah. So the International Study Program is one of the most transformative opportunities we provide for young people. Every summer we take four weeks and travel overseas to a foreign nation where we study the history of the culture, the politics, the language. And the program really starts in January. So this year, for example, we are traveling to Cuba in July and we selected the group in January. And since January, over the last six months, the students who are traveling have been studying about the history and the politics of Cuba. And so these students will have an opportunity to travel there this summer as long as Trump’s travel ban does not hold us back. For many of the kids, as you pointed out, uh, this is the first time they’ll be leaving the city, the state first time on a plane for some of them. And for those of us who have been blessed with the opportunity to travel before, we know that travel is such an amazing education, that it opens our minds and opens doors. It expands our horizons. And that is really what we are looking for in terms of these opportunities for the youth who are a part of our organization, that they begin to see themselves, not just as quote unquote citizens of New York or the United States, but of the world, and that they recognize that the world is their domain. In addition, that they begin to recognize and see that the way we do things here in the United States is not the only way to do them, that there are many other forms of government out there. There are many other forms of politics, and there are many other cultures and we have a lot to learn from those cultures.

So it’s an incredible opportunity.  We have traveled to in the past 20 years, we’ve traveled to South Africa. We traveled to Morocco. We traveled to Egypt. We traveled to Ghana on the continent of Africa. We’ve traveled to Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Caribbean; we’ve traveled to Brazil. So we have been to various places throughout the world, always kind of looking at the African diaspora and the ways in which the peoples of Africa have been treated within these countries, but also in the ways in which culture and politics and environments have merged to create various societies around the world. So it’s an incredible opportunity. 

Jon M: [00:24:01] And as an organization, you’ve also organizationally done stuff overseas, such as I believe in Brazil. And you’ve worked with a group in Bermuda. Can you talk about that at all?

Jason W: [00:24:13] Sure. Since the beginning, we have been training other organizations to do the work that we do. And so over the last, I’d say about 10 years we have taken that work of training and consulting with other CEOs and schools international. And so about 10 years ago,we were invited to Bermuda to work with a group of educators there. Um, they had found out about our work. They were experiencing problems on the Island with extreme violence, amongst young men and gangs, and they wanted to do an intervention and start a positive project for young men.

And so we actually went out there, trained the educators and they actually ended up hiring one of our alumni to work there and to stay with them leading the program. So that program went on for about four years in the Island of Bermuda. I, myself, my wife is Brazilian. And we moved to Brazil in 2006.  And while I was there, I ended up connecting with a group of educators and we established a formal branch of our organization, of our Rites of Passage program there called Irmãos Unidos, which means brothers united. Um, and that program has been going strong. It’s  now in its ninth year, basically replicating our Rites of Passage model with a group of young men in  a town called Arenbepe. And you know, one of the things that I’ve learned, I’ve trained groups in Boston. We’ve got folks there, a program called Young Man with a Plan and the Boston Coalition for Boys and they are doing the work, wonderful work, up there for about five years now. Uh, this type of work is needed everywhere, you know, providing opportunities for young people to come together, create a safe space, support each other, define their beliefs, their ideals, their values, their ethics, and support each other in achieving positive goals in their life. You know, it’s a natural way of creating support systems to support young people into adulthood. And so we have been fortunate to be able to do it in many different places and we’re looking forward to continuing to spread the word.

Jon M: [00:26:28] So as you train people or help people form their organizations, whether nationally or internationally, what are the key elements? You know, if somebody was wanting to start The Botherhood/Sister Sol, what would someone do? Cause you’ve obviously seen lots of organizations that have succeeded and lots of organizations that haven’t, or have done part of what they wanted to do. So what do you think are the key elements? 

Jason W: [00:26:51] Well, there’s two different kind of ways I can take that question. One is if you want to start a new organization, right. That’s, that’s a whole endeavor in and of itself. It’s another thing to start a new program within an existing organization. Right. I would say to the first part, you know, in terms of starting a nonprofit, you know, that’s a huge endeavor and the only way we found that it worked was by having individuals who are willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that it’s successful. Right. And that extends from the founders themselves, you know, who are the kind of on the ground leadership, to the board. And we have only grown to the point we’ve grown because we’ve had many, many hands helping to build this organization over the years. So, uh, lots of inspired people who’ve given their time and energy to making it successful. 

