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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

West Side Mentors Are Showing Teens Masculinity Does Not Need To Be Toxic: ‘Vulnerability Is Not A Weakness’

The Legends of Lawndale program teaches young men to explore their emotions and unpack the ways trauma can influence behavior.

Legends of Lawndale coaches and mentees sit in a peace circle to talk about their ideas, their emotions, and the things that happen in their neighborhood.
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NORTH LAWNDALE — What does it mean to be a man on the West Side? For young people in the Legends of Lawndale mentorship program, it means bucking the tired old stereotypes that men are supposed to be hard, emotionless, aggressive, never showing signs of weakness, never showing tears.

Legends of Lawndale is a collaboration between Sinai Health System’s Behavior Health and kids at Roswell Mason Elementary School in K-Town that is working to redefine masculinity.

The program encourages emotional intelligence and promotes a modern idea of masculinity that lets go of a lot of gendered expectations of manhood that leads to men bottle up their feelings, struggle with silent insecurity and sometimes lash out on friends, peers, partners and family.

“I think that as men we’re looked at as being tough and not showing our emotions and being this like rock. … You’re blocking off your own emotions. If you don’t understand where your problems come from, you’re not going be able to face them,” said Coach Donovan Morris, 17, one of the mentors for the program.

Mentors like Donovan are called coaches, which works because sports are used in the program to keep participants active and help them bond as a team. But the mentors, who are paid for their participation, are also coaches for the mental and emotional wellbeing of the younger kids hoping to become mentors to others some day.

In November, all mentors for the program completed a round of training on trauma-informed coaching designed to help them understand how trauma can influence behavior, even when an incident doesn’t immediately seem like trauma.

The trauma trainings were adapted from an award-winning curriculum developed by Sinai for psychology students but tweaked to be suitable for the younger coaches.

“I’ve learned that the brain works in mysterious ways,” said Coach Khalil Mosley, 18. Mosley hopes to use what he learned from the trainings to support the mentees with strategies to understand and control the emotional responses the brain has towards trauma.

The cornerstone for opening up a safe place for coaches and mentees to address trauma is the peace circle, where participants take turns voicing their opinions, sharing their experiences and learn about themselves and each other. At times, the peace circle may discuss trivial things, like favorite and least favorite foods. But other times, it is a chance to dive into the heavier challenges that young people on the West Side often struggle with.

“We share our stories, our emotional backgrounds. … in those circles, we talk about what’s keeping us down, emotionally, physically, and mentally. … like it’s okay for men to go through emotions, it’s okay for men to cry,” Mosley said.

“It was a hard thing to do because most of us don’t like sharing our emotions,” Mosley said. But what is said in the circle stays in the circle, Mosley added, so mentees can feel safe as they share their feelings with the group.

And when there are incidents of violence in the community — especially when people in the circle have been impacted directly or indirectly — coaches open up the circle to talk about those things so that they can process them together.

“Our youngest guys, they get to hear the process of what a teenager goes through, what a young adult and then a older adult goes through when they think about these things,” said Becca Krauss, a child and family therapist with Mount Sinai Hospital who helps lead the program as a coach.

The after school program is intergenerational, with some mentors in their mid-teens and others in their 60’s. That gives the younger kids the chance to see men in their neighborhood “succeed in high school and college in their career … but you get to see vulnerability in many stages of life,” Krauss said.

But it’s not just the mentees that see emotional growth from the peace circles and the other activities in the program. The coaches lead by example, and that means they too are constantly learning how journey inward to discover their emotional selves.

“I had to understand my own emotions. And I had to understand where my own trauma came from, which took some looking into myself and sourcing back the problems that I have within my own life. …I can also talk to them about those steps and give them an example using my own life,” Donovan said.

The mentees who are still in elementary school said they’re working to unlearn some conventional expectations of masculinity and follow their own path towards being a man.

“It teaches you that vulnerability is not a weakness,” said Jaelen, 12. Jaelen said he has learned that part of being a good leader is being able to manage emotions, calm down and be peaceful when difficult situations come up.

Jerome, 13, said one of the most important lessons he has learned about how to be a Legend, is simply how to be himself.

“You gotta be your own person. You can’t listen to nobody else. You gotta be you,” Jerome said.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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