Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Importance of Gender-Based Programming for Boys, Part 1

By Sam Piha
Ashanti Branch

There's an emerging trend in afterschool to focus on the needs of boys, especially boys of color and those from low income communities. We published an earlier blog post which contains an interview with Lynn Johnson (Spotlight: Girls) on serving the needs of girls and young women. Now we turn to the needs of boys.

Ashanti Branch, Founder and Executive Director of Ever Forward Club, taught high school, middle school, public, private and Charter schools and is a strong advocate for boys. He appears in the feature film documentary entitled, The Mask You Live In.  Ashanti is also featured in the History of Afterschool in America documentary where he makes the case for gender-based programming in afterschool. Below are some of Ashanti’s responses to our interview questions. 



Q: Can you say a little bit about how you got into this work? 

A: I grew up as a poor boy, raised by a single mother in Oakland. As a first-year high school teacher, I wanted to help some kids in my classroom pass algebra. I realized that those young men were looking for a space to be real, to talk about what was really going on in their life, and not be ashamed about it, not be ridiculed for feeling something or by caring about their education. Many of our boys live in a community where education is not valued, where the smartest kid at the school is called names like nerd, geek, and teacher's pet. 

In some communities, students who get the highest score on the test are celebrated, people cheer for them. But in our community, those students don't get elevated. Our young men believe that to be cool, to fit in the cool crowd, you've got to act certain ways. Usually they aren't ways that are going to help them with their education and help them further their life in a positive way. That's a sad part that we've got to work on. 

That's why I'm really glad that there's some resurgence in this work, and we're trying to be a part of that work. What we've been trying to do in Ever Forward is when we started 13 years ago I was a teacher just trying to help some kids pass algebra. I wasn't trying to start a non-profit. I didn't even know what a non-profit was. 

Q: Can you comment on the needs of boys, especially boys of color and those from low income communities?

A: We are becoming aware that there is a need to support young men in really specific ways.  For so long there's been just a place of ignoring boys and allowing certain behaviors to be left as "boys will be boys" or "that's just the way boys are." I think that what has happened is that this has been let go for so long that young men have found themselves in a crisis. 

If you look at the prison population in the United States, 93% are men. That would tell you something is happening with men. It usually starts when they are little boys. The hyper-masculine narrative of what it means to be a man tells our boys that “this is how men act “ and if you step out of that box, then society has a good way of either pushing you back into the box or pushing you so far out of it that you don't even know who you are.

I think that the awakening of people in communities, the awakening of people around the nation and the world, is recognizing that we must start when they are younger. 

Society doesn't give our young men good tools with dealing with sadness and fear and shame and other kind of emotions. They're clear in what you do when you're angry. They're clear about what you do when you're happy. So if you don't fit in happy or angry, what do you do with the other emotions? Usually it comes out as anger. If somebody embarrasses me, I may feel sad. But I don't know how to deal with sadness. I know what anger looks like. Thus, everything is converted to anger. Or I just pretend like it doesn't matter, then I get checked out to the world.


Source: www.ambergristoday.com

Then how do young men deal with this? They isolate and experience quiet desperation – “no one cares about me”. They begin to self-medicate, self-fulfill those feelings of not being a part of the group - drugs, alcohol, rampant unprotected sex, gangs. They exhibit so many different behaviors to cover up their feelings that they're really trying to figure out. How do I deal with this real feeling? The documentary, "The Mask You Live In," which was done by The Representation Project, is about American masculinity and how society is shaping our boys. 


Q: Can you describe what kind of activities you do in Ever Forward Club? 

A: There are many activities and curriculums being created to support young men to promote their healthy well-being and social-emotional development. In Ever Forward, we believe that our young men need a safe space to talk about what's going on in their life and to know that any part of themselves that comes out of their words, their heart, is part of them and that's okay. If we give them tools with dealing with the real and the true part of themselves, then we are giving them more space to be fully themselves and they're not pretending to be somebody else. 


Source: Ever Forward Club
Our meetings start off with a simple check-in - your name and how are you doing right now on a scale from one to ten. If we're going to start a meeting, we should know where they are right now. If any one comes in below a seven, we're going to check in further with them. There's a way for them to self-select whether they want people to ask them questions. They can come in and fake it every day -“I'm a nine”- and know nobody's going to bother them.  But if they say “six”, we're like, "Hey, what's up? Why are you a six? What's happening?”  They are then able to indicate "I need somebody to talk to me about something." 

Our young men have a hard time asking for help. I have a hard time asking for help as an adult male. I still struggle with this. If I can't do it by myself, then maybe something's wrong with me. Once our young men feel the safety of that circle, it's really powerful for them because they know that every week I get to check-in with them. It doesn't just stop in the week. During the week, they're building a brotherhood that lasts longer than just the week, but the weekly meeting is like the big piece that helps them through that. 

Once we get check-in done, we often play a game. Usually there is some competition. For young men, competition is really huge. Sometimes it's not really about the game- it's really what happens during the game. Somebody might break a rule, cheat, or make up their own rule. Then stuff comes out. Somebody might get mad, start yelling, or call some names. When this energy comes out that is when we can help teach them. 




Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Importance of Gender-Based Programming for Girls

By Sam Piha 

Lynn Johnson, Co-Founder/CEO of Spotlight: Girls, is a long-time champion of youth development and a strong advocate for girls. She is also featured in the History of Afterschool documentary talking about the need for gender-based programming in afterschool. Below are some of Lynn’s responses to our interview questions. 