But generally when we are supporting the development of Rites of Passage programming in other places, it’s within an existing institution. Um, sometimes it’s a new, a new startup, but a lot of times, you know, it’s a school, for example, that wants to start this, or even a nonprofit. They have programming, but they’re looking for something different. They’re looking for a unique opportunity. And in that sense, what we have found is that one, you obviously need leadership that has bought into the idea, but you have to have the folks who are on the ground, the front lines, the direct youth workers, who are also really committed to the idea. It can’t be a top down process. It has to be a collective kind of perspective that this is the direction we need to head in. And there has to be a real commitment to the work. This is not the type of program where we can just hand you a curriculum and you can take it and walk away with it. It’s really a type of program where the staff need to be responsive to the young people that they’re dealing with.

So we can give you for example, a list of workshops that you can run. But the reality is that if the young people in your community are dealing with a particular kind of issue, then you need to be dealing, creating workshops to address those issues that they’re dealing with. You can’t just take a cookie cutter workshop and utilize it because you’re not going to address the real specific needs of the young people you’re supporting. So it takes a lot of work, you know, it takes a lot of time. And I find that sometimes folks are looking for an easy solution and unfortunately there are no easy solutions to the numerous problems that face the young folks that we’re dealing with.

Jon M: [00:29:34] I know that one thing that you and Khary have talked about is the idea that Bro/Sis sort of combines direct service with young people, advocacy and training. Is this a core element or is this something that you found really works for you? So somebody else is wanting to sort of emulate you. Do you think that’s a mix that’s critical?

Jason W: [00:29:58] I think if you’re trying to emulate us with fidelity, then yes. There are many folks who are taking bits and pieces of what we do and incorporating it into their work. And I think that’s fine as well. I think, you know, when we’re partnering with other organizations, you know, we’re really just trying to share what we do and what we have found over the last 23 years works well. And I think it’s really important that folks take those ideas and figure out what works best for their community. As an organization, we’ve always been pressured to grow, whether that’s from foundations or just from other, you know, young people and parents who want us to expand, to be able to work with their young folks, but we’ve always kind of held back on that, you know. And so we really want to emphasize quality over quantity. Right. So really making sure that we’re working deeply and holistically, um, with the young people we serve as opposed to branching out and providing more superficial support to many more kids. But we’re also very open to sharing our model. Like we’re not at all harboring or hiding our success. We really want folks to be able to learn from what it is that we’re doing. So I think the challenge with that in terms of the replication is that everyone’s not able to replicate all that we do. 

We have found that in helping young people and providing direct youth development support, we do that with an eye on oppression, with an eye on the challenges that young people face. And so when you’re dealing with young folks and you’re talking to them constantly about the issues that they face today, and that historically our people have faced, it can be somewhat demoralizing if you’re not also talking about, well, how do you change these problems? How do you overcome these challenges? How do you create a different system that will be better for our people? And so it’s a natural progression to go from the youth development work into the youth organizing work. And that’s actually how we started. When we started, we were just a Rites of Passage program. And then a few years later we established the Liberation Program, which was our youth organizing work specifically for that reason that we wanted to have a program that was dedicated to helping to generate the next, you know, the future organizers and activists of our society. And some of our kids were really interested in that, but not necessarily all of them. So we wanted to create a space for those kids could come together and could be really guided in that process of learning about the history of struggle. But then also thinking about how do they take those lessons and use them practically today. To create change in the here and now and in the future, um, so those two pieces to us go hand in hand, youth development, youth organizing,  activism, et cetera.

And then, you know, the policy work and the advocacy work as we are supporting young people and seeing all the difficulties they face within the school system, within the  quote unquote criminal justice system, within housing, et cetera. You know, it’d behoove us to try to change these systems to improve the lives of the youth that we serve. So we do a lot of advocacy as staff, and we do a lot of organizing in conjunction with our youth to try to change those conditions. 

And the last piece, I’ll just say, in terms of the training and the work that we do with educators and with the organizations, to try and help them to improve their work. For us, it’s just another way of kind of giving back to the community to share the information, the knowledge that we’ve gained and try to expand and spread the word, but not necessarily through our own organization. How can we do this by helping other people to replicate these kinds of results within their own communities and to a certain degree in their own way?

