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How a Coalition Creates Paths to Healing for Young Men of Color

5 men sit at a table in front of a laptop
Youth from the Brothers, Sons, Selves (BSS) coalition and assemblymember Isaac Bryan review findings from the BSS Safety and Youth Justice Survey. | Uriel Serrano
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Spa days, vacations and the general emphasis on leisure, while they can promote well-being, are often overrepresented as practices for self-care. These activities often place an emphasis on the individual while ignoring collective healing practices rooted in community. As Jeydon Vargas, a youth organizer with Brothers, Sons, Selves (BSS) recently reminded his comrades, community organizing is often tied to healing and youth justice. "People want justice because they want to heal," he says.

For Jeydon and other youth of color, justice is rooted in reclaiming and transforming the systems and institutions that criminalize them and their behaviors, but it is also about the need to address the emotional and psychological consequences of criminalization. Studies have shown that children and youth who witness violence and experience criminalization report struggling with mental health conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. For Black, Latinx and Indigenous children and youth, this is particularly the case given the over-policing of their neighborhoods and tribal lands.

When mental health is understood only as an issue stemming from an individual, then proposed solutions are also individually focused. While therapy and counseling are important to manage our day-to-day lives, they don’t always acknowledge and target systems of oppression that impact mental health. Brothers, Sons, Selves and other community organizations are responding by fostering life-affirming spaces for boys and men of color. An alliance of seven community-based organizations committed to transforming conditions of racialized criminalization, BSS members know intimately the toll anti-Blackness, transphobia and homophobia take on the lives of youth. BSS has created a space where youth of color are fully embraced, whether they are feminine, queer, Black, or Brown, and where they can engage in collective healing and create pathways for mental wellness.

Man in surrounded by fellow BSS members speaks out.
Brothers, Sons, Selves coalition manager David C. Turner III participates in a discussion on gender, sexuality, and intersectionality. | Uriel Serrano

Schools and over-policed neighborhoods are often sites of criminalization for boys and young men of color. As Manny shared during a virtual BSS talking circle on mental health, he struggles with paranoia because "a police officer or some random white lady or someone is going to just look at me and scream that I did something wrong...I might get shot by the police." Witnessing and experiencing constant criminalization reminds youth of color of their vulnerability to police violence. As Manny described, racialized policing confirms his suspicion that "the system really just doesn't like Black kids."

As part of BSS’s mission to address criminalization, the coalition engages in political education that situates the experience of Manny and other young men of color in a structural context. In other words, they help youth understand the history of policing and its rise in the United States, tracing it back to slavery, the colonization of Indigenous people and their lands, and policing globally. This political education allows youth to name the systems of inequality that directly impact 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, foster, queer, trans and femme-identified youth. Workshops informed by an understanding of difference, including how inequality is experienced differently or similarly across social identities, allows for an understanding of how personal and group challenges connect to larger economic, social and health inequalities. 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 programming — including healing circles and weekend retreats — when done with care, and in a manner relevant to youth, also provide young men like Lequan a space to be vulnerable. Lequan, a youth leader with BSS, named self-hate as a manifestation of oppression in his daily life; he pointed to the difficulty of speaking about trauma with his family because they also have trauma they haven’t healed from.

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

Research shows that adults and young people of color from high poverty backgrounds suffer from high levels of post-traumatic stress. Yet mental health discussions and concerns 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 especially, this is complicated by adultification, where children of color are more likely to be perceived as adult-like and less worthy of empathy and nurturing, which leads to a failure to listen to them.

In BSS healing circles and workshops, young men are encouraged to be vulnerable, and healing becomes about expressing their emotions. Talking through both pain and joy, the young men relate to one another, learn from each other and build trusting and loving relationships with each other and BSS staff. Weekly meetings begin with check-ins that invite youth and staff to reflect on their emotions, well-being and joy. Members nurture ongoing relationships via affirmations that remind all present how valuable and beautiful they are. Intentionally embracing love and care fosters an environment where youth a can show up as their full selves. These approaches counter punitive practices that are all too familiar for youth of color.

Approaches to well-being rooted in community, social justice, and collective healing are of particular importance to Jeydon and other youth because alternate resources, like mental health institutions, can be sites of trauma. Jeydon, who identifies as trans, shared his traumatic experience of transphobia in a psychiatric hospital: "Having 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'm going 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 name. I was put in isolation because they didn't know whether to put me with the boys or the girls." Reflecting on these experiences, Jeydon claimed that the "community has been there for me more than these systems."

Jeydon’s experience highlights how the refusal to recognize his gender identity is felt personally. On the other hand, BSS’s relationship-centered youth organizing affirms and embraces the young men and their identities. The relationship-centered approach includes building a community of trust where youth are allowed to engage in discussion and ask questions about notions of masculinity, sexuality, and gender, as well as the terminology and practices that promote queer and trans inclusivity. Topics can include the use of pronouns, disrupting the gender binary, and diversity in gender identities, gender expression and sexual orientation. As Jeydon shared, "simple things like asking for pronouns — you don't know how validating that feels to a kid."

Throughout the years, countless BSS youth have shared that these discussions are often not happening in schools. Yet, they are crucial for the mental health of young people, including queer and trans youth, as they give youth the language to name the ideologies that impact their well-being and enforce harmful gender binaries.

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

Learn more about youth mental health at www.wellbeings.org. Well Beings is public media initiative that addresses the critical health needs of Americans through broadcast content, original digital content, and impactful local events.

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