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Helping Boys Become Men—and Stay Alive in Chicago

By Rob Waters

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President Obama sits in on a BAM circle during a 2013 visit to Hyde Park Career Academy in Chicago. Photo: Pete Souza, White House

I visited Chicago in January when it was very cold and two issues were dominating the local news. A stream of stories focused on police shootings of young black men in a city where 70 people—mostly black males—were fatally shot by police from 2010 through 2014. And the city’s school district, faced with a deficit of nearly $1 billion, was hatching plans to close more schools while the governor and some legislative leaders threatened a state takeover.

I had gone to Chicago on behalf of the Thrive Foundation to meet Anthony Di Vittorio, the founder of a program called Becoming a Man, or BAM, and to sit in on a BAM circle—a discussion group for high-school boys that is the cornerstone of the BAM program. It’s an experience I share with President Obama, who took part in a BAM group in 2013. He was so impressed he later brought high school students and staffers from BAM to visit the White House.

In Chicago, as in cities across the country, the need for this work is starkly evident. A few facts from two recent papers evaluating the BAM program and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research make this clear: The average high-school graduation rate in the 50 largest urban school districts in the U.S. is just 53 percent. Almost 70 percent of black males who drop out of school will spend time in prison by their mid-30s. And black men lose more years of life to homicide than to heart disease. These are the realities facing Chicago’s young men.

Di Vittorio, better known as Tony D, (see my interview with him here) developed the BAM program early in his career as a counselor for Youth Guidance, a 91-year-old youth development agency. He still works there, and the BAM program has grown to operate in 48 middle and high schools. My visit last month brought me to Amundsen High School on Chicago’s north side.

After I arrived and passed through the school’s metal detectors, I made my way to a resource room BAM shares with its sister program, Working on Womanhood (WOW). Soon, the bell rang and eight young men, two staff members and I were sitting in a circle of chairs, talking about what was going on in our lives. For the next 40 minutes, we checked in about sports, sleep deprivation, the death of an uncle, frustration with a writing assignment, a drive-by shooting that killed a BAM student from another high school, college applications, job-hunting, and the fear these young men often feel on the streets of Chicago.

“I think I came up to a shooting last night,” said a student named Youbode. “Me and my friend, we started running. Your heart is beating and you don’t know if they’re behind you or not. It was really scary.”

Marcus said that a couple of days earlier, he walked by a large group of people and prepared himself to fight. “I was like, ‘If one of them swings on me, I’m going to swing back,’” he said. Then he realized it was a church group and no threat at all. “My mom taught me to always be on guard. Watch your surroundings, pay attention to people because the time you walk by a group of people and you’re not paying attention, that’s when you will get jumped.”

Dennis pointed out that endless news coverage of violence on TV adds to people’s fear. “It’s basically screaming: ‘You could be next! You could be next!’ I don’t want to feel like that in my hometown. I want to feel safe.”

Taking part in BAM enabled the young men to feel supported by a group of other young men—most of whom they didn’t know before—and fostered their ability to connect to people outside their usual group, several of the young men said. “From freshman year, first day of class, you’re looking for a clique,” Dennis said. “With BAM, you break down that barrier and you interact with and understand people you don’t usually talk to.”

Saul echoed those feelings. “It’s helped me be a little bit more open talking to people,” he said. “I don’t know if this was conscious or subconscious, but I’ve started noticing that I do some of the things we’ve gone over in BAM—the values and self-evaluation. Knowing what my problems are, and what things I should work on—it helps.”

The impact of the program is more than anecdotal. Researchers from he University of Chicago Crime Lab conducted a detailed evaluation of BAM and its impact on the young men who take part in them. The researchers focused on the idea that a great deal of urban violence occurs because young people who have experienced violence and trauma in their communities have learned to react to being challenged or feeling threatened almost automatically. The BAM program consciously addresses these kinds of reactions in different ways, including an activity it calls the “fist exercise.” Here’s how the Crime Lab researchers describe it:

Students are divided into pairs and one is given a ball, which the other student is told he has 30 seconds to get from him. Almost all youths attempt to use physical force to try to take the ball. During debrief, the group leader points out that no student simply asks for the ball. When prompted on why they did not simply ask, most respond with some version of “he wouldn’t have given it,” or “he would have thought I was a punk.” The leader then asks the other youth, “How would you have reacted if asked nicely for the ball?” The answer inevitably is something like, “I would have given it; it’s just a stupid ball.”

The Crime Lab researchers conducted two different studies of the BAM program. One followed 2,740 males in the 7th to 10th grades at 18 public schools in Chicago’s racially segregated south and west sides during the 2009-2010 school year. The students were randomly assigned to take part in BAM (or after-school sport programs that included BAM elements) or to be part of control groups that didn’t take part in any particular program.

The young men taking part in BAM had 44 percent fewer arrests than peers who didn’t take part. The program also increased school attendance, grade-point average and graduation. The most likely reason, according to the University of Chicago researchers: Taking part in BAM helped reduce their tendency to respond violently and automatically when confronted with real or perceived threats.

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