Anthony Di Vittorio runs Youth Guidance Becoming a Man, a Chicago counseling program that fosters healthy masculine ideals among at-risk teen boys.
Ten years ago, Chicago social worker Anthony Di Vittorio established a unique counseling program for the city’s most at-risk boys. Designed to alter perceptions of manhood in communities desperately in need of role models, the Youth Guidance Becoming a Man (YGBAM) program has now spread to 18 Chicago schools and will reach over 700 students this year. Spending 27 weeks with teenage boys from all corners of Chicago, Di Vittorio has an insider’s view of how narrow messages of masculinity are affecting inner-city youth.
Emily Heist Moss: Let’s start broadly with the state of “manhood” or “boyhood” today. Where are we at? What are we teaching boys about what it means to be a man?
Anthony Di Vittorio: Boys are learning to get in touch with only one pole of male development, aggression. If I’m aggressive, then I’m reaching my potential of manhood. If I’m not letting someone walk all over me, then I’m acting like a man; I’m manning-up. And that’s true, that is needed, but it’s only one element of manhood. What’s missing is the opposite pole, softness, sensitivity, passion. That’s seen as weakness; I best not talk about what I’m scared about. Too soft. I best not talk about what I’m sad about. Too compassionate. I best not act too happy, I’ll be labeled cheesy.
EHM: Where do you see these messages coming from?
AD: I see this in our media a lot. Look at sports. Our athletes now, when they get the touchdown, the slam dunk, they don’t react with celebration, they react with aggression [Anthony flexes to demonstrate, a menacing victory growl on his face]. The image of that victorious moment is a person about to explode in violence.
EHM: What do you think we should be teaching boys about being “manly”?
AD: We have to get youth in touch with the strength of this other pole, the feminine, compassionate, softer pole. I ask them, “15 years from now, what it will be like to be a father?” They talk about throwing footballs, but I show them how to cradle a baby, and ask, “Is this fatherhood?” They say yes. I ask, “Is fatherhood weakness? How can softness be weakness?” We talk about how finding strength in softness instead of aggression.
EHM: What inspired you to create YGBAM program?
AD: My personal anger came from the fact that I didn’t receive male mentoring as a child. I take that pain and trauma and use it towards my personal mission. When I work with a group of boys, I see future fathers. How beautiful is it for me to work with them on integrity and accountability so that when they become fathers, they are good and present, connected to their children?
EHM: You work with young men who come from really difficult circumstances. What do these kids miss out on by not having consistent male role models in their lives?
AD: A lot of male youth in communities in the inner city come from single-headed households led by a mother working three jobs. Even in two-parent households, sometimes the father is working three jobs, too. When he comes home, he isn’t providing the emotional connection. You have a lot of these boys finding a sense of belonging from the guys hanging on the corner.
In the past, the elders used to provide teenaged boys with standard rites of passage, but we don’t have that anymore. These kids, they have things like “Here, hang onto this gun.” I was working with one of my eighth graders and that was his rite of passage, his initiation. It’s confusing as hell for these boys. It’s a distorted sense of manhood.
EHM: YGBAM groups meet once a week, what do you do in these sessions?
AD: When you come into the program, this becomes a container of safety. You’re receiving support from other men, in a non-machista way. Men are fixers; we carry this emotional toolbox with us all the time. In group, we listen to each other. If someone is scared, angry, sad, or silent, we say “Would you like help, would you like suggestions?” If he says yes, we tell the group, we take out that “toolbox,” we say, “Pull out your wrenches, pull out your hammers, he’s asking for our help.”
Every session starts with an activity. For example, we show an episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, about Will’s absent father disappointing him yet again. While we watch, you could hear a pin drop. The lights go on, and the machista comes out, “Are you crying man, aw man, come on!” You’re not supposed to cry, you’re not supposed to feel. Group is a time to talk and listen about things you don’t usually let yourself think about. When you leave group, you go out with shields up, but you have this clarity about yourself, about your issues.
EHM: What are the skills you give these kids?
AD: There are five specific values. First, integrity; taking value in their overall character presence.
Second, accountability; empowering them to take ownership in their actions, thoughts, feelings and attitude. This counteracts the disease of projection, blaming others, “It’s your fault that I’m acting the way I do!”
Third, positive anger expression. This is usually the first time these youth are being affirmed in their anger, being told that anger is normal. It’s not anger management, but anger expression. We teach the warrior concept, that a “modern-day warrior” is a person who uses anger for a mission.
Fourth, self-determination. We do lots of mediation, deep active breathing, and emotional regulation skills. We talk about how to turn negative thoughts into self-efficacy, “I can, I will, It’s OK that I feel lost. It’s OK that I feel angry.” Those boys who are struggling, they walk out knowing that struggle is normal.
Fifth, visionary goal-setting: how do I see myself as a man in the future? It’s not “I’m going to have this car, or this much money,” It’s, “I saw my dad abuse my mom. My vision of manhood is I’m going be promoting safety and respect for women.” Or, “Man, I experience racism in my culture, I’m going to promote healthy, strong identity for African-American or Hispanic youth.”
EHM: What do you consider success? How do you measure it?
AD: We have clear short-term metrics: improved attendance, fewer suspensions, improved grades, promotion to the next grade, graduation, enrollment in post-secondary education. We also pay attention to qualitative metrics, like narratives from the students themselves. Teacher reports are critical, too, like “Every time he comes back from BAM, Juan is calmer, more respectful, though he still doesn’t do his work. But, hey, baby steps, please keep him in the program.”
The metric that is the most important to me is emotional regulation, acknowledgement of your own contribution to situations. I was bringing a YGBAM student out of class last year to do some one-on-one counseling, a very at-risk kid. In the hall, a chair came flying out of a classroom door. The thrower was a buddy of my kid’s, one of the guys he hangs out with. I said to him, “What do you think of that, of what your boy just did?” He shook his head, “Shit man, that’s what teachers be making you do!” My heart broke. I started worrying that it was all a waste of time. But he kept talking, “But man, he’s got to learn how to control himself! He can’t be doing that!” I sighed [Anthony puts his hand to his heart in relief], thank God!
EHM: Do you keep in touch? You must have kids who are fathers now?
AD: I was the best man at one of their weddings!
For more information about the Youth Guidance Becoming a Man program, visit www.youth-guidance.org. For media requests, contact Mariana Mack at [email protected]