Where the Boys Are

New York club gears staff, programming, approach to needs of boys and young men

“We’re very proud to have been part of that history,” said Rashida Abuwala, chief program officer. “But our focus on singlegender programming was somewhat inharmonious with the [national organization’s] focus on boys and girls. We decided to leave the national consortium and become an independent organization. We maintain a very positive relationship with BGCA.”The 137-year-old Boys Club of New York (BCNY) provides out-of-school time programming for boys and young men ages 6 to 20 in three locations. A founding member of the Boys Club of America, which decades later became the Boys & Girls Clubs, the New York club “amicably parted ways” with the national organization in 2005.

With more than 80 full-time and 150 part-time staff, BCNY serves almost 4,000 boys per year, of whom 44 percent are Latino, 38 percent are black, 14 percent are Asian, more than half live in single-parent homes, and more than three-quarters come from families at or below the poverty line.

Abuwala said boys of color from tough circumstances have specific needs that require the right mix of programming, staff and understanding.

Leaders at BCNY draw their philosophies from writers and thinkers like Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, co-authors of “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys;” Peg Tyre, author of “The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do;” and Rosalind Wiseman, author of “Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with School Yard Power, Locker Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Realities of Guy World.”

“We see our mission as an organization dedicated to filling the service gap for boys and young men. The evidence out there shows a real need,” Abuwala said. “That’s not to say there’s more of a need for boys [than for girls]. But it helps us be more focused to work for boys, mostly Black and Latino young men in public school. When you look at the statistics, it’s sad. They’re just not being set up to succeed in the same way as other demographics.”

Abuwala points to the Young Men’s Initiative report that came out in August 2011 and highlighted stark differences in the fortunes of New York City youth based on race and ethnicity. Among the areas of greatest concern for her are disconnection from work and school, graduation rates, poverty level and likelihood of being in foster care.

Programming for boys

For one thing, many public schools in New York lack programming like sports, music and art; BCNY offers activities such as music lessons, visual and performing arts, sports and recreation, and character development. “They’re missing opportunities to develop different intelligences,” Abuwala said. “Not just to expend physical energy but to connect with each other in a different way. The idea that you must be quiet and do worksheets, our experience is that is alienating for our boys. Many of them come from challenging home lives and communities.”

When it comes to academics, young men of color might not feel personally connected to some of the content they’re offered in public schools, Abuwala said. “We can be deliberate in the types of books we choose — we can choose books that we feel are relevant to communities of color,” she said. “That would be a little more complicated if we were serving both genders. As these kids get older, their needs change.”

BCNY centers its programming around project-based learning pedagogies. “That allows boys and young men to be more selfdirected and problem-solve, in a way they don’t have an opportunity to do when it’s a more structured, linear project,” Abuwala said. “Many of the programs we do are organized in an experiment fashion — an issue or problem is presented, and the kids work it out together.”

BCNY also attempts to connect its programming with the tangible realities of boys’ lives, for example through a jobreadiness program. “It’s in line with what the literature says about how to get boys and young men engaged,” Abuwala said. “I see it as a way for us to experiment and constantly make efforts toward understanding who our members are, and how they learn, and what they’re interested in, and how we meet that need.”

For example, with the job-readiness program, rather than sitting down for workshops on resume writing or interviewing skills, the boys and young men are immediately placed in internships — some internally, for those “we feel are not quite ready to the out in the world” — and some elsewhere, in fields like food service, medicine and other after-school programs, Abuwala said.

“We develop experiential learning … where they are immersed in an environment, so they are learning on-the-go through experience and through their activities,” Abuwala explained. “How we make that successful is by ensuring and preparing supervisors to understand their role as coaches and teachers.” By the end of the internships, she added, “they get what it means to speak in a certain way to their supervisor, or why they should be on time. That is how we approach all our programs: We try to infuse an element of leadership.”

Brian Toribio, a 14-year-old freshman at A. Philip Randolph Campus High School in Manhattan, has been attending BCNY for eight years. He said he enjoys the opportunity to meet boys from other schools whom he otherwise probably would not know, and he likes the variety of programming — like photography, animation, swimming lessons, and music lessons. If girls also attended, Toribio figures the programming mix might be different.

Staff and training

In building and rebuilding its staff, BCNY emphasizes hiring men, particularly men of color, although certainly there are women on the staff, Abuwala said. “We find that many of our young men and boys, they’re wanting for a positive male role model… If we can find that through our staff, we are very happy. We try to be careful about that.”

All three of the club’s clubhouse directors are African American men; 72 percent of clubhouse staff are black or Latino, and 53 percent are male, and 60 percent of the total staff, including executives and administrators, are black or Latino, Abuwala said. The fact that she is female and South Asian- American hasn’t come up.. “No one has talked to me directly about it,” she said. “I am born and raised in New York City, and I went to public school. I connect with a lot of the issues facing our kids. I identify as a person of color.”

A second consideration in hiring: finding people with an interest in project-based learning and other physically involved activities. “When we interview program staff, I ask a number of questions on, ‘How do we structure an activity? What do you think the needs of boys are?’ Folks who are only used to working with 7-year-old girls, it’s quite a different project,” Abuwala said.

BCNY trains staff with a similar purpose. “We focus a lot on how to reduce stressors in our members’ environment,” Abuwala said. “We are creating an optimal space for them, so they’re not overly disciplined and unnecessarily so. Boys are rambunctious. They have a lot of energy. We don’t want to punish them for being energetic. When you have a 7-year-old there, [he] can only sit still for a certain number of minutes. We train our staff on reasonable expectations.”

For older members, staff are trained to seek feedback about their programs and experiences, and they talk a lot with members about relationship building and trust. BCNY offers teens free clinical services, which parents and the community appreciate, Abuwala said. “Boys and young men under-report abuse. They don’t report when they’re having a hard time or they need some support. That dovetails around the other point about creating an optimal environment for them to be successful.”

The bottom-line results measured by BCNY as of 2012 certainly show successes: Among those who participated in BCNY programming relevant to each respective performance measure, 72 percent of boys were reading at or above their grade level, 100 percent improved their math skills, 82 percent improved in science, 73 percent showed growth in music skills, 83 percent advanced by at least one American Red Cross certified level in swimming, 96 percent said they felt better prepared to go to college — and 88 percent of high-school graduates enrolled in college.

“We really see ourselves as an organization designed to meet the needs and interests of boys,” Abuwala said. “It’s not just the fact that we have only boys come.”

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