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Questions from the Crowd

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. At the end of the conversation, members of the crowd added their own voices to the dialogue. Here's what they said.

8 minute read
Questions from the Crowd July 9, 2018  |  By Jamil Jivani
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Question From the Crowd: You put a real emphasis on the goal of youth workers. I found that pretty inspiring. I want to ask more about that in the Canadian [context], because I totally agree with you that where there is a gap. Could you describe the youth worker context in terms of Canadian community centers, boxing clubs etc.? I think is a key part of the book. Thank you for writing the book.

Jamil Jivani: Thank you. I think of youth workers as a bit of a mix between a professional mentor, a social worker, a teacher. Very rarely do youth workers have a uniform training, because they can come from different professional angles or experiences. What they have in common is that they are often employed by schools or community centers, or agencies that work with youth. 

Their primary function is to meet young people where they are, meaning they organize activities that help connect a young person who might not be in school, or might not be working, or might not really be part of any institution in any meaningful way. They become a connector between that young person and the rest of society, and can be a bridge between them and the various services they might need, or institutions that could benefit them.

In a place like Belgium, I saw youth workers operating in a crisis situation. After a terror attack you have all these young people who feel marginalized and alienated. Youth workers are really important in shifting a lot of anxieties that young people have in some of those situations toward positive activities, and offering positive ways of spending your time. Certainly in Canada, we maybe haven't dealt on a local level with the kind of trauma and crisis that I described in Belgium with the Paris attacks and the Brussels attacks; but even in a neighborhood where you would have, say, a shooting, like in Toronto we've got a spike in violent crime so far this year. You have other kinds of concentrations of disaffected youth that are in need of positive influences.

Youth workers become, in some cases, the first line of defense, but also in some cases, the last line of defense at the same time. The young people they're able to reach by organizing a soccer game or a basketball game, or a tutoring workshop, or a dance program, or whatever they think the young people in their neighborhood might benefit from, that might be the only thing that a young person has that's positive. This could be the only way of spending their time that could help them build character or experience good things about our society.

In Canada, I would say, it's primarily a profession that is very poorly researched. One of the benefits of doing the research for the book in Europe was that there's a much deeper sense of how important youth workers are there. In Canada, we describe it as a very underfunded profession, meaning kind of similar to faith institutions, actually, I think we benefit a lot from their work, but don't really capture or appreciate it. 

Some of my best friends are youth workers who I've known since I was young and now they are the role models that are making a difference in communities across the Toronto area. A lot of those guys have to work multiple jobs just to piece together a career for themselves, because it's not a profession that you can make a living. Certainly not a living where you could support a family of your own. That is endemic to the profession at large.

One of my hopes with the book is to help people understand why that job is an important one; why more men need to be taking those jobs. I think it's a responsibility that has too often fallen on the shoulders of women in our society. We need to create more careers in that profession, because it's very difficult to have a career being a youth worker. 

I spoke to a bunch of youth workers from YMCAs across Ontario last week, and most of them can only stay in the profession for a few years at a time before they move on to a manager position, or they move onto a role where they need to make more money so they can take care of a family. It's treated as if it's a temporary unskilled gig, and yet it's incredibly important. I'm glad you noticed that part of the book, because in terms of practical solutions, that's one that I hope more people take seriously.

Question from the Crowd: Now that you've seen both sides and decided to be on the side of the mom, how would you be a different father?

Jamil Jivani: I have had a girlfriend for almost a year and a half now, and she has a seven year old son. This is something I've thought a lot about over the last year and a half or so. There's a few things I have done deliberately after reflecting on this topic. 

One of which is to not assume I have to figure everything out, or that I'm going to ever reach a point where I feel prepared or ready. I think my own father struggled with that, in the sense that I think he thought he was supposed to know things he didn't know, and because of that, never felt comfortable with his responsibilities. 

My way of acknowledging that I will probably also feel unprepared a lot of the time has been to treat every day as its own opportunity to be there and be supportive and be instructive. I try to be a role model, and if I think about it as a series of smaller battles, that in the aggregate, I might have the positive impact that I want to have.

