Wisdom//

How Masculinity Training Is Curbing Teen Violence In Chicago

The art and science of Becoming A Man.

Barack Obama visits Becoming A Man in Chicago. 

Changing gender roles are key to accelerating the culture shift around changing the way we work and live. Redefining Masculinity is an editorial package that investigates what it means to be a man in 2017—and beyond. Read more about the project here.

About two months ago, Anthony DiVittorio, 49, equal parts grizzled and joyful, and with a voice that hits the nasal Chicago “a” in the way only natives can, joined a circle of freshmen at a high school in the northwest of his city. This was a meeting of Becoming A Man, the mindful masculinity program he founded that teaches “social-emotional learning,” “mindfulness,” and “de-automatization,” without trotting out much of that jargon. To reach boys as they turn into men, it takes action. In this case, it’s a drill pulled from military boot camp: hundreds of jumping jacks, then dozens of squats, push-ups and standing crunches called “steamrollers.”

The attitude isn’t “macho, patriarchal bullshit,” DiVittorio says, where you just have to man up and gut through all these exercises. Rather, the counselor asks the kids to use the skills they’re building—like mutual support and deep breathing—to get through the ordeal. But instead they laughed, complained and generally half-assed it.

Afterward, the students, DiVittorio and the counselor sat in the circle talking about—processing—what they’d just done. When asked if they’d completed the mission, the students murmured yes, they had, at least technically.

“Do I have your permission to challenge you?” DiVittorio asked. They said yes, so he did. The guys hooped and hollered through their classroom workout, but didn’t support each other like they intended. “Where’s the integrity with that?” he added. The room paused, the guys looked at each other, and then came what DiVittorio refers to as a “Scooby Doo Moment”: something clicked for a student, and his tone of voice changed, along with the energy in the room. “We’re not going out like that,” a student said, showing leadership, and got the rest of the boys to go through the same grueling exercises with extreme focus. Then they processed the experience in the circle again. “What’s it like to be back in integrity?” DiVittorio asked. 

This is the essence of Becoming a Man, which DiVittorio founded through the Chicago nonprofit Youth Guidance in 2001. Since then, BAM has gone from having one counselor—DiVittorio—to 79, and will serve some 6,000 students across Chicago in the forthcoming academic year. The program has drawn the backing of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and President Barack Obama. This fall, BAM will expand into a new city for the first time, with a pilot program of 150 young men in three schools in Boston. 

In BAM’s version of mindful masculinity, boys learn to articulate their values, are trained in social-emotional skills to live in accordance with them and are held accountable when they slip up. When asked by researchers about the impact the program had on them, kids’ responses are peppered with two key words: “want,” in the form of career goals and better relationships, and “keep,” as in persisting through challenges when they’d otherwise give up.

The program is also a leader in bringing evidence-based, real-world interventions to the front of the public policy conversation. In partnership with the University of Chicago, BAM has been studied in randomized control trials, the gold standard of social science research. Results have been promising: A 2013 analysis found that within a randomly assigned sample of 2,740 youths, participating in the program was associated with a 44 percent reduction in violent crime arrests. A 2017 follow-up study in the prestigious Quarterly Journal of Economics found similar violent-crime arrest reductions, greater engagement at school and increased graduation rates by 12 to 19 percent. 

BAM is a ray of calm light within the storm of American aggression. While the national crime rate is still about half of its peak in 1991—a trend at odds with public perception—a handful of cities are driving a recent increase in murder. According to a recent New York University report, Chicago, Baltimore and Houston account for about half of the increase in murder rates in major cities between 2014 and 2016. Since gun violence tends to happen between people who already know each other, a relational program like BAM might be especially suited to solve the problem.

 It’s also comparatively cheap: around $1,800 per student per year, making it “at least as favorable as almost any other crime-prevention intervention that has been studied seriously,” researchers report. (Making $10 million in federal funding go far.)  To Harold Pollack, a University of Chicago social service administration professor who’s studying the program, BAM also provides a message that something can be done. “If you were doing oncology, you start with a high basis of credibility that there’s lots you can do to treat cancer,” he says. Even if there isn’t a cure, the consensus is that lots can be done. But social issues don’t have the same sense of empowerment. “There is a tremendous need for realistic, evidence-based optimism that we can move the needle on important problems with economical and feasible interventions which can operate at-scale in the communities and contexts where people most need them,” he says. And BAM is a prime example of one that works.

