Shawn Ginwright

author, professor, activist

A More Beautiful Struggle

Today I’m numb, unable to focus and unsure what is about to happen to this country. Like millions of other Americans, I’m in mourning. It feels like the brilliant rays of possibilities, from years of progressive politics, have been violently stomped out, smothered and covered with thick, heavy dirt. I’ve decided to go on a 7-day news and social media fast in order to wedge some space between my peace of mind and the media pundits’ meaningless reflections about what happened. The other day, I held a post-election healing circle in class with my students at San Francisco State University. Some cried and others vented their anger while some sat silent. I explained to them that we were in uncharted waters now; so many things are simultaneously at risk due to the Republicans’ unprecedented control of the Presidency, Congress, Senate, future composition of the Supreme Court, governorships and state legislatures.

Given my work on building hope and healing, one student asked me, “How do you stay hopeful in times like these? What do you personally do to stay hopeful? ” Her question stunned me because I really didn’t have an answer. I can’t recall what I told her, but I can say that it wasn’t honest. I didn’t want to tell her that I was scared as hell, that I was uncertain about the future and that I didn’t sleep the night of the election. As I left campus to drive home, my wife sent me a text message to drop by downtown Oakland where my 15 year old daughter, Nyah, attends school. Nyah had told us earlier that she would be participating in a school walk out to protest the election results.

It was unusually warm for a November night in the Bay Area, and the traffic driving over the Bay Bridge was thick and slow. As I was stopped in traffic, Nyah sent a text to me that read, “It’s so beautiful down here.” I thought her message was strange because I wasn’t entirely sure where she was, and I wondered why she thought a protest with her 100 high school classmates was beautiful. When I finally arrived in downtown Oakland, I parked my car and was just about to send her a message to find out where she was when I heard a roar similar to the sound of a stadium during a football game. It’s the type of roar that tingles the air and vibrates through your senses. “What the hell was that?!,” I thought to myself. As I approached City Hall, I saw thousands of people chanting together, playing music, all holding candles, waiting to march and pour justice and love into the streets of downtown Oakland. It was indeed beautiful.

I found my daughter Nyah and we marched together. As we chanted, “Not my President!,” in unison, between the beats of the drums behind us, she turned to me and said, “Dad, this is going to be a beautiful struggle!,” and in that instant, I was hopeful again!

In that moment I realized that our job now is to defend and dream, resist and reimagine, disrupt and discover. While we cannot expect the quick solution to come in our lifetime, we can, each day, prepare our young people for a more beautiful struggle in theirs.

Calling for A National Day of Healing and Reconciliation

In moments like this, I sometimes feel powerless, and I don’t know what to do about what seems to be the awful regularity of state sponsored executions of black men. Every time I watch CNN, I shutter when I see the words, “Breaking News” for fear that yet another shooting has occurred. I refuse to watch the video footage because I hate watching innocent black people die. Seeing scenes like this enrage me, saddens me and makes me want to do something more than simply shake my head and say, “not another brotha”. The awful cycle has become like regular clockwork; black man is shot and killed, video footage goes viral, dead black man is discredited by media pundits, thousands march, some sympathize, millions say “race had nothing to do with the shooting”, then we wait for the next time it happens only to begin the cycle over again.

Coming on the heels of back-to-back killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, a peaceful protest in downtown Dallas, Texas, ended with seven wounded, and five dead law enforcement officers. To make matters worse, the New York Post headlines read the morning after in big bold letters, “Civil War-Four Cops Killed at Anti-Police Protest”.  Such statements are not only irresponsible, inflammatory and but also inaccurate. There is no war on police despite what media pundits, nor police departments say. The Washington Post documented that handgun related fatalities among police officers is the lowest in years. The last thing we need, are more nervous officers who feel justified to shoot first and ask questions only after the blood is washed from the street.

