Spotlight Exclusives

Chicago turns to mentoring to reduce crime in high-poverty neighborhoods

Stell Simonton Stell Simonton, posted on

An ambitious effort to cut violent crime in Chicago focuses on a mentoring program for kids in the city’s most unsafe neighborhoods.

Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has thrown his weight behind a program known as BAM — Becoming a Man — after the University of Chicago Crime Lab found it had a big impact on high school boys.

Emmanuel announced a $36 million initiative in early October to bring this program to all eighth- to tenth-grade boys in public schools in the 20 Chicago communities most affected by violence, which are also among the city’s poorest areas. A smaller program called Working on Womanhood targets girls.

Emmanuel’s  public safety campaign will also add nearly 1,000 officers to the Chicago Police Department. The mentoring program will expand over three years to reach more than 7,000 youth.

But how much can a mentoring program really reduce crime?

Quite a lot, according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which has studied crime prevention since 2008.

Lab research manager Julia Quinn said Becoming a Man gets boys to “physically slow down in high-stakes situations.”

Boys who participated in the program in 2013-2015 were 50 percent less likely than their peers to be arrested for a violent crime, based on a study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research.  They were 35 percent less likely to be arrested at all, and their graduation rate increased 19 percent.

Inspiration for My Brother’s Keeper

Becoming a Man was one of the programs cited by President Barack Obama when he launched   My Brother’s Keeper in 2014, an initiative to improve opportunity for young black men. My Brother’s Keeper identifies effective programs, encourages public and private funding to support them and encourages action at the state and local level — meaning that efforts could continue despite a new administration in the White House.

According to a White House progress report, My Brother’s Keeper has sparked programs in 250 communities across the nation, supported by more than $600 million in private sector funding and foundation grants.

This school year, Becoming a Man has moved into more than 60 Chicago schools. Boys meet in a group of about a dozen for one hour a week throughout the year.  A trained counselor leads the group, and boys also can seek out the counselor during the week.

“They are youth who have the same needs most youth have, but they’re faced with so many obstacles,” said Phillip Cusic, program manager for Becoming a Man at the nonprofit Youth Guidance, which created the program.

He said large numbers of guns flow into the Chicago neighborhoods where the program is offered.

“This [age] is just a very tough time for a young person, between seventh grade and being a senior in high school. Emotions can be all over the place at that age. Kids act the way any child would if they have the wrong things in their hands,” he continued. “We help them deal with their emotions “so they don’t pick up a weapon and make those kinds of mistakes.”

Although Becoming a Man is called a mentoring program, it’s far more than that.

“The programs are literally clinical counseling,” said Jannie Kirby, spokesperson for Youth Guidance. “But it does not look like therapy.”

Noah was a junior last year at Roberto Clemente Community Academy in Chicago’s West Town. At the time, he was coming to terms with the death of his grandmother. He discussed it in his Becoming a Man group.

“If I wasn’t in the group I would have kept that inside,” he told reporters who visited his school for a PBS show. “I would have still been hurting today because me and her were really close,” he said.

Becoming a Man creates a protected space for expressing feelings, but it also sets up situations of conflict that students are encouraged to think deeply about.

For example, one boy may be asked to lead another one blindfolded around the room. When a boy becomes disruptive or pulls off the blindfold, the counselor might say: “OK, what happened?” according to Cusic. Then they launch into a discussion of the boy’s feelings, when he might have felt that way before, and why.

In another task, the counselor pairs the students, gives one in each pair a ball and tells the other he has 30 seconds to get it away from him. They scuffle and then the counselor asks: Did anyone think to simply ask for the ball?

The kids learn that, in any situation, they may have a variety of ways to respond. This approach is based on cognitive behavior therapy — the idea that the way people “frame” or think about a situation determines how they feel about it, which determines how they act.

Becoming a Man also has roots in “men’s work.” The program was begun by Anthony Ramirez-Di Vittorio, who grew up in Chicago and went to Kelly High School. He studied psychology, became a clinical social worker and also took part in men’s groups that grew out of the work of poet Robert Bly and others.

Becoming a Man focuses on male responsibility, being accountable and owning one’s own emotions. It includes rites of passage that acknowledge and celebrate progress.

What the critics say

Mentoring programs and My Brother’s Keeper have been criticized for targeting individuals instead of whole systems.

A Brookings report by Fredrick C. Harris in October 2015 said that major policy changes are required to remove the social and economic barriers that poor and working-class minority youth face. Mentoring individual young men does not remove those barriers, Harris wrote.

Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University, had a similar response. He told the New York Times that the programs encouraged by My Brother’s Keeper do not address the racism and violence that led to the deaths of young black men like Trayvon Martin.

The lack of focus on girls is also an issue. A report last year commissioned by the African American Policy Forum called for an initiative that addressed the needs of both boys and girls, as did a letter from more than 200 black men to Obama in May 2014.

To Jackie Samuel, however, Becoming a Man is a valuable program. Samuel is senior program director of Claretian Associates, a nonprofit whose mission is to build community in South Chicago through affordable housing and the leadership of residents. Claretian Associates is currently looking at the impact of trauma on neighborhoods.

“We surveyed the community and found that 51 percent of the 126 people surveyed had witnessed a shooting,” Samuel said. “We have to understand what violence is doing to us. When children take guns to go and solve a problem, you start to ask what was missing [in their lives] that a child would have to go that far.”

Samuel is seeing a whole generation of youth who “are really raising each other….These kids really do need somebody they can talk to. They need active listening in their lives.”

Mentoring is a public safety response, she said, and she’s seen Becoming a Man work at Bowen High School in South Chicago.

“I really love the idea,” she said.

Stell Simonton is an independent journalist in Atlanta who frequently writes about youth issues for Youth Today. She has contributed to publications including the Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post and Al Jazeera America, and she was formerly a digital editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a new effort at Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity to feature reported journalism as part of its efforts illuminate news and trends in the field to promote a bipartisan dialogue.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of SpotlightSpotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight’s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don’t hesitate to contact us at

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