Targeting At-Risk Youths: Tennessee Program Prevents Violence in Young African American Males

Article excerpt

Crime and drug abuse among African American male youths often stem from poor self-esteem and false notions of manhood. Men of Distinction (MOD), a successful prevention and intervention program run by Bethlehem Centers of Nashville, is working to combat these problems by boosting self-esteem and providing positive educational and recreational training and programs for African American male youths age 9 to 17.

The program's goals are to prevent homicides among at-risk youths by helping them cope with violent environments and teaching them methods for overcoming the obstacles they face and to help them lead a positive, healthy life.

The youths are residents of some of Nashville's toughest public housing projects: John Henry Hale Homes, Preston Taylor Homes and Andrew Jackson Homes. Program officials originally went door-to-door in the projects to recruit participants. Now, youths hear about the program through fliers that are distributed in those areas or by word-of-mouth.

Bethlehem Centers of Nashville, a Methodist-affiliated nonprofit organization that runs programs for the poor, initially received funding for Men of Distinction in 1989 from the Governor's Black Health Care Task Force of Tennessee. What began as a demonstration project has grown into a national model for prevention and intervention among African American male youths. MOD's intervention strategies for preventing deviant behaviors have been so successful that the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention recommends that it be replicated elsewhere.

"We're trying to give these children direction and guidance," says MOD program coordinator Ron King. "We do this by providing mentoring and conflict resolution sessions, and by working directly with the kids and their parents. We demand discipline and high standards."

Program Components

MOD's program components include mentoring, peer counselling, professional counselling services, academic activities, rap sessions, field trips and manhood development and responsibility training.

As King points out, one of the biggest problems facing African American male youths is the lack of a strong family unit. Most MOD participants live in single-parent households headed by women. That means few have positive male role models. Without the guidance and discipline of a father, they are more susceptible to negative peer pressure, drug and alcohol use, crime and, for some, death.

Mentors

Mentors work with program participants one-on-one, acting as friends, role models and surrogate parents. They take MOD participants on outings and are there to listen, give advice and step in when a parent cannot. For example, they may meet with teachers or guidance counselors to discuss a youth's progress in school.

An advisory board assists in recruiting, screening and matching mentors and youth. Pairings are based on common interests and activities. Mentors undergo an extensive interview process and background and employment checks. Currently 25 mentors are involved with MOD.

There are no special qualifications for mentors; they must simply agree to phone the youth at least once a week and take him out at least once a month. The mentor system offers youths positive relationships and experiences that help build their self-esteem.

Reflecting on MOD mentor John Coleman's impact on her son's life, Sharon Rhodes said, "I can't believe the change in his attitude. Jason behaves better in school and shows me more respect. I am really thankful for the time Mr. Coleman spends with Jason because he's needed a male figure in his life."

"There are cases where MOD youths have witnessed parents involved in abusing drugs and alcohol, experienced or witnessed sex at an early age, or have endured physical and mental abuse," King said. "The mentor for these youths may very well be someone who grew up in the same environment and has had some involvement with correctional institutions but has decided not to live the same type of life as an adult. …