What is the most unfortunate casualty, however, is the unraveling of hope among black youth. Gross disinvestments urban neighborhoods in America, lack of quality jobs, poor schools, and the constant fear of the police provide little evidence in a brighter future. I received a call from a close friend the night of Philando Castile’s murder. She wanted me to talk to her 15-year-old son because he was scared, uncertain about what to do, and had few friends that could understand how he was feeling. I listened to him, say “I’m afraid for my life, and my dad’s life. I mean, Philando was complying with the police officers orders and he was still shot and killed!” It’s hard listening to young people loose hope, and even more difficult when there is little to say to make them feel better.

We cannot abate hope, nor can we abandon the light. A better way is always possible if we can muster the courage to take another path forward. I call on all courageous and compassionate leaders to designate and lead a day of healing and reconciliation in their city. We have the power to channel our righteous rage into courageous compassion. We need to meet the magnitude of this moment with an equivalent power of possibilities. The national day of healing and reconciliation is about three things:

(1) listening to difficult and opposing views - This means healing circles with police and pastors, residents and business leaders, and yes conservatives and progressives.

(2) sharing our collective vision of our communities that cut across racial, and political lines. Despite racial diversity in our cities, they are still highly segregated. Let’s consider how might we use barbershops, beauty solons, mom and pop restaurants as places to create a vision for we would like to see in our cities within the next 12 months.

(3) acting with power to enact both big and small changes in our cities, by building and expanding the power of the multiple movements for black lives. I agree with Rep. G.K. Butterfield who said, “if we fail to act, it will be a long hot summer”.

Hope, in times like these, is the most radical resource available to us. Let us act as hopeful soldiers united, and confident as we continue to bend the ridged arch of justice toward a more humane America. Our role, as James Baldwin said, is to “illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through the vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose site of our purpose, which is after all, is to make the world a more humane dwelling place”

Why I love hot water cornbread, sweet ice tea, and Beyoncé

Headline: Beyoncé is the new James Brown, wrapped in Nina Simone! Well, that’s what I thought when I sat on the couch next to my 15-year-old daughter watching Beyoncé’s powerful surprise video release, Formation. She invoked the beauty and power of “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!” just when we needed to hear it! Her words felt like a warm salve, gently place on an open wound saying “I’m black, I’m a woman, and we matter dammit” calling all black women to action- Formation if you will! 

Formation’s timing coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party founded in 1966 in Oakland, California. Formation is significant however for more than its homage to our black radical past. Beyoncé’s lyrics embrace a radical love ethic that celebrates an unapologetic love for all thangs black! In some ways, this love ethic has been a missing element in some of the current movements for Black lives in America. This radical love ethic means loving the jet blue black, gay, trans, queer, straight, thug in heels. We are all black, and that’s all that matters.

Beyoncé’s unapologetic love for blackness is also reminiscent of a long line of black popular artists that have used their fame to tell the truth straight to America’s face.  Nina Simone did it in 1964 in Carnegie Hall with Mississippi Goddam, in support of the Civil Rights movement by calling attention to racism in America. In 1968, James Brown, recorded “Say it Loud, I’m black and I’m proud”, invoking the beauty and radical love of blackness in a time when black respectability politics were in vogue. For those of us watching Beyoncé’s rise from Destiny’s Child to Michael Jackson deity status, her reclamation of blackness is particularly significant to us given Michael Jackson’s racial tragedy and the Jackson family’s battle with their wide nose negroness. Thanks Bey for loving our Jackson 5 nostrils! 

Movements are much more than fist waving, marches, and hot angry protests. Movement building is about courageously loving a people who are despised. There is no movement, no collective action, no social change without a deep, meaningful, saturating love for “da people”. Love, not politics drive social change! Love is perhaps the most radical form of political change because it requires a shift in how we see ourselves, relate to one another and awakens in us a miraculous power. It was love for black people that guided the Black Panther Party’s free meals programs, and it was love for black people that forced the University of Missouri football team to put their scholarships on the line and refuse to play until the president reigned! 

I love hot water cornbread, sweet ice tea and Beyoncé because they remind me of the goodness of being blackety-black-black! You know that bold black loving, natural hair rockn, thick sistah booty shakin, grease jar by the stove, mamma dirty South cookin type love for all things black. Loving all black people, and lifting up our dignity, and humanity is more than “dropping” a surprise single. Rather Beyoncé is following the lead of other great artists like Marvin Gaye who simply listened to our cries, and loved us enough to say “mercy, mercy me”. Perhaps Beyoncé’s move into the political waters will encourage others to jump in and tell their story about being bathed in the light of black love. 

