In late June, Convivium’s Peter Stockland engaged in public conversation with lawyer, teacher and community activist, and author Jamil Jivani, 30, about his new book Why Young Men: Rage, Race and the Crisis of Identity. In this third installment of three parts, Convivium will serialize an edited transcript of the discussion so readers who weren’t able to attend might experience Jivani’s remarkable story and wisdom
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Peter Stockland: In the course of your answer about some choices you made as a young man, you said of one particular decision, and I would bet we could extrapolate that across a number of other decisions: "That was not right for me," as a marker of identity. The shorter, older version of that is, "That was not right." And you knew it was not right. You had something in your life, something your mom or another figure had conveyed to you, that said in so many words, "Here's right. Here's wrong. Here's what you do. Here's what you don't do if you're going to be a righteous man."
Your book deals a lot in a very wise way with the discernment between mentors and manipulators. I've held a theory for a long time that any kid who's had one person genuinely interested in what they do, and who seriously encourages them regardless of whether it's writing or painting rocks blue and green on Christmas Day, is provided a righteous base to which it’s always possible to return even from terrible wrong.
That's where mentorship begins as opposed to manipulators who, as you have identified, want kids to do things for their own ends. I guess the question that I formed in my head as I was reading the book is how do we go out from this place help young men particularly to learn to make that distinction? What are the things that we should do? What are the things that we should really avoid doing?
Jamil Jivani: That's a good question. You probably would be surprised to hear that when you title a book like it's a question, people expect you to answer the question very concisely. I certainly am not going to give a complete answer to that question right now just because I think it's complicated. What I'll do is I'll talk about a distinction that worked for me and maybe that will help.
One of the ways that I became strong academically – despite not being strong academically for so long – was also a big part of the personal transformation that we're describing and the change in my politics and my morals, and frankly I think is a big part of who I am now. This change has to do with the professors I had at Humber College and, more importantly, at York University who took my need for role models and my need for examples and my need to follow someone else's path even just a little bit so I could feel confident enough to do things for myself. They helped me chase that in books.
In particular, there's a professor at York University named Andrea Davis who taught a course called Cultures of Resistance which is a Black history course of the Americas. She introduced me to this broad range of thinkers from Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and these people who were similar in the sense that they had diagnosed some of the world's problems identically. They knew that there was inequality and there were race issues and that America was this imperfect project, but their approach to dealing with those problems was completely different.
In someone like Booker T. Washington, you have this industrial education, community, self-reliance perspective and Du Bois you have the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement and Black American and Jewish American activism of the 20th century. Then obviously the distinctions between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. have been explored in great detail by others. In that you have this sense of looking at all the different ways that men thought and men behaved and the different commitments they had to the world and their communities and their families. Most of these, no, all of them, were husbands. Most of them were fathers. Most of them had wrestled with the personal and professional responsibilities of being a leader in the home and in society.
I just had this a bit of an awakening in that sense, which is to say that I had spent so much of my life up till that point engaging with ideas that were trying to dictate what I was supposed to be. This presentation of Hollywood gangsters on TV and in music, for instance, are giving you this very narrow example of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a Black person, what it means to be from a lower-class community and economically speaking. Then you shift to something like the Nation of Islam, where I'm going into that mosque and I'm being told, “Well, because you're a man, these are the things that you're supposed to believe and do. Because you're Black, these are the things you're supposed to believe and do." You're constantly being beaten over the head with a certain kind of essentialism.
These are the fundamentals of what extremism, I think, is built on. Extremism of various kinds is a sort of infectious virus that thrives when people see themselves as part of homogeneous groups because it is what gives someone the power to tell you what you're supposed to believe and how you're supposed to behave. That is in fundamental tension, for instance, with the kind of individualism and morality and struggle with what's right and wrong that individuals have, which is the foundation of the some of the positive changes I went through.