It's easier on me psychologically, I should say, to think about [fatherhood] that way because then I really only need to know enough to get through the day. I don't need to know enough to be perfect. I don't need to know enough to avoid making mistakes. 

The other thing that I take very seriously is, a lot of what I think I can do that's helpful that I was lacking is demonstrating how I can be around his mom and treat her well, show her affection. It's weird for me to think of what my father showing my mom affection would even look like. None of the memories I have of him illuminate that for me.

Because of the book, my father reached out to me for the first time in about 10 years. I had done some media for the book and I had explained that a few weeks before the book came out, I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer.

My father saw it in some of the media that I was sick, and so he tracked me down on Facebook. My initial reaction was to follow my gut, which was to be like, "Screw you, man. I could've been sick any time this last 10 years, so could he, and this is what happens when you don't talk to people. You miss out on what's going on their life." I wanted to be like, "I'm not going to respond to you or answer your questions about what's going on with me."

I deleted his message, and then I thought about it for a few days. I thought about the question you're asking, which is if my son one day would ask me, "What kind of man am I supposed to be?" Would I want to say that I wouldn't go five or 10 minutes out of my way to answer somebody's Facebook message that might make them feel relieved or make them feel better? I'm going to be the kind of person that assumes the best of people, which in this case is not to be cynical about my father, but to say maybe he is actually concerned that his oldest child might pass away.

I wrote him a response, which was, at least for me on a personal level, a way of trying to say, "I won't deal with the situation the way he did.” He couldn't put someone else's needs above his own. I'm going to set an example of being a person who will put other people's needs before my own, and hopefully my son would see that, and that would be a way I could be a different kind of example for him.

Question from the Crowd: When I get into an argument I find myself reacting rather than acting. Can you talk a little bit about acting versus reacting?

Jamil Jivani: One of the elements of being a young man that I make reference to in the book, but I don't really focus on him too much, is our high testosterone levels, which affects how we act and react pretty significantly. It's one of the reasons why our prisons are mostly filled with young men. 

Violent crime is most committed by young men. We tend to be impatient and aggressive and react too quickly. I think that's a pretty common challenge that a lot of young men face, especially those of us who had a hard time controlling our emotions. 

I had to learn how to make certain behaviors completely off limits in order to control how I would react to things. I had to get comfortable for instance, with the idea that I was going to lose all of my friends if I wanted to make changes about myself, because I knew that I couldn't change some of my gut reactions to things if I didn't make broader changes in my life.

For most people who have a hard time with their ways of reacting to things in their lives, say a lot of young people who come out of the prison system, this rings true to their experiences as well. They're not able to change how they react to their partners domestically, or the people in their community that they have conflicts with, without having massive changes in other parts of their lives. 

It's one of the reasons I think that a lot of people come out of the prison system relying on faith communities to change their lives, because they need a fundamental shift in their thinking and in their influence and their behaviors.

On a more philosophical level, though, I think it's very easy to grow up as a young man today. This transcends race and class, and seeing victimhood as a virtue. We have developed culturally a bit of a moral impulse to see weakness in and of itself as a virtue. 

A lot of young people are not being taught how to actively approach the world. They’re being taught how to reactively approach the world. They are being conditioned to think that the phenomena you see and experience, the unfairness about the world, the imperfections about their life warrant, as I described before, a moral relativism. You can think and do a variety of things, that on an intellectual level and a philosophical level, you might know are wrong, but you can justify them to yourself.

That rings true in my own life experience, but also with a lot of the young people that I have the privilege of working with or covering in my writing. The distinction between actively and reactively thinking, to me, often comes down to one of a moral conviction. I try to do that in my own life, to keep my own thinking and my own emotions and my own reactions in check. 

I also think that's very good for a lot of other young people to think like this. Especially those of us who are walking a tightrope, where the margin for error is low because you don't have a lot of money or an opportunity is fleeting, or you might make a lot of mistakes and you've only got a couple more chances to get things right. Learning how to think actively is pretty important. Moral relativism is a real. I haven't thought more about that.


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