Dr. Shawn Ginwright is Associate Professor of African American Studies at San Francisco State University and the author of Hope and Healing in Urban Education: How Activists are Reclaiming Matters of the Heart

Black Power 2.0: Are We Witnessing the Next Black Power Movement?

Years from now, we will look back at this moment in history as the birth of the next mass movement for civil and human rights in America. The resurgence of activism among young people in general, and Black young people in particular, is reminiscent of the 1960s movements for civil rights and black power. All the ingredients for social change have been set in motion, and young people are assuring that the window of opportunity to create real change remains open.

There are strong similarities between the youth movements during the 1960s, and what I see as the burgeoning movement for black lives today. One key similarity is that the issues haven’t changed much. In 1965, Black youth in Los Angeles exploded in protest against police brutality, resulting in the infamous Watts riots. In 1967, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense confronted police officers in Oakland for racial profiling. Today, young residents in Baltimore and Ferguson are unfortunately still fighting this battle.

1964 was a presidential election year and civil rights advocates leveraged their collective power to influence Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the voting rights act of 1965. Similarly, 2016 is an election year and young activist groups like Black Lives Matter and Campaign Zero are demanding that presidential candidates respond to their proposals for justice system reforms. 

Lastly, we cannot discount the significance of student movements on college campuses during the late 1960s and today. Student movements for free speech, African American studies, women’s rights, and against the Vietnam war fostered an irresistible climate for activism that moved our society toward a more inclusive democracy. Students reimagined what it meant to be included on campus and in society in general, and the result was the creation of new social and academic programs on college campuses in African American studies, Women’s Studies, and Chicano Studies. Today, students around the country are taking up the mantle and advancing another courageous vision of student life. At the University of Missouri, students recently successfully removed the university president, and are demanding seats on the governing body of the entire University of Missouri college system. Students at other colleges are making similar demands for racial dignity.

While there are striking similarities to movements of the past, the differences are probably even more pronounced. First, the leadership of today’s movements for Black lives do not borrow from the past Black religious tradition, where one single charismatic, male leader holds the vision, direction, and power of devoted followers. Today’s movements are decentralized and led by queer women of color and rejects the single, charismatic leader model that has been seared into black movement history. While the term Black Lives Matter can be attributed to activists Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, who first used the term on Twitter, there are hundreds of young leaders, mostly women, in neighborhoods, community organizations, and churches that are equally as powerful and influential to the movement. Leaders of these movements also unapologetically embrace the full humanity, diversity, and dignity among trans, gay, lesbian, and poor Black folk.

Second, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat have become the New Age pulpit for justice.  “All power to the hashtag,” has taken the term “power to the people” to a level unimaginable 50 years ago. Today’s movements for racial justice use technology as platforms to promote ideas and shine a light into the dark corners of college campuses, police departments, and high schools. Technology is also making movement building irresistible to young people who are searching for meaning, and purpose in their lives.

Today’s movements for justice represents something more than youth expressing anger and frustration, but rather illustrate how the fabric of justice is woven together by the brilliant strands of healing, hope, love, and dignity.  While Black Power of the 1960s was about black identity, this current movement is about dignity, and the value of black life itself. Young people remind us that together we must continue to weave the fabric of justice, repair the holes, and mend its tattered edges. We can advance our quest for democracy if we listen to young people and resist the urge to discount their protests as illegitimate and opportunistic. Young people’s voices don’t always come in neatly wrapped packages. The current movement for black lives is building from past failures and reimagining what democracy looks like.  We need to support their calls for dignity, only their voices can move the dial on our progress to a more inclusive democracy.   


