Latino Program in Oakland Focuses on Cultural Activities

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The two and a half-year-old Latino Men and Boys Program, run by the Oakland, Calif.-based Unity Council, expanded this past fall to serve 130 youth in five sites, triple its original membership. With a mission to increase high school graduation and career possibilities for young Latinos through connections to positive male role models and culturally relevant programming, the program also added a community-organizing component this year.

“We’re … teaching them how to advocate for their educational future,” with organizing focused around changing the funding formula for public schools, said Paul Flores, manager of the program, which provides health, academic support and character development during the school day, and employment training and cultural activities during out-of-school time.

The philosophy of the Latino Men and Boys Program is based around the concept of “Joven Noble,” translated loosely as “honorable young man rites of passage,” which talks about the cultural basis for manhood in traditional Latino and Native American cultures, Flores said.

“We understand our role based on our traditions — how to reconnect with a manhood that is a positive image of macho, who honors his work, sets a good example, doesn’t bring harm to others, takes responsibility,” Flores explained. “This is in response to the decimation of the male presence in a lot of the urban areas in California. We don’t have a lot of positive male role models in urban California, particularly African American or Latino. A lot of them are lost, in jail, not connected to community movements and not as connected to their families as they should be.”

The Joven Noble approach is intended to encourage Latino youth to be honorable and not repeat the cycle of violence they see around them. “We looked at our traditions to see how men established themselves,” Flores said. “How do we show love to men without [implying] weakness? We’re addressing male stereotypes and the negative macho culture within our own community. The idea is that we need to deliver it from a male’s perspective, based on lived experience, so that young men can hear what their mentor went through in establishing their own manhood.”

Those conversations are intended to lead these boys and young men away from that “negative macho culture” Flores references. “A lot of our guys are dealing with this idea of respect being gained on the street through violence and intimidation,” he said. “We’re saying that won’t take you very far in life, despite the images being projected in the media. Being a bully is not the way to gain respect. In fact, it’s the opposite: It’s being humble, and it’s being vulnerable, is the way we gain respect.”

The boys and young men in the program work with their mentors to explore a host of cultural traditions, Flores said. They make masks, necklaces, shields and other crafts, and staff teach them the meaning behind such projects. They create theater and spoken word performances, and they paint murals together. They attend music, theater, poetry, Mexican-style dance and hip-hop shows.

“All of those things have values attached to them,” Flores said, adding that the program regards such activities as “cultura cura,” or culture cures. “We expose them to positive activities that engage their cultural background, vs. taking them to the movies or a football game. We show them expressions of their culture and then teach them how to do those things.”

The career-development piece of the Latino Men and Boys Program is also delivered based on the lived experience of mentors.. “Our program is based on hiring mentors who have lived the same experience as our clientele,” Flores said. “All of our mentors are college graduates, but they’ve also grown up with serious challenges when it comes to poverty and family makeup. Some have had interactions with the law.”

Coming from similar backgrounds helps mentors understand how to prepare Latino teens for the employment process, Flores said: “What are you going to encounter, as a young, brown man, trying to find familysustaining employment? We train them and place them inside jobs and internships, but they’ve got to go through the character development — the male rites of passage — and the employment training.”

Based on The Unity Council’s report on the program at the end of last school year, the program has made significant strides in preparing Latino boys and young men for school and life thereafter: a 97 percent school attendance rate, 19 percent increase in GPA over the previous year, 30 percent reduction in disciplinary actions from the previous year and only four suspensions out of 60 boys who participated, and 75 percent of qualified youth placed in internships and summer jobs.

“Students need … groups and mentors who share their cultural experience,” one school site teacher said. “The Latino Men and Boys group provides that for students. To see young men being tutored and supported by other men within their culture is very empowering. They understand the challenges of the student and provide a road map to accomplishments.”