Photo courtesy of Youth Guidance.

Counselors meet with students once a week, excusing them from class. (Unsurprisingly, boys frequently cite getting out of class, rather than disclosing their emotional cores, as the initial driver of their interest in the program.) They might meet in a dedicated classroom that happens to be free for that hour, or in a spare corner in a lunchroom. Every session begins with a “check in,” where everybody talks about how they’re doing physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually (PIES, for short).

The check-ins are inevitably populated by one-word answers at the start, but they blossom over time. One University of Chicago analysis of what makes BAM work found that while no youth said that talking about their feelings was part of the initial appeal of the program, two thirds of respondents said they liked it, and half said it was the part of the program they looked forward to most. “I would be surprised if another counselor says anything differently, but I think it’s the circle, it’s the check-in, check-out process that’s the most essential piece of BAM. It’s what keeps them coming back,” an anonymous counselor said in the paper. 

From there, to keep the kids engaged, the counselors will lead them through any number of activities. Some are more physically challenging, like the workout described above, others more social-emotionally challenging, like “The Chair,” where an empty chair plays the role of the kids’ mother or father, and they disclose their problems with the often absent parent; or “The Fist,” where the counselor will split the group into two, give balls to one side, and tell the other side to retrieve them by any means possible. (Hell inevitably breaks loose, and in the debrief the boys learn the secret: you can just ask for it.) All of these exercises will then be related back to BAM’s six core values: integrity, self determination, positive anger expression, accountability, respect for womanhood and visionary goal-setting. 

They’ll also watch videos and unpack their meaning together. That same University of Chicago analysis found that a clip from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air was super resonant—Will’s father comes to his uncle’s place, promises to take a trip with his estranged son, and then tries to leave without saying goodbye, to Will’s heartbreak. Beyond being a case study in Will Smith’s acting genius, it’s a way of surfacing difficult issues and showing how you’re not alone in experiencing them. “What we really want to know is that we’re all not going through this on our own,” a counselor reports. “To hear when a student of mine says, ‘I relate to Will. My dad walked out. He promised that he was going to come back and he didn’t,’ and I see a kid right across the circle say, ‘That’s exactly my life. Holy shit, I’m not on this island anymore, I don’t have to deal with this on my own,’ when this kid’s going through something, I got him.” 

The researchers who have dug into BAM’s methodology say that the key change that happens with BAM is adjusting “automaticity,” or the uncomfortable fact that many of our actions are governed by hunches, feelings, and habits—especially in adolescence. Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for sleuthing automaticity out, documented in his Thinking, Fast and Slow and Michael Lewis’ Undoing Project. The thing about automatic behavior is that it’s not always, to say the least, the most helpful thing for you. 

“Because conscious deliberation is mentally costly, all of us develop a series of automatic responses that are usually adaptive to situations that we commonly face,” write Sara Heller and her colleagues in the Quarterly Journal of Economics study. It’s a pretty basic part of life: a baby learns what actions please or annoy its mother, laying the seeds of attachment, while the New York subway rider learns to check the MTA’s Twitter for delays before beginning another ill-fated commute. This is also one of the ways privilege invisibly operates: if you’re from a secure neighborhood, then authority and the people that assert it are to be deferred to, a pattern that translates seamlessly into the classroom and then the workplace. 

Anyone who’s ever interacted with an adolescent knows what teen automaticity looks like, says Heller, now an economist at the University of Michigan. You might say something that seems trivial and they explode with emotions, seeing things that happen around them with a biased lens: it was the teacher’s fault for assigning all that homework, not mine for not getting it in on time. And this generally creates social and emotional strife in their lives. Indeed, as early as 1904 adolescence was identified as a period of heightened “storm and stress,” and neuroimaging suggests that the teen brain is more primed for learning than adults, as well as having a more sensitive limbic system, associated with emotionality. 

“The process of automatic thinking is not unique to people growing up in poor or unstable environments,” Heller says, but the behavior you learn to adopt in a challenging situation can become maladaptive in others: you might learn to be defensive to keep yourself from getting beaten up on the street or withdrawn to keep things stable in an unstable family situation. But those habits don’t carry over well into academics: “Being yelled at by a teacher in school to stop talking so class can begin may at first glance feel like one’s reputation is being challenged, just as on the street,” Heller and her colleagues write. BAM works, they argue, because it helps kids slow things down when they’re in high-stakes situations—in the classroom and outside of it—and examine the assumptions they’re bringing into a situation, then ask  themselves if it would be possible to evaluate challenging situations differently. 