Shawn Ginwright is an Associate Professor of African American Studies and Education at San Francisco State University, and the author of Hope and Healing in Urban Education: How Urban Activists and Teachers Are Reclaiming Matters of the Heart and Black Youth Rising, Activism and Radical Healing in Urban America. Join him on Facebook Shawn Ginwright, PhD. and Twitter @shawnginwright or e-mail him at

Thugs, Ghetto and other nice ways to say N****

It feels like black urban communities besieged by police violence somehow have to find the “appropriate” way to funnel rage. To make matters worse, when high-ranking black officials use the term “thugs” to describe the young protesting residents of Baltimore, it reveals a dirty truth about our perceptions of young black people.

Last Thursday, I picked up my daughter from school. She is tall for 14, and towers over most of her friends. Full of energy, she jumped in the front seat and without my prompting exclaimed, “lots of stuff happened today dad”.

A few of her friends, all who are African American, and been selected to help promote a fashion show and met with the show’s producer. He explained to them that they needed to make signs for the show to post around town. She explained that as he was describing how to make the posters, he stopped and commented;

“Make sure the posters aren’t ghetto”!

She explained that she was surprised, offended, and taken aback by his comments.

“Dad, I said to him, ‘Mr. Wilson don’t you think that is a poor word choice?’ What are you really trying to say to us?”

 Yes, I was proud of her for recognizing the underlying racial bias in his “poor word choice”, and putting the racial transgression back in his lap. The thing is however, Mr. Wilson, a white progressive, well-meaning volunteer at the school was unaware of his own deeply held racial bias.  

The term thug, and ghetto are simply symbols of deeply held notions of black people and the neighborhoods in which we live. Whites are often unaware of the racial bias they hold, and when confronted with their bias, they fight to hold on to their deeply held beliefs. In some cases, even middle class blacks hold these views about lower income black communities. It’s not uncommon to hear black young people say, “that is so ghetto” referring to values and behaviors that supposedly are unique, and particular to urban, African American low-income neighborhoods.

 I suspect, that millions of Americans who are watching the events unfold in Baltimore can conclude that the civil unrest confirms what they had suspected all along about Black young people- which is that they are ghetto, and pose a threat to civic order, and a massive military force is necessary to control their rage.

I wonder if Mr. Wilson thinks the young people in Baltimore are ghetto- like my daughter and her friends? I wonder if Mr. Wilson would consider my 17-year old son, a thug because he wears his pants below his waist, and usually wears a hoodie?

It’s time we interrogate the language we use to describe American citizens, and non-citizens. Just like the term “chick”, “babe”, or “girl” is inappropriate to describe women, and derogatory terms like “sissy”, “sweet”, and “fag” are offensive and unacceptable, terms like ghetto and thug are equally offensive in describing young African Americans.

In America, we use terms that make it easy for us to separate the good Americans (citizens), from the bad ones (illegal aliens). We need clear, rigid boundaries so that we can comfortably place our children, our communities, and ourselves squarely on the good side of the American line. 

The truth is that the boundaries we hold in our minds are thin, and fragile, particularly when it comes to citizens advocating for change. What some people consider a riot- unjustified, and illegitimate protest, others see as rebellion- justified, legitimate and organized. We should be wary about the rigid distinctions between civil disobedience, and violence. The student sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement, despite their non-violent actions, often incited violence and harmed people, not just private property. Communities, who have little access to economic or political power often turn to unorthodox, and seemingly chaotic means to be heard.

Lets be clear, I don’t sanction violence, destruction and pillaging as a means for social change, but we should be mindful that young people’s political motivations don’t come in pretty packages wrapped in a bow. Sometimes we are quick to label looting, and burning as unjustified violence, when in fact these are desperate calls for hope.

The terms thug, and ghetto only serve the misguided purpose of determining what protest should look like for those of us who don’t live in neighborhoods besieged by violent police. These words stigmatize communities, and the young people who live there.

The jubilant response in Baltimore, to Maryland state prosecutor Marilyn Mosby’s charging the six officers involved with Freddie Gray’s death are a sign of hope that perhaps justice is on the horizon. Her courageous act of justice nurtured a sense of hope among young people like water for a thirsty garden.

 Lets take my daughter’s brilliant wisdom and ask ourselves, is there a better “word choice” to describe young people who seek answers? Perhaps the terms “angry citizens”, or even “rebellious youth” send a message that honors how black young people have always pushed, elbowed and shoved their way into democracy, and in doing so they have made our country better.