When I learned how to read about these people who were so similar and so different at the same time, I started to get a sense of what the distinction is between the mentors and the manipulators. A mentor is somebody that is trying to give the skills, as Andrea Davis at York University did, to say, "Look at all the things you can be. Look at all the choices you can make about how you want to live in the world, the beliefs you want to have. Look at the individual pursuit of right and wrong that you can undertake regardless of what's been done to you or what's not been done for you. Then compare that to the kind of philosophies that want to dictate what you're supposed to think, that want to manipulate you by narrowing the set of possibilities you think are available to you because of your identity or because of where you grew up or where your parents are from."
That is the distinction that mattered to me. When I was in Belgium after the Paris attacks, I saw that distinction playing out. You have youth workers and teachers and parents and imams that are working with some of these young men to say, "Look at all the things you can be. Look at all the things you can do." You have manipulators, like the recruiters for ISIS and other jihadist groups, that want to say to them, "No, no, no. Because you are a Muslim, because you have brown skin, because Europe hates you, whatever their reasons are, you have to be a certain way." They try to dictate politics and behavior and morals on that basis.
What that does is place the locus of control you have for yourself in other people's hands. It also makes it almost impossible for people to talk to you, to have mentors and parents and people who want to penetrate those walls of division because you already have an essentialized view of who you're supposed to be. How do you talk to someone who thinks that they've already figured everything out? That is what the adults in my life, I think, struggled to figure out when I was a kid. They tried, I think, and couldn't overcome it because it's not easy to.
Certainly, that's something I encounter in my own work, in my writing, in all the speaking I do at schools. It's like you can see kids who are working through that exact same situation. They are working through the walls that someone else has put around them and need help to break through them. It's not always as deliberate and strategic as I might make it seem in the sense that I'm not sure the professor who did that for me intended to, but that's what she did because she cared enough to pay attention to me. Perhaps that's the best starting point of all.
Peter Stockland: That cautionary note that you strike tcomes through with particular strength when you talk about your time at Yale and encountered the so-called “triple package” concept of the key characteristics
As I was reading it, though, I was struck. We at Cardus also talk about something called social architecture, in a sense the way institutions and identity intersect, but the book made me think of Baroque architecture in that when you walk into a Baroque building, a cathedral or anything that reflects Baroque design, it's structured to pull your eyes up to a blaze of light above you. It pulls your eyes up to Heave, but you still have to watch where you walk in the shadows because with all the light drawing your attention up, there are lots of shadows around your feet. The book seems to me to actually reflect that kind of structure in a lot of ways. You're constantly saying, "Watch. It's not just all looking up. Beware the shadows, too."
You talk about people who lived around Yale in the lower socioeconomic neighborhoods, impoverished neighborhoods in many cases, and of people who “Whiten up” their resumes in order to want to get jobs. Some don’t even do that, but simply truncate their own aspirations, saying, "My desire is to wipe tables in the Yale cafeteria." You observe that the idea of looking up can actually defeat you if you don't watch where it is you're walking. That it is at least a binary proposition.
Jamil Jivani: I mean Yale was... it was weird being around people for whom living up to other people's expectations was constantly a good thing. I had these classmates for whom the idea of pleasing a teacher and a professor and a parent and a mentor was just something that constantly had been part of how they lived their life. That's a big contrast to growing up thinking that people have low expectations of you or bad expectations of you or negative expectations of you, and so you're having to defy those. You're having to say, "I'm not going to be what other people want me to be."
Yale was the first time where I felt people look at me and said, "We have high hopes now for you." That was a bit of a psychological shift that took some getting used to. Frankly, I'm not sure I ever got used to it.
The other major thing that stood out there was that Yale University is one of the richest institutions in the world, and to be there and see poverty surrounding it is very striking. I worked as a part-time high school teacher while I was a law student there, so I spent most of my time in the neighborhoods that did not benefit from Yale's opulence. Getting some sense of that perspective was fascinating. Imagine being a kid who sees problems in your community every day, and these are problems that transcend race or immigration status.
This is a city that was facing real poverty in a county that was facing real poverty. To be there every day and then know that there's this really rich university full of very smart people, that don't seem to care enough to want to solve any of the problems that you're experiencing, is a different way of growing up.
