When the room is quiet: Fostering a safe space for young men
Several teenage boys sit leisurely around two grayish, plastic folding tables in matching plastic folding chairs. A few boys reach eagerly to grab chips with salsas and cheese dips. It’s quieter than the usual sessions.
Three men, facilitators of the group, sit among the boys. One of the men asks, “What do you want to talk about today?” One boy, leaning forward and looking down, says softly, “Something happy. I don’t want to talk about bad stuff.” Another man, a prominent father figure to most of the boys asks, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Over the next hour, each boy details their future plans and dreams of school, careers, and families. The three men counsel the boys on how to plan smart and to find their passions, while making good money where possible. There’s more energy as the boys share and debate life paths.
The boys are part of Brothers Rising, a component of the Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health (PASS) program, a community-based participatory research program. It’s a pilot program for teen boys to examine their male identity; understand the impact of masculinity on sexual health, safety, and violence; and become peer navigators for healthy intimate relationships . Community members helped recruit boys between the ages of 13 to 18 and provide space to meet for an hour, twice per week. My role as a researcher was to observe and record the happenings each week. Urban’s goal is to develop a place-based program model that can be replicated in other communities seeking to address adolescent sexual health needs.
I am sitting with the group, mainly listening, offering a few guiding questions to consider. As I sit and listen, I keep recalling that these boys lost a friend to gun violence a few days earlier. The questions about life goals may be painful amidst an environment of loss where someone close—a son of one of the facilitators, a brother of one of the boys—has recently and violently passed away. But the questions may also heal. Every now and again there’s a pause leaving the room silent. In those moments I feel a little bit of pain and awkwardness. I wonder if they feel it, too. The pain of loss and anger. A pain you don’t know what to do with. It’s an awkwardness of continuing routines when your mind and heart are elsewhere.
I find some relief knowing that here, in this space, the boys are safe. They are allowed to sit, be still, and heal. The boys are reminded of how much their lives matter and that we wish to see them fulfill their potential. It might be just an hour or two, but their conversations would carry on in near-by households, where the community facilitators and the boys would discuss questions and reflect on content and learnings from the group meetings.
Talking with teenagers not only about sex, but also about broader struggles in life requires more than a safe physical space; it requires trust and support from the adult facilitators and peer relationships within the group, throughout the neighborhood. The boys contributed greatly to the accessibility and warmth of the space by freely sharing their experiences, highlighting problems and opportunities within the community, and at the same time expressing sadness, confusion and fear. They asked real questions about love and building supportive, healthy relationships. The presence and leadership of three trusted men from the community allowed the boys to engage on their own terms, encouraging them to be their honest selves. The boys intently assessed, challenged, and affirmed different parts of their identities and experiences as young men of color.
The boys owned their space to build an experience together. They present another reminder of the high level of openness and vulnerability young men allow when given the space and attention; a time for relief. PASS contributed to creating a safe space to foster a transformative process for youth—to improve their personal relationships, but also the way they relate to the world and respond to the chaos that often surrounds them.