Shawn Ginwright is an Associate Professor of African American Studies and Education at San Francisco State University, and the author of Black Youth Rising, Activism and Radical Healing in Urban America.


Don't Be Poor, Be Happy

Generally, I’m a happy, optimistic and hopeful person. I have a tendency to look for the good in most things. However, I have recently become skeptical about the scores of research that have recently surfaced calling attention to the impact of stressors on the development of children and young people. It's not the overly zealous conclusions researchers make about brain development that use rats, and mice that bothers me. Rather it’s the nearly unanimous conclusion that what really matters in the "secret sauce" to healthy development and learning is better parenting, no excuses teaching, or more robust character traits among children and youth. There is an eerie silence among some educators and researchers when confronted with the question "what are the root causes of stress for young people in low wealth communities in the first place"? More balanced attention to both the policies that create and sustain poverty and therefore stress, as well as the biological, psycho-spiritual consequences of living in poverty is needed.

Having worked for over 20 years with young people in urban schools, and community organizations, I am familiar with limits of arguments that singularly attribute learning, and development to what boils down to "individual" efforts despite the magnitude, complexity and scope of the challenges people face. Writers like Nicholas Kristoff, and Paul Tough accurately point out how environmental stress threatens brain development due to high and consistent doses of cortisol in the body. However, rather than identifying how to transform the root causes of stress from underfunded schools, violence, and joblessness, these writers (and others) overly rely on character development and social emotional learning as the antidote to building healthy strong young people. How might grit, gratitude and purpose (key features of social emotional learning) support learning when kids come to school hungry in the morning, dodge bullets during lunch, and fear the police as they walk home in the afternoon? How much grit actually makes a difference when nothing changes around you? I'm a fan of McFerrin's popular song Don’t Worry, Be Happy, and Pharrel's catchy tune Happy because they simply make me feel good. But these songs are also emblematic of a broader trend that suggests the solution to the woes of the poor can be realized through miraculous individual effort, and profound chemical regulation in the brain.

 I recalled watching the moving Happy at the recommendation of a colleague. The basic premise of the movie was that happiness was something that could be cultivated and sustained despite the external conditions of our lives. Inspiring examples of poor families from the Mississippi delta gleefully enjoying the simple life, eating crawfish on the porch with family and friends, or a man in India finds solace in spending time with his wife and children in a shack. These stories are compelling but incomplete. We don't see what emotionally happens when the man in the Mississippi delta gets sick and cannot afford the medical care. Nor do we see, the how the man from India tucks his beautiful children away at night, but tells them for the fourth night in the row that there is no food.

Happiness is both a function of external opportunities and our internal capacity to hope. Both are intimately tide to one another creating an inextricable elixir of possibility. As I applaud advances in brain research that shed light into the consequences of stress, and positive psychology's claims that focus on character strengths, lets not let toxic public policy off the hook! No amount of happiness, grit, gratitude can alone counter policies and practices that lock undocumented immigrants out of health care, justify police homicide and dislocated residents from poor neighborhoods. We need both a policy of hope, and broader practices of possibilities to usher healthy development, more robust learning and happier young people.


Dr. Shawn Ginwright is the author of forthcoming book Soul Rebels: How Teachers and Activists are building hope among urban youth, Routledge Press. He is a professor of Education and African American Studies at San Francisco State University

Social Change from the Inside Out!

The complex issues facing young people in communities of color require a new strategy in schools and community organizations. Nicole Lee, Executive Director of Urban Peace Movement in Oakland California commented that we often think of social change occurring from the top down, (i.e. government programs), or from the bottom up (i.e. grassroots community organizing). However, the conditions in urban communities of color also require that we address the long-term exposure to social trauma. This means social change from the inside out by working on self-transformation, healing, hopefulness and fostering a general wellbeing. By and large, these spaces do not exist in urban schools and community organizations, as we now know it.  As a result, their absence has been the Achilles Heel of modern organizing’s effort to engage constituencies in a deeper way.  Inside out social change simply means examining both the root causes of barriers to building effective, healthy and vibrant communities, and focusing on caring for our individual mental and physical health. Healing justice advocates examine the process that contributes to individual well-being, community health, and broader social justice. 

