It doesn’t necessarily look like a place where someone would find freedom. It is indeed a sanctuary, but not in a mystical, ethereal way. Instead, freedom exists in a small commercial suite in northwest Washington, D.C., its largest room hugged by three cornsilk-colored walls and a fourth that is such a brilliant shade of red it shocks the system to attention. Navy Berber carpet sprawls underfoot and an assembly of IKEA-inspired furniture, mostly folding chairs and tables, make up the functional decor. This is the community space at DENIM, where young black gay, bi- and same-gender-loving men are affirmed, understood and validated, celebrated, informed, and encouraged.
DENIM stands for “developing and empowering new images of men.” In practice, it is a place where young men between the ages of 18 and 29 find unconditional acceptance and connect to programming that addresses their unique needs. “We wanted to provide a center that accommodated the many subcultures of black gay life: college-educated, people affiliated with Greek-letter organizations, gamers, the ballroom community, people who don’t identify as gay, people who are openly gay, people who are transgendered, and create this organic experience for all of them,” says Terrance Payton, one of DENIM’s founders. Read the full DENIM profile by Janelle Harris.
Anchorage, Alaska is a celebration of natural splendor. Snow-topped mountains reach up into clinquant skies and create a majestic backdrop for the normalcy of life happening below. It’s the meeting of two worlds in the state’s largest city—the earthen grandeur that’s existed for lifetimes and the contemporary bustle of the now.
Straddling them are Alaska Natives, in particular the tween and teen boys coming of age there that are expected to ultimately contribute to their communities and provide for their families. That, by historic definition, is what makes a man.
Connected by blood to cultures as vibrant as the land itself, they’re also living the experience of American millennials at the same time. Some come from households steeped in traditional Native values and customs. Some grow up in homes where those norms aren’t norms at all. For many, the bridge between their dual identities is the Alaska Native Heritage Center.
It’s a place for Native youth to just be—to be understood, to be celebrated, to be connected. “Alaska Natives have survived in this state and this environment for more than 10,000 years, and there’s a lot of truth and brilliance and knowledge and tradition in what we know,” said Annette Evans Smith, president and CEO, who works closely with her small staff to guide the development of culturally enriching activities. “It’s our job to instill those values and that knowledge into our young people so that we can create future Elders and tradition bearers to carry our cultures another 10,000 years.” Read the full Alaska Native Heritage Center profile by Janelle Harris.
There’s an old saying that goes, A boy is born, a man is trained.
In the hodge-podge of races, cultures, ethnicities, and companion traditions that is America, there’s no formalized, hard-and-fast entrée into manhood. Sans a singular rite of passage, it just kind of happens from family to family, community to community. Getting a driver’s license, losing one’s virginity, graduating from high school or college and joining the workforce, turning 18 or 21 (depending on whom you ask) — all have been pointed to as touchstones in the shaping of masculinity. Fathering a child is perhaps the most significant of all, but the consensus view holds that, the mechanics of biology aside, the ability to procreate does not make a male a father — nor make him a man.
The absence of active dads in black and Latino communities has been well-documented as the by-product of systemic social factors and poor personal decisions. Whatever the reasons, the result is boys growing up without real-life role models and male figures able and willing to offer their time, wisdom, and emotional maturity to boys looking for the way forward. Mentorship doesn’t necessarily substitute for the absence of a biological parent, but it often does provide boys and young men with support and encouragement from older guys who can relate to them because, not too long ago, they were them.
There’s another old saying, this one originating somewhere on the continent of Africa, that goes, It takes a village to raise a child. Growing Kings is part of that village for the families of black and Latino boys in Birmingham, Alabama. Read the full Growing Kings profile by Janelle Harris.
Where there is joy, there is music. Frustration, music. Hope, music. Love found, love lost, music and more music. It expresses emotion when words alone are inadequate and provides a soundtrack for our lives.
In the Mississippi Delta, the cradle of the blues, the black experience has been chronicled by enduring and endearing songs that lament racism, relationship problems, social inequity, and the aggravation of being broke. The blues are a gift to the world, one that the Delta is best known for. The music spills out of unassuming juke joints that come alive after dark and that have produced more GRAMMY Award winners per capita than any other region of the country.
The blues is not necessarily the preferred language of the young men coming up now, though. They speak hip-hop and make personal heroes out of Southern-born rappers like Lil’ Boosie and Yo Gotti, artists celebrated for their lyrical realness and rags-to-riches success. The issues that both genres address are the same, but the stories born out of them are set to a different beat.
It’s fertile ground for Healing With a Groove. Read the full Healing With a Groove profile by Janelle Harris.
The Hohokam Indians made their mark nearly two millennia ago. In the hot desert region home to Phoenix today, the ancient people developed agriculture through sophisticated irrigation. Using only hand tools, they fashioned a canal network stretching more than 500 miles through the Gila and Salt River valleys.
This summer Augustine Newman, 16, heard of these amazing feats of engineering for the first time. This wasn’t just historical fodder; the pre-industrial technology of the Hohokam fueled a deep pride in Augustine, an aspiring scientist who is half-Apache and affiliated with the San Carlos Tribe. “We Natives had our own system,” he explains. “We were able to be self-sufficient.”
Augustine was among 60 young men who heard about the Hohokam canal system during a tour of the offices of the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a diversion system that carries water from the Colorado River to municipalities and reservations in central Arizona. The visit was part of a summer career exploration program within a larger College and Career Readiness initiative organized by the Phoenix Indian Center. Katosha Nakai, former chair of the Center’s Board of Directors and CAP’s Tribal Affairs and Policy Development Manager, led the tour through the many CAP departments—accounting, legal, engineering, water operations. The tour largely served to show the young men the kinds of jobs available with the right training and education. Read the full Phoenix Indian Center profile by Brian Baughan.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
It’s the classic question, probably the most reliable way for an adult to get inside the mind of a child imagining life 10, 15, 20 years from now.
Common sense dictates we should outwardly deem every child’s answer an airtight plan. Whatever you want, you can have. We’ll embrace the different versions of those high-achieving future selves—saving a patient’s life, discovering a new gene, leading a Fortune 500 company. Privately, however, we may make less rosy predictions, stipulating to certain realities that can impede paths to success, such as income and wealth, geography, race, gender, and educational quality.
For a tightly knit group of residents in North Minneapolis, Minnesota, Whatever you want, you can have is the gospel truth. For every child, no exception.
These residents have decided to aim very high for the community’s children and to partner with mentors, teachers, tutors, and other professionals to provide the supports necessary for full college and career readiness. This mobilizing force behind them is the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), a Promise Neighborhood collaborative that seeks to end intergenerational poverty in North Minneapolis through education. Read the full Northside Achievement Zone profile by Brian Baughan.