In the years immediately following the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999, there was an onslaught of literature addressing the “crisis” of young men. It was an alarmist, unbalanced genre, according to Chautauqua Institution’s Director of Religion Robert Franklin.
One of the reasons the outcry was so problematic, Franklin said, is that issues facing young boys and men in America are nothing new. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. was trying start a conversation on the topic decades ago.
“[During a recent sabbatical] I was examining how King interacted with and communicated with young people — young men in particular,” Franklin said. “He was concerned about the anger and rage in young men. He talked publicly about this. He said, ‘I have listened to the rage of the unheard. Riots are the voices of the unheard.’ But it didn’t impact national consciousness. It was not an alarm that got our attention. Columbine did.”
For young men, incarceration rates are on the rise, while high school graduation and college enrollment rates are dropping. Having previously worked at an all-male college (currently, Franklin is president emeritus at Morehouse College), Franklin wanted a chance to reflect on what he learned about such a complicated, nuanced isue.
Franklin will launch Chautauqua’s week on “Boys Will Be Boys, Then Men,” at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater. Joe Echevarria, former CEO of Deloitte and current co-chair of President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, will join him.
“I don’t have a lot of conclusions, but I have a lot of questions,” Franklin said. “I want to know what’s going on here — it may be nothing. There might not be a ‘boys crisis.’ But I want to interrogate this. We’re not saying there is a crisis — I’m not there yet. But I want to better understand what’s happening.”
Today’s lecture will consist of Franklin introducing Chautauquans to the week: a 10-lecture platform, programmed in partnership with Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Sherra Babcock, bringing together the morning and afternoon platforms in an unprecedented way. Echevarria will then speak to Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, and the $200 million that has been mobilized to focus attention to issues facing young men in America.
In combating issues facing young men, Franklin said there are things that work, including: getting boys reading on grade level by the fourth grade; changing education policies regarding suspensions; encouraging boys to learn how to walk away from a fight and develop life goals; and convincing them that being academically smart is masculine and cool.
In a piece written for MSNBC last January, Echevarria said he was involved in My Brother’s Keeper to encourage the business community to “contribute to something that I know works.”
“[T]here’s a near-perfect match between the skills most prized in the business community and those we so often hear boys and young men of color need to develop in order to succeed,” Echevarria wrote. “Skills like goal setting; teamwork; formulating a plan and executing against it; adapting when circumstances change; and measuring success.”
If mentors step to the plate through initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper, “it would make a dramatic difference for the good,” Echevarria wrote. “That won’t just help people individually — it will help us all, in terms of closer communities, healthier families and a stronger economy.”
In a week, that may be difficult for some Chautauquans, Franklin said that despite the laundry list of challenges facing young men, he remains hopeful.
“What comes to mind is the phrase ‘advocates for a better path forward,’ ” he said. “That’s part of what we can provide men and boys who are searching for guidance and direction. We can provide those role models and resources, and we can empower them and local leaders. These boys and men can become advocates for gender justice and equality, create healthy, respectful relationships and practice those virtues. We can help usher in a new era, helping a movement of ‘new men’ who support and share with women in ways that will help all of our communities to flourish.”