What do you social justice, youth workers think?

"Soul Rebels" Forthcoming Book By Shawn Ginwright

Teachers activists and youth workers recognize that healing, is an important ingredient in the gumbo of social change. No one element (community organizing, political education, civic engagement) alone can create the complexity, richness and texture for the bowl of justice for which we all yearn. Justice, in this sense, is not simply the outcome of a campaign, or the result of policy organizing, but rather it is the process of rediscovering hope.

Soul Rebels is a book about hope and documents how teachers in some of America’s most challenging schools transform hopelessness into innovative and unorthodox strategies that build hope, well-being, and community change. These “rebels” challenged conventional educational strategies and embarked on their own journeys that allowed them to discover practices that give them the strength to heal and transform their lives, classrooms, organizations, and communities. In doing so, these rebels sought out an alternative vision for their communities, one based on healing and love rather than hopelessness and fatalism.

Young people who witness or experience violence often experience stress, depression, and anxiety, all of which limit academic achievement and healthy development. These dire social conditions also breed meaninglessness, and hopelessness all of which impact academic achievement and civic engagement. Youth development and civic engagement strategies designed to engage America’s most disconnected young people will only be successful to the extent that they address hopelessness (Wilson, Syme et al. 2005). Unfortunately, these challenges are exacerbated by the fact that teachers and youth development professionals have few options available to support young people in ways that restore hope and well-being. Traditional youth development, and civic engagement approaches to supporting youth of color from stressed urban schools and neighborhoods have simply been ineffective in combatting the deep and multilayered level of stress and trauma many young people bring to school. While the impact of these conditions on mental and physical health, and education is well documented, we understand very little about how activists are supporting young people of color in such dire social conditions. What impact do these conditions have on young people’s sense of hope? How does hope promote academic achievement, civic engagement and well-being? How do activists support young people with healing from trauma, stress and hopelessness?

Just as health and well-being are defined as more than the absence of disease, justice is more that the absence of oppression. Similarly, creating hope in schools and neighborhoods involves more than violence reduction suppression tactics, such as cease-fires, and gang truces. These strategies may serve as conditions that facilitate temporary reductions in violence, but these are not characteristics of hope and peace itself. Building hope among youth of color in urban schools requires that educators rethink what really is important and how healing, and well-being are critical social justice ingredients to reach young people. 

Is character development really enough for urban youth?

Few people would disagree that neighborhood conditions such as poverty, violence, unemployment can have a negative impact on young people’s development. For to many young people the daily struggle to survive in combination with no opportunities to reflect and heal, has brewed a toxic elixir of hopelessness. However, current research focused on character development, and social emotional learning has simply failed to tackle this issue head on. Researchers instead have focused on psychological research on brain development in order to suggest that young people can overcome the constraints of poverty if they had more robust opportunities to build grit, perseverance, and gratitude in their schools.

I don’t entirely discount the significance of character development for young people. However, character development alone is simply insufficient to address the needs of urban youth because it rarely compels young people to confront the very conditions that harmed their character in the first place. I recall a similar educational debate years ago about the importance of resilience, which is the ability for young people to “bounce back” from adverse experiences. Resilience research seeks to understand the qualities and conditions that allow some young people to excel despite difficult experiences. My colleague commented, “imagine that someone has their foot on your neck and it is very difficult to stand up! Resilience is like saying to young people that I’m going to make your neck stronger, rather than focusing on how to get the foot off your neck in the first place!”

In some ways, the current clamoring over character development, and social emotional health resembles this argument. Why haven’t researchers raised questions about the causes of poverty in the first place, and explored examples where schools, teachers, parents and community residents collectively challenge, and change the very conditions that cause harm to young people.  For young people, students and parents in low wealth communities, engagement in the conditions that shape life outcomes is perhaps the most potent and relevant form of social emotional health and character development. Paul Tough, in his book How Children Succeed is correct to raise questions about neighborhood conditions, and their impact on the healthy development of young people. He may have, however, simply focused on the wrong question, which was how do children succeed?