And we’re not necessarily trying to make everything replicate our model exactly. We can present it as this is what works for us. And folks have to kind of take that. 

Jon M: [00:34:04] You mentioned organizing themes, being oppression, and the fact that that can be very demoralizing, you know, if it’s not also accompanied with sort of with action and with another view of the world, and I sort of have a couple of questions off of that. One is when we were talking with Eva Lopez, who does Act 4 Change, which is a Theater of the Oppressed group in the Bronx, she was talking about how often people from communities, young people, even older people who felt that their voices never get heard and that nobody considers them significant, a lot of times end up sort of taking the anger out, let’s say, or their frustration out on each other. And so I was wondering what you’ve seen in terms of if young people are coming in, some young people are coming in, with that kind of perspective, how you’re able to help them, you know, move past it. And then a second question is in terms of demoralization, how have you found the young people who you’re working with today and that you’ve been working with since say 2016, um, reacting to the general political climate and to Trump and so on. Have you seen the significant change in how the young people are feeling and what they feel they can do and what they feel needs to be done? 

Jason W: [00:35:34] So, you know, in terms of the first part of your question, um, you know, certainly within our communities, you unfortunately see a lot of self destructive behavior.  Right. So, and in working with young people, you know, they replicate the larger society that they live in. Right. So whether that’s the language they use towards each other, um, you know, the way that young boys are to young women or to each other. And similarly, the language of our community is often times very derogatory. 

And I think that one of the problems that we see around this kind of self destructive behavior is that, you know, for a lot of us, and I’ll use myself as an example, you know, growing up as a young man of color in East Harlem in the eighties in New York City, you know, I saw myself as public enemy number one. You know, I saw myself as being oppressed and sought after by the police. I saw myself, um, dealing with issues of racism from just passersby and just growing up in the neighborhood. And I never really thought about my ability to oppress others. So although I was seeing myself as an oppressed person, I didn’t necessarily think about, all the time, my ability to oppress women or as a heterosexual, my identity to oppress gay or lesbian folk. And I think that took a lot of learning for me to understand that some of the language that I used and the ways in which I behaved was also oppressive, perhaps, to other people. Um, and so I see with the young people we serve that they, they just haven’t learned necessarily the dynamics of oppression and how they can feed into that. And so that takes a lot of unlearning things that they’ve learned in society and really beginning to develop, as we’ve talked about already, kind of, their effort, their values, their kind of worldview, their moral compass, you know. They have to define for themselves what they believe is right. And then once we help them to define that, then we can look at any particular behavior, whether that’s language or whether that’s the way they’re treating someone or whether that’s, how they’re, what decision they’re going to make in any given scenario, and use that definition of man or brother or leader, or those values that they’ve set for themselves as the compass to decide which way to go. And I think that’s one of the ways in which we, as an organization, address this problem within our society is by helping young people to define for themselves what they believe in. And as they do that, then they are better able to navigate all the various challenges, which at times are pushing them to do negative behavior, even self destructive behavior. So, I’m not sure if I answered all of your questions, but 

Jon M: [00:38:37] So when you talk about they’re developing their moral compass, and so the organization, Bro/Sis, helps the young people see what some of the options of an ethical moral compass are? I mean, how would you say that, you know, people in the group do develop sort of a collective compass or a compass that that’s ethical from, from your concept of what ethical is. 

Jason W: [00:39:04] I mean, there’s many different ways, but the main way is through having them define for themselves as a collective, what are their values? Right. So if we define, I’ll just give you an example, if we say, what is a brother? Right. And then we asked the group to define that. So they’ll say things like, you know, a brother is someone who has your back. A brother is someone who tells you the truth, who supports you. A brother is someone who respects women. You know, they, they will come up to these ideas themselves through discussion, through debate, until we narrow down a list that everyone in the room can live by. And then what ends up happening is when things occur in their lives where they do something that is contradictory to that value system that they’ve now created, that creates an opportunity for us to open the conversation. So one of the members goes and, you know, spreads a lie about another member. Wait a second. Didn’t we say that a brother tells the truth? Like we’ll have that conversation. And it will force the young person to really think about this term, you know, hypocrisy, right. 

