By Rob Waters
Anthony Ramirez-Di Vittorio—better known as Tony D—is a busy man. Every Thursday afternoon, he goes back to the high school he graduated from 30 years ago—Kelly High on Chicago’s southwest side—to teach jiu-jitsu. Later he drives to a residential treatment center to run a group session for a dozen boys. But his day job is being the founder and training manager of Becoming a Man (BAM), a program of Youth Guidance that seeks to foster new, healthy notions of masculinity among at-risk boys as a way to reduce violence and help them succeed in school and life.
Last month, on a visit to Chicago on behalf of the Thrive Foundation, I had the opportunity to meet Di Vittorio and to speak with him about his experiences. We talked about his growing up in Chicago and how his experiences led him to start the program that became BAM. Here are excerpts from our conversation. (My companion story about the program is here.)
You grew up in Chicago and went to Kelly High School. Tell me about your childhood.
I was a good kid in an at-risk environment. My mom raised me after my parents’ divorce; she was on welfare and had five kids. I saw lots of violence in my neighborhood and house—my brother high on cocaine and kicking in windows, mom yelling at him, his arrest. My saving grace was my mom, who raised me with beautiful values—to respect people, be nice. I always had a lot of fear and anger but in high school, I found healthy way to express it through break-dancing.
I was the first in my family to go to college. I went down the block to the community college. I read a text on psychology and it called to me, this idea of emotions and behaviors. As I got into it, I had an epiphany that I wanted to work with youth.
I met my first male mentor, a martial arts instructor who befriended and gave me life lessons and affirmation. I thought I was a man because I could bench 275, smoke 3 joints and stay up all night. He taught me to push and focus and concentrate. I stopped smoking marijuana and grew up. My mom gave me life lessons how to be a kind person; she raised me kindly in a screwed-up environment. Mike gave me the male role model. If not for them, there would be no BAM.
You also took part in rites of passage work—trainings and deep emotional and psychological work in men’s groups.
The rites of passage work was the secret sauce. I was 28, finishing grad school and shared my story with some classmates. One said, “We have a lot of lost men out there. We’re suffering in personal relationships. You should get involved in men’s work.”
My father didn’t know how to be a father. He died three years ago at 75 and I’m proud to say I had a relationship with him the last few years. I was able to say goodbye, to be a better father with my son. My experiences helped me deal with the pain, sadness, and hurt of not being fathered. I came out with a mission to break the cycle of fatherlessness. It will never be achieved but it’s my mission. Because of this work, 15 years from now these kids will be connected to their kids with love.
BAM developed quite organically, it seems. Tell me about the early days.
I started forming these circles, doing clinical counseling, engagement and men’s work. I started talking to boys about manhood and challenging them to look at themselves. With a 15-year old boy who was cursing his teacher, I’d listen, empathize and do men’s work: “You just called this teacher a so-and-so. How did you feel about abusing your teacher? Is that the kind of man you want to be?” I called them on their shit and they loved it and asked for more, and teachers started seeing change and emotional regulation.
I’d say: “You don’t have to be here in this circle but if you decide to stay, you have to: 1. Be willing to have fun. 2: Agree to safety and respect 3. Be open to being challenged. So if I challenge you, don’t put it back on me.
I realized something unique and special was happening but I didn’t know what. I was bobbing and weaving. I was in one high school and a couple of grammar schools, working with white, black, brown and Ukrainian kids. I did hundreds and hundreds of groups, anywhere from 10 to 12 a week.
At some point, BAM became a formal program. How did that happen?
I did BAM without any awareness I was creating a new type of therapy. In 2003, we decided it was a value-based training program and identified six core values: integrity, accountability, self-determination, positive anger expression, respect for womanhood and goal-setting. It went from being my thing to a major Youth Guidance program.
When we brought in new staff, we looked for people who were open to ruthless self-exploration. You have to lead by example. If you’re not going to do it, they’re not going to do it. You have to go through 300 hours in the BAM training academy. Now we have close to 60 counselors and I manage the academy. My job is to ensure the fidelity of the program. I’m the culture-keeper.
You and some of the young men of BAM also had the opportunity to have President Obama sit in on a group and visit the White House. That must have been amazing.
Meeting the President was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that affected each of us differently and all in a profound way. The President “checked-in” in the BAM circle and spent 60 minutes with us. It was intimate, personal and powerful. The connection was evident and mutual.
Personally, I’ve never been nervous before a BAM session—until this one. That morning I drove around many of the apartments I lived in as a youth and wondered: “How did I make it to the point of meeting the President today after all the craziness that I saw as a youth?”
Going to the White House four months later for Father’s Day was even more powerful. I remember one BAM youth telling the President that he does a great impression. President Obama asked to hear it and had a great laugh! We then got the call that President Obama wanted to see us in the Oval Office, which I learned he rarely does. One youth asked him “what is the most valued thing here?” and the President showed them the Emancipation Proclamation. I realized it had been 150 years since that document and look how far we have come. I realized that for President Obama, this moment was about fatherhood. It wasn’t political…it was a genuine moment.