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Young Black Men Project, Fitting in for Black Men, Boys Showcased at BMRI’s Symposium

Two sessions continued on Thursday during the second and final day of the Black Men Research Institute’s (BMRI) Spring Symposium.

The convening continued its conversation on the mental health of African American men at the Woodruff Library in the heart of the Atlanta University Center. 

“These conversations are needed,” said Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough, Interim Executive Director of BMRI. “We’ve got to continue to figure out how to get more people to have these conversations because people want to have a conversation but don’t know if they can have it publicly, and that’s still part of the challenge.”

Funded by a $1.4 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the BMRI amplifies collaborative thought leadership and social justice and strives to counter conflicting narratives, distrust, and ambiguity with a clear, authoritative voice on the experiences of Black men. 

Located at Morehouse College, the Historically Black College has several professors exploring this subject and has been encouraging deeper conversations about understanding manhood and masculinity. 

Wednesday's session featured Dr. Arthur Evans, Jr., CEO and Executive Director of the American Psychological Association, presenting to the conference-goers about what society can do differently when it comes to addressing mental health issues.  

On Thursday, Dr. Daphne Watkins, Founding Director of the Young Black Men Project, presented her research findings from a 10-year study about her involvement with Black college men at five Midwestern schools (Jackson College in Mich., Ohio State University, Eastern Michigan University, University of Michigan, and Michigan State University) that asked the question, what would happen if we used social media as a tool to improve mental health, promote positive definitions of manhood, and increase social support for Black men?

“There are so many things being thrown at them from multiple parts of their lives, family, friends, and social justice, and it’s all about sustainability,” Watkins said. “We want them to be healthy. We want them to thrive, learn, live, grow, develop, and have seemingly normal, regulaDr. Walter M. KimbroughDr. Walter M. Kimbroughr, happy lives. So it’s important for us to invest as many resources as possible.”

Morehouse psychology student Steven Riley responded to what he learned from Watkins’ research. 

“I feel like it’s important for [Black men] to take into account that we have a lot that we go through on a day-to-day basis racially,” Riley said. “You see in the news how it’s affected us, and it is different between the two. So I’m thankful that she touched on that, and it connects to me as a Black man in general as a 21-year-old in that age bracket.”

Shawn Dove, Founder of the Corporation for Black Male Achievement and the author of the book, I Too Am American: On Loving and Leading Black Men and Boys, was among this year's featured speakers.  

“I am here to say that some of us have suffered from not a midlife crisis, but a midwife crisis because we have some stuff inside of us, we are trying to give birth to, and we don’t know how to,” Dove said. “We talk about Black men in America, the racist discrimination, the constant feeling of having to prove that begins at an early age, and it continues. So, I appreciate the focus on young people, but how do we create intergenerational communities and networks that, in many ways, have dissolved.” 

The afternoon session concluded the symposium with a presentation from Dr. Howard Stevenson, Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education and Director of the Racial Empowerment Collaboration at the University of Pennslyvania. 

Stevenson's presentation focused on racial literacy regarding fitting in and belonging for Black men and boys. 

“Racial literacy and the work with young people that we’ve done for several years and particularly Black males is that the two potential strategies that we’re trying to teach when it comes to racial conflict, of being Black and male sometimes you got to know how to pray, how to process, how to think through, how to prepare for those moments and encounters,” Stevenson said. “But sometimes you got to do more than that. You have to know how to protest and speak up to say something because both skills are necessary in this world to heal from the traumas that come from these encounters.” 

He also elaborated on his Preventing Long-term Anger and Aggression in Youth (PLAAY) project, which focuses on teaching youth to identify their anger, frustration, and stress as they work to reduce negative behaviors. 

“What we have learned in our interventions is that we’ve got to teach young boys and men that you’re pretty, you’re handsome, you’re tough, you’re wrong, but you got to understand how the rest of the world sees you; otherwise you’re in danger,” Stevenson said. “We also learned that the PLAAY students did very well around attendance, homework completion, and school engagement compared to control groups that lower referrals and assault rates,” Stevenson said. “But we also learned that the more we taught them about who they were racially and around their gender, their retaliation thoughts went down, but their anger thoughts went up.”

In response to Stevenson’s presentation, Dr. Darren Kelly, Associate Vice President for the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas said that mental health is important, "but we have to be intentional about all of our interventions when it comes to thinking about how to empower our Black males to be successful, to thrive, to not go through racial battle or fatigue, and to be able to process through these situations,” he said. “They can thrive not only academically while in college, but when it comes to life after college and being a husband and father and member of a community and leader in his own right.” 

The presentation also resonated with Morehouse student Justin Box who realized a lot of behavioral similarities in Stevenson’s research about fitting in and belonging. 

“I’ve met a lot of different people from a lot of different walks of life, so having the interactions and conversations with those people might say something out of pocket, but they don’t realize it,” Box said. “So, I think I’ve been able to develop my sense of self and present myself in a way where I’m telling my own story, trying to be comfortable, and I don’t want to cause wakes but also express myself.” 

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