We’re unfortunately in a society filled with hypocrites, but that’s about the worst thing that you can be called in our organization. The idea is that you define what you believe in and then you live by it. Right. And I think through conversation and through opportunities to be with each other over time, no one lives up to their ideals a hundred percent of the time. We all make mistakes. But that’s what ends up helping us to develop a stronger moral compass is that as we make mistakes, when we learn from those, when we reflect on those, when we have opportunities to talk about that, when we are in a community of folks who all have a common kind of value system that we’re pushing each other to live by, that is what helps us to begin to shape our moral compass. And that’s what ends up happening in our Rites of Passage program over the course of time. 

Jon M: [00:41:02] So speaking of moral compass, the second part of my question was how are members reacting to Trump, to the world in the last couple of years? Have things changed or, you know, what do you sense? 

Jason W: [00:41:15] It’s a really, it’s a really sad time, um, to be in this nation, not that I could ever think of a happy time, you know, in terms of our government, so to speak. But obviously we’re at a really low point and I think, you know, different members of our organization are taking that differently. There are some, you know, we have folks who are first generation. We have folks who are undocumented. You know, we have folks who are really suffering under this administration in  real serious ways. And we have this spectrum. We have other folks who just, you know, are realizing that the system doesn’t work. You know, when you think about this United States being a quote unquote democracy, and yet no, the person who gets the most votes doesn’t necessarily win, I think there’s a lot of demoralization in that sense around what is this government that, you know, we claim as our own. What I have seen, in terms of their wellbeing, and this is not anything new, is that we have many, many young people who are extremely depressed, you know, who don’t necessarily see a future for themselves, a positive future for themselves, don’t necessarily see happiness, you know. And I think part of what our objective is, is to help them to recognize that they are loved and that they have a community of people who love them. And that there is a possibility of a different way. And I think a lot of what we’re trying to do for young people is just to open up their minds to the possibility that things can get better and that they have not only an opportunity, but an obligation to work towards that. 

Jon M: [00:43:08] Well, I just have one question. You talked about having, you know,  sort of a spectrum of living situations that kids are in. How do you relate to families? What do you find in terms of how families relate to you? Is it an integral part of your work? Is it different with different members? Um, what do you find in general over the last, I guess almost 25 years that you’ve been doing this? 

Jason W: [00:43:33] I guess you could say that it falls along the spectrum. You know, we work with kids from the age of eight to 22, young folks. And so certainly within our elementary school programs, the young youngest kids, um, we have a lot more intensive involvement with the parents. And less so with the high school students, What we have found is that there are obviously parents who are extremely engaged in their kids’ lives and want to know every single thing that the child is doing and, you know, are not allowing them to do certain things because they’re so protective. And then on the other side of the spectrum, you’ve got parents who, you know, will allow their child to travel with us internationally and barely know us. So, you know,  there’s a range of situations. But for the most part, what we find is that at first parents, you know, kind of assume that we’re just like any other organization, but because we work with kids for basically a minimum of four years, and it’s usually a lot longer than that, over time, they recognize that this is an extension of their family, that our organization is not just another institution that they’re a part of, but a group that is helping their child develop over the course of their adolescence and kind of an extension of their families. So we’ve got really strong relationships with most of the families and we’re entering now because we’re in the 20 year mark, we’re having second generation family members participate in our organization. So some of our youth who are now grown and have their own kids, and those kids are now beginning to enter into our elementary school programs. So we’re creating those kinds of cycles as well. 

Jon M: [00:45:23] That’s really exciting that you both have, I think you said over half or about half of your program staff are, are graduates of the program and now you’re having graduates of the program who are, or having kids of their own in the program. 

Thank you very much for this.

So if people want to know more about Jason’s work and about Bro/Sis, you can check out their website, You can also check out our website,, where you can see our articles and our podcast episodes and subscribe to the Ethical Schools podcast and newsletter. We’re on Twitter @ethicalschools and Facebook. We just got on Instagram. Till next week, this is Ethical Schools. 

Jason W: [00:46:10] Thanks, Jon. Take care. 

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