I think I learned a lot from that in the sense that the kind of poverty I related to culturally, I saw materially in North America for the first time in my life. For instance, when I was 14 in drama class, and asked to bring in a video that I felt I related to, I brought in the movie Boyz ‘n the Hood, because that's literally how I perceived my life. That's a movie where young men barely make it to 25, and that's literally how I saw my own life playing out, even though I had very little in common with the young men in that movie.
New Haven, where Yale is, is the first time I actually lived and worked in a place it was like Boyz ‘n the Hood. The life expectancy, the gun violence, the legacy of crack and the war on drugs and over incarceration. That was really there in the way that I had only seen it in movies. It was an intense place to be. I learned a lot. I was there from 22 to 25, and those were very formative years.
Peter Stockland: Tell us about being around King Pikeezy.
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Peter Stockland: Yeah, his rap name, which actually makes me want to run in the other direction, but he had an incredibly positive effect on you and influence. Not so much, I guess, influence, but encounter with you. He was a part of a group called Fathers Now, which is a group of people that go out together and talk about what it meant to be a father. Instead of that isolating silence and instead of simply disappearing, they actually took it seriously enough to gather together. One of the things I loved, is that you spoke about the talking circle, where they gathered, as an opportunity to remove the mask he'd learned to wear in order to survive in the streets. The mask was at least in part tied to his sense of masculinity, which was about being cool, tough, and strong. You wore that mask in your formative years, and yet if I'm reading it right, you came to understand that the necessity of replacing it with optimism, trust, and faith.
Again, how do we communicate that as we leave this room, to the young men that we encounter, the young men that might be tipping into crisis, into rage, into that sense of an identity that they just want to let go of? How do we communicate those three absolutely essential characteristics of optimism, trust, and faith?
Jamil Jivani: The example of King is an answer to that question, which is to say he was a young man who lost his mother, and so he moved back home, which was in a gang-ridden neighborhood from college. He had made it out of the neighborhood, did well enough in school to get a scholarship to go to college, and wound up having to move back because his mom passed and he needed to help manage her affairs.
Despite all the hard work he did, being back in that environment brought him back to the influences that he worked hard to escape. He was on a crash course with prison. By the time I knew him, he was working as an organizer for this fatherhood program, which was designed to engage men who were coming out of prison or who were potentially at risk of going to prison, but also who were parents. The idea was to give them a positive identity as fathers, to show them how they could take responsibility for their families.
When I say that, I mean not because they didn't want to, but because they didn't know how to. They didn't have a sense of the value they could add to their own households. They didn't have a sense of the value they could add to their own child's life because they had seen themselves in such a negative light. They were incarcerated. They were potentially on their way to incarceration, and so they had such a low sense of what they could offer their own community.
That program had almost a completely perfect recidivism rate, meaning that in Newark, New Jersey, where it's actually one of the places that mass incarceration in the United States has been so powerful in terms of the sheer percentage of men that go into prison. They were able to save a lot of people's lives, almost everybody's life that passed through their doors.
I think it was because they replaced one negative identity with a positive one. They understood that for the future of these men, you had to look at it as a competition. You could not passively hope they would make the right choices and that you could guide them, and that everything would work out. Instead, you had to actively look at it and say there are negative influences coming for these men. How do we compete? How do we offer a more compelling identity? A more compelling narrative? How do we give them some way of looking at themselves positively as fathers and as sons and people who are part of a community? How do you give them responsibility so they have less time to make mistakes? How do we give them responsibilities that show them what they're capable of?
It was a competing philosophy, a competing narrative. Ultimately, that's what I try to advance with the book, that if we want to recognize there is a challenge facing some of our men, but many of us, in a serious way, we have to get on the battlefield. You can't hope everything just works itself out, and you also can't be too timid to have the conversations that need to happen. I think that's why that group, Fathers Now, and King in particular, stuck with me so much and why
I wanted to make sure I wrote about them in the book. That was the first group I met that I think in a positive sense, had the same determination to influence the young men in their community as those with negative intentions did. I think that's why they had the positive results that they did.
Peter Stockland: It's interesting too that the structure that they chose was to sit in a circle and talk, which requires listening as well, meaning conversation, breaking the silence that we spoke about at the beginning. Thank you so much, Jamil.
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