How Can We Help Boys and Young Men of Color Heal, Grow, and Thrive?

Apr 5, 2017, 9:00 AM, Posted by Maisha Simmons

A new effort will fund up to nine organizations committed to helping stem a systemic tide of trauma that boys and young men of color face. The ultimate goal is to bring healing and hope to a thriving new generation.

Young performers affiliated with North Philadelphia’s Village of Arts & Humanities. Young performers affiliated with North Philadelphia’s Village of Arts & Humanities. Photo credit © 2017 Danielle Miles. Courtesy of Forward Promise.

Violence was a mainstay in George Galvis’ life from as far back as he can remember: His earliest memory, from age 3, is of witnessing his father savagely attacking his mother. So it’s no surprise that he brought what he learned at home to the streets. That ended at age 17, when he was incarcerated for multiple felonies, including attempted murder for his involvement in a drive-by shooting.

Once he left prison, Galvis began a healing journey that led him to embrace his American Indian roots and reclaim his culture. It also steered him to college, where he studied hard and earned a degree. Now a youth activist and executive director of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, Galvis spends some of his time teaching young people how to heal from trauma. While it’s true that too often “hurt people, hurt people,” he says it’s equally true that “healed people, heal people.”

Galvis was one of several young men who shared their stories of trauma and healing during the Philadelphia launch of the next chapter for Forward Promise—our signature effort begun in 2012 to promote the health and success of boys and young men of color. Like Galvis, too many boys and young men of color around the United States suffer from the effects of trauma induced by the conditions in which they live: whether it’s becoming the victim of a crime or witnessing violence; worrying about whether your immigrant father will be home for dinner or deported; fearing that your sexual identity will make you a target for violence; or enduring chronic stress because the color of your skin makes you an object of fear when you walk down the street—all of these experiences impact your health.

Research shows that these boys and young men of color (BYMOC) are more likely to suffer from toxic stress and poor health because of their exposure to violence, chronic poverty, racism, and unconscious bias. But the systems charged with protecting their lives, dignity, and wellness—health care, mental health, law enforcement, education, employment, juvenile justice and social services—have generally failed to help young people heal in healthy ways that are also relevant to their culture.

That’s why the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is eager to support this next phase of Forward Promise to help BYMOC heal, grow, and thrive in the face of chronic stress and trauma. With a new national program office at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, led by Howard Stevenson and Rhonda Bryant, Forward Promise will examine how current and past traumas impact young people and what organizations and institutions are doing to promote healing from psychological wounds on individuals, families, and communities. In short: If it takes a village to raise a child, what does it take to raise a healthy village?

Forward Promise supports Empowerment Projects to lift up and strengthen organizations that provide culturally relevant and evidence-supported responses to trauma.

We're looking for organizations that will partner with groups that work directly with or provide services to BYMOC to foster growth and opportunity. The focus is on technical assistance, field building, and supporting efforts to counter the narrative about BYMOC that they do not matter.

The hope is that these projects will 1) strengthen and support practices and organizations that understand how experiences with trauma impact a person’s mental and physical health; 2) expand research and awareness of what encompasses trauma; and 3) elevate solutions that are working to mitigate the effects of trauma transferred from one generation to the next.

Forward Promise will focus part of its grantmaking on identifying and raising the visibility of emerging leaders such as youth organizers, community advocates, direct service providers, researchers, and administrators of youth-serving systems and help them strengthen and grow their work. And, because of Forward Promise’s focus on historical trauma and healing, it will target adult and elderly mentors who work with youth to reconnect them with past traditions for building and strengthening relationships.  

Storytelling, which has been found to be a healing force for excavating hidden trauma, will also be a core part of its focus. Forward Promise will support grantees to tell stories of the youth they serve as well as engage youth in sharing their stories to foster healing.

The Foundation looks forward to working in partnership with Forward Promise to showcase those promising solutions and building the evidence for what works. With this $12 million investment, we hope to move the field of trauma-informed care forward so we can give young people the supports and services they need to heal, grow, and thrive so they can lead healthier, productive lives.

About the author

Maisha Simmons

Maisha Simmons, MPA, is a senior program officer focusing on strengthening vulnerable children and families. She is responsible for coordinating a variety of programs working toward violence prevention and healthy equity, including Forward Promise.

Read her full bio.