A more useful question would be, what constitutes social emotional health in the context of poverty and how might teachers build character in urban schools? My work suggests that culture, activism, relationships, meaning, and achievement (CARMA) are important character traits, and activities that confront inequality. Character is built for young people who practice grit daily when they dream, hope and toil for a better quality of life.  Teachers and youth workers build character among young people by putting matters of the heart out in the open, and collectively wrestling with difficult issues of the soul.


Excerpt from Ginwright’s Forthcoming Book; Soul Rebels: How Urban Teachers and Activists are Building Hope Among Urban Youth, Routledge Press

Loving our Boys

There is a precious tenderness underneath the thin veneer of toughness of every black boy. We only need to open hearts to see how much they are crying out for us to really see them, hold them and love them.

 Shawn Ginwright


Love is a term we rarely use to describe what black boys need in order to mature into healthy adults. Often we point to quality education, strong role models, consistent mentoring and manhood training. While all of these are important, loving relationships allows us to pierce through their toughness and truly see them. Unfortunately, when we only focus on the exterior toughness, we focus only on the problems facing black boys rather than the possibilities for their lives.

 Some may ask, what’s love got to do with it? How can love shift the tide of the deep despair among our black boys are facing? bell hooks responds to this question with simplistic brilliance. She says that ìlove does not bring an end to difficulties, it gives us the strength to cope with difficulties in a constructive wayî. Our black young boys are filled with the anger of not having their fathers in their lives, they are enraged about the conditions of neighborhood, they are frustrated at watching the mothers work so hard, with little to show for their efforts. It is a heavy burden that no single school, job training program, role model or mentoring program can address. These feelings fester in black boys, and at times erupt as an act of power to proclaim, ìI matter in the worldî! However, in the midst of darkness and misery, our love says to our black boys, ìgood morning child, the sun is bright and a beautiful day is waiting for you! Our black boys are in need of love. With our guidance and support, they can begin to find love in themselves--and in each other. 

 Dr. Noel Anderson at the City University of New York, has commented that rather than teaching our boys how to become men, we need to consider teaching them how to be boys. Our focus on manhood has robbed black boys of their childhood, a precious time to learn how to love, feel and grow. In many ways gangs have fulfilled the function of providing meaning, purpose, support, protection, and love to black boys in urban neighborhoods. They have been a presence in our neighborhoods for decades, and the disputes and negative activities they foster are partly responsible for the deterioration of our communities. Yet, research on gangs does not equate their presence only with violence. In fact, it shows that only a small percentage of gang-affiliated young men can be labeled "hard core" members, an indication that many have only loose affiliations--and may simply equate gang association with peer acceptance and support. Scholars have documented how young people will seek ways to have their need for purpose, guidance and love met either positively or negatively.

  Amid the array of negative connotations that they present, youth gangs also show that young men have the capacity to be leaders. But our boys need support and opportunity to take on leadership roles that are positive.  We can do our part by viewing our young men as community assets and by helping them to expand their possibilities so that they lead lives they have reason to value. When they lead lives they value, they telegraph positive messages to other boys; they build self-esteem and self-efficacy in themselves and in others.

We must develop a range of ways to love and to build healthy relationships between black men and boys. But our men, youth and boys first require healing. Healing from the trauma of oppression—poverty, racism and sexism—is an important political act. As bell hooks wrote, daily trauma, hopelessness and nihilism  “prevent us from participating in organized collective struggle aimed at ending domination and transforming society .” Healing happens when we offer personal testimony to reconcile the painful experiences stemming from oppression, and when we call what may seem at first to be simply personal misfortune or self-blame what it really is—systemic oppression and discrimination.

 Healing requires a consciousness of possibilities, strong caring relationships and safe spaces that encourage our young men to both navigate their current circumstances in their communities as well as see a brighter future for themselves. When young black men are conscious of the root causes of the problems that confront them, they tend to act in profound ways to find ways to transform their own lives and the lives of their communities. 

Copyright Shawn Ginwright All rights reserved.