If that sounds familiar, it may be because these steps are the fundamentals of cognitive behavioral therapy, a bundle of techniques that help people catch sight of their thinking, examine the narratives they’re projecting onto a situation, and learn to revise them. CBT was originally developed to treat depression, Heller notes, and as a counterpoint to psychotherapy, which works with root causes of people’s mental health symptoms. The idea was that people might get relief by dealing with symptoms, even if they’re not excavating the underlying issues. “It’s retraining yourself to recognize the biased thoughts you’re having and interrupt them, and force yourself into a different behavior,” she says. CBT has been shown to help people quit smoking, follow through on medical adherence, control anger, handle stress and cope with bulimia and anxiety disorders. It’s useful “any place where you might have an automatic response that you yourself are not happy with, and so here we’re applying that to aggression and defensive behavior,” Heller says.

Becoming A Man grew out of DiVittorio’s personal journey. “Thirty years apart, I lived a similar life to some of these at-risk youth,” he says of his Chicago childhood: divorced family, poverty, violence in the home and the neighborhood, and not a lot in the way of positive male role models or educational opportunities. He did lots of “self exploration work” as he neared the end of his graduate studies and approached age 30. A friend recommended that he look into “men’s work,” doing intensive weekend therapeutic programs where he was able to look at his own childhood trauma. “My work was all around my father,” he recalls of Victories of the Heart and other programs. “I dealt with my father wound, the pain, the grief, the rage, the sadness, all that comes from not being mentored into a man. The weekends were so profound for me. I came out with the realization that to break the cycle of fatherlessness, that’s my calling.” 

Anthony DiVittorio on “Rites of Passage.” 

In 1999, he joined the nonprofit Youth Guidance after reading about it in the news. The next year, he started putting together groups and honing the curriculum in his head: there would be check-ins to start, where participants could disclose how they were doing physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. They’d do clinical group psychotherapy, but also lots of group-building activities, to keep the kids engaged. He would disclose his own vulnerabilities, the things they and their friends had struggled with. He would share stories, show videos, and together he and the kids would analyze who was accountable for what in a given scene, and how it all made them feel. From 2001 to 2009, he was the only guy doing it; BAM was a solo show, and he did hundreds of groups with kids ranging from sixth the twelfth grade.

In 2007, a doctoral student was killed a block south of University of Chicago offices. The next year, the school founded its Crime Lab with the intention of designing, studying and scaling interventions for community violence and other urban social issues. It held a design competition with local agencies to see who would participate in a randomized trial, and BAM won. DiVittorio wrote the curriculum in two months, and BAM recruited a team of 13 counselors for that first trial. Then a second trial started, and major public figures got interested—including Emanuel and Obama—and calls started coming in from all over the world. DiVittorio no longer does direct service, though he’ll get involved when observing a session. “How the fuck did I become this elder?” he asks, going on 25 years of experience in the field. 

Heller and her co-authors hypothesize that it’s got to be the CBT—or the way it lands with the student population in BAM—that leads to these major changes, rather than just having positive relationships with mentors. Other interventions take advantage of mentoring, but few lead to the changes that BAM has exhibited. “It makes you think that mentoring is a part of it, but not the only thing you need to have this effect,” she says, and it could be the way that BAM mentors deliver this message that’s so important.

The University of Chicago qualitative report found that BAM counselors played a unique role among adults in students’ lives: they’re more “multidimensional” than teachers (who focus on academics), school disciplinary personnel (who focus on behavior) and parental figures (who focus on family values, responsibilities, and the like). When those relationships are strong, the students feel like their counselors see them for who they are, and see them turning into the men they want to become. In my interviews with counselors, they always emphasized how much leading BAM groups made them think about their own personal development. Hannann Joplin, a BAM supervisor at Youth Guidance, tells Thrive Global that the key is to help kids discover their own sense of agency, their ability to examine their judgments and make decisions on their own. “Every day, someone is telling them what to do,” he says. “Our objective is not to perpetuate that—we’re teaching them manhood, what it means to take action, set goals and execute, then follow through themselves. If it doesn’t work out, own up to it, and turn it around. We help them start that process day one.” 

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