Q: Why do you think it is helpful to develop gender-based programs in afterschool?  
Lynn Johnson

A: I know that there's a lot of controversy around gender-specific programming. But this is so important because we are not often looking at where inequity comes in in terms of gender in our schools and our communities. Girls are doing pretty well in school academically and graduating at higher rates than boys. So we're getting girls through school, but we're not really preparing girls for life.

Gender-based programming is important because girls are asking for it. They say they need that space to feel safe. Boys need it as well, and there's a lot of talk about that. There's a lot of great programs out there for boys, especially boys of color.

Q: Can you describe what you consider is important in serving the needs of girls? 

A: One thing that we know for sure, because there's been a lot of people doing research and talking to girls, is that girls really feel the need for a safe place. Many girls that say there aren't safe places for them to really “be”, to connect with others, and learn new skills. Girls have a very deep and complex emotional experience, so how do we give girls the skills to understand all of their emotions, understand that their emotions are okay, and then know that they can make behavioral choices separate from their emotions?

All of us who've been in the youth development field recognize the importance of social-emotional learning and non-cognitive skills. And that's exactly the type of skills that I'm talking about. Girls, no matter who they are, what they do, what they look like, or who they love, they need to be seen for themselves and be told, "You are just right as you are." They deserve a quality youth development space where they're learning those skills to say, "Here's who I am. I'm okay no matter who I am, and I get to figure out how I'm going to take this personality in all different situations." 

Girls are often so pigeonholed into, "You have to be a good girl, otherwise you are a bad girl. You have to be a certain way.” It's really hard for girls to burst out of that bubble. Perfectionism sets in and it really holds girls back. It's about having the courage to overcome all challenges, and our girls don't necessarily have those skills. Our girls are suffering rates of depression at a lot higher rate than boys. Our girls are at greater risk of being a victim of all kinds of assault, of being a victim even of bullying. There's so many things that girls are dealing with internally. Girls are kind of imploding, and we don't quite see it because they're still doing well in school. We need to take care of girls on the inside.

Q: Why is the afterschool setting a good place to accomplish this?

A: The most important thing in serving girls in afterschool is to focus on giving girls their own safe space. It's not realistic in a public school for girls to have that separate safe space. That's why afterschool is a really important setting. We can give girls a space and time in a club or in some sort of program for them to have that place where they feel safe. Also, we can offer girls opportunities for programs that they're not necessarily traditionally involved in like STEM, coding, sports and other areas where girls have traditionally been left out of the conversation. 


Source: Spotlight: Girls
At the same time, I don't think that STEM is the only thing that we should be focusing on exclusively. We need to give girls the social-emotional skills to understand their own emotional experience. They have to understand that they can be angry and upset by something, but then understand that they can make, still, a calm and confident choice behaviorally. All of those things are skills that can be taught and can be applied to any kind of content area, whether it's STEM or arts or sports or anything. I get worried when we focus too much on girls in STEM and not on their emotional experience and the skills they need to succeed in any field.

Afterschool is about old-school youth development, which includes promoting social-emotional learning and non-cognitive skills. [See Youth Development Guide 2.0]. We want to create a safe space for young people to really learn socially, learn collaboratively, learn who they are in the larger world, learn new skills while understand their own sense of growth and progress so they can really take up space as leaders.

Afterschool is the perfect place for young girls to be learning about robotics and for young girls to be learning how their bodies are so powerful as athletes and all of that. At the core it's not just about academics. It's about, "How do I, as a girl, in a safe space, understand who I am, understand why I might be feeling resistant to new experiences, why I might be resistant to certain fields of learning, and understand how to move through those areas of resistance, how to say yes to new things." Afterschool gives you that space, that time. 


Source: Spotlight: Girls
Q: We have been introduced to a number of new concepts, like growth mindsets, grit, social emotional learning, etc. Can you comment?

A: Another important way that afterschool is such an important environment for girls' learning is informed by the research on “growth mindsets”. Girls really suffer from perfectionism. We see this across the board- across race, across socioeconomic groups. Girls are really often stuck in this need to do it right, do it the right way, not look stupid, to not make a mistake. It holds girls back from really, as we say in our program, take center stage and try something new. This research around growth mindset, around this idea that we don't come to a situation with a particular talent, per se, that we get to learn and grow, and we get to go, "Oh, I'm getting there. I'm getting better at something. I get to try something, make a mistake, and try it again." This is really important for girls.

In our Go Girls program, one thing that's at the heart of our culture is this idea that, as girls, we celebrate making mistakes. We have a whole thing about that. There is a whole culture where we, as adults, we're modeling like, "Oops, I made a mistake. Let me figure out how I can learn from that mistake and get better and grow." To me, that is really at the heart of a learning experience, especially for a girl, "How do I get out of what I'm told I'm supposed to be and just try to look imperfect for a second and do something new?" That's a really crucial area for afterschool and girls' learning.

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Lynn Johnson is a visionary entrepreneur, speaker, girl advocate, and Co-Founder/CEO of Spotlight: Girls – a certified B Corp that inspires, educates, and activates girls & women to take center stage. Lynn serves on the National Advisory Board of Teaching Artists Guild, the Board of Directors of the How Kids Learn Foundation, and the Alameda County Commission on the Status of Women.

The Importance of Gender-Based Programming for Boys, Part 1

By Sam Piha Ashanti Branch There's an emerging trend in afterschool to focus on the needs of boys, especially boys of color and t...