The Youth-Counseling Program Helping to Curb Chicago's Violence

Participants are more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to commit violent crimes.

Taken at night, the photo shows a yellow safe-passage sign reading "Warning Safe School Zone"
A safe-passage sign outside an elementary school in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood (Jim Young / Reuters)

In the minds of many, the South Side of Chicago has descended into a type of madness. While crime doesn’t define the vibrant, inspiring city, violence clings to certain South Side streets where shootings have become commonplace. President Trump referred to parts of the city as “worse” than areas in the Middle East. A few weeks ago, two men shot a young man named Daniel Cardova, and when a group gathered to mourn Cardova some hours later, yet another shooting occurred, killing two people and injuring another eight.

Given this harsh and violent reality, a new report offers a gossamer of optimism. Written by researchers at the University of Chicago, the study looks at the success of the counseling program known as Becoming a Man, or BAM, which is run by the nonprofit Youth Guidance. Started in 2001, the BAM program operates in Chicago and has posted tremendous results. One 2015 study found that students in the program were 45 percent less likely than their peers in South Side Chicago to be arrested for violent crimes. What’s more, the researchers believe that BAM students are as much as 19 percent more likely to graduate from high school.

Part youth group, part psychotherapy, the BAM program (which I wrote about in my new book, Learn Better) requires students to meet four times a month. During the hour-long sessions, a trained counselor leads students in discussions about the personal challenges in their lives. Students also learn ways to better regulate their emotions through relaxation techniques like meditation, and the program challenges participants to try new activities like archery. These types of experiences, facilitators hope, will allow the students to discover more effective ways to cope with feelings like discomfort and frustration.

But according to the new study, the program’s most important attribute might be the relationships that are developed within it. By creating strong social ties, the program “fosters a sense of belonging for BAM youth that influences positive identity development and, for some youth, extends to a broader sense of belonging with other prosocial networks,” according to the authors of the report.

When I heard about the new study, I reached out to the BAM founder, Anthony Di Vittorio, to learn more. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ulrich Boser: The Becoming a Man Program has shown some great results. How do you explain that success?

Anthony Di Vittorio: Well, I would say the most important thing is that you have to start with the men who lead the program. We are looking for people who are looking to go on this journey, who are willing to take a ride to ruthless self-examination.

We’re looking for men who have a hybrid set of skills that is hard to find. We’re looking for a man who is capable of relating to youths well. Someone who has strong youth-engagement skills, someone that can walk the halls of any high school, walk the corridors, go to the lunch rooms, and rather instantly become the messenger.

Because we know that it’s not the message. The kids have heard “Stay in school and stay away from drugs” 1,001 times. It’s the messenger. The clouds part and the sunshine comes through when the right messenger is there.

Boser: Why is the program called Becoming a Man? Don’t boys automatically grow up to men?

Di Vittorio: Yes, we all do. But we don’t have a standardized textbook that we’re given at age 12 that says, “Read these 30 chapters, do this, and you are now initiated as a man.”  We address that in the BAM program. When you come to the BAM program we don’t say, “All right, you’re going to finish this program in 18 months and you’ll have your diploma and you will now be an inducted man.”

Instead, what we say is that all of our youth have had these obstacles, and it’s confusing. And if you come to the BAM program, together we will start to look at values like integrity. We say that we’re going to practice these core values. The ultimate goal is internalizing these core values so that they make optimal decisions based upon them.

Boser: So each person creates his own identity of manhood?

Di Vittorio: Right. As I’m the BAM counselor, I’m going to say, “Let’s talk about this concept of integrity.” We’ll practice it and then get the kid to an experiential understanding of what that idea means and relate it to his life with contemporary issues.

And then what happens is you start to value the value, and as they start to value these values, they become these guiding structures in their lives. And that’s where the changes starts to come in.

Boser: How does society’s emphasis on toughness and masculinity come into play in the program and among the youth you’re working with?

Di Vittorio: I was up in school in a very impoverished area of Chicago yesterday. There were two gang members in the group which had gotten in a big fist fight, a gang fight. Their faces were all busted up.

If we were to wander in and say, “Okay, you got to stop being hard. You’re getting suspended too much from school.” Number one, we’ll lose him. Number two, it’s unrealistic and has taken away a part of their identity of manhood, their identity of survival. So you’ll never hear us say, “Don’t be hard. Get out of that gang. Stop smoking marijuana or what have you.”

What we start to do is we start to make that assessment that the young man is at one extreme of a pull, and he needs to take on attributes of softness—he needs to be pulled toward softness. He’s never been enlightened to see the strength and power of being soft.

We will talk a lot about how warriors were only hard because they were soft. Being a father for example, picking up a baby, takes extreme softness. But yet it’s one those powerful signs of strength. Then he start to get this “aha” moment. These “Scooby Doo moments,” I call them. It's when people go “woo hoo” because they get understanding.

Boser: For my book, I spoke to one young man in your program, and it seemed like he had internalized a lot of the values that you spoke about. But this young man still struggled and got suspended from high school. So what does success look like for you?

Di Vittorio: That’s a great question, because it’s not the outcomes. Yeah, we want to have increases in matriculations, in school graduation rates. Of course, of course, of course. But with this particular program, the evidence of success is that these youths are now growing into chronological men and have adopted these core values as barometers. They’re making decisions based on them.

And it doesn’t mean that the young men are always acting with these core values. For instance, I’m talking to you on the phone right now, but there’s somewhere in my life where I’m out of integrity, and I would assume that goes for you, too.

And my responsibility as a man, as a human being in this world, is to do ruthless self-examination. How do I feel about the fact that I’m out of integrity? Who am I hurting because of the fact that I’m out of integrity? How do I feel about the fact that I’m hurting others—including myself—because I’m out of integrity?

Let’s do an honest assessment of that. “Do the work,” we call it, and then come back to the group and make the declaration that I will work to get my integrity back because I value being a man of character. And that to me is success.

Boser: So if  I’m a teacher in Iowa or I’m a father in Alaska, what can I take from your program to help men become men?

Di Vittorio: One of my favorite quotes is from Michael Jordan. He was asked about how to help kids, and he said, “I would tell the parents, stay out of the way and let your kids develop a love for the game.”

That’s the same thing I would say to a father in Iowa or Alaska. Because at BAM, we’re not talking at the youth. The first three months of the BAM program, we’re getting out of the way. We are forming circles and letting the youths check in, letting them get comfortable with the process of talking because it is strange. It is unusual, and it takes time for that trust to develop.

When I see adults, they often want to become that messenger so badly that they go into a mentoring role. They’re like the parent who says “We’re going to get up 6:00 every morning to play basketball.” That’s not the approach here. We’re developing a love for the game.

Boser: What else can adults do to help be good messengers?

Di Vittorio: The adults have to get used to showing their vulnerability.

When I do my work, I don’t mean that I do my therapy in front of the youth. Instead, I model my work in front the youth. That doesn’t mean adults should be superficial. Too many clinicians still fall into, “I’m the therapist, I’m the expert” and that kind of thing, and it rubs people the wrong way.

I want to role model my vulnerability. We want to train our staff to go ahead and hear from the youth.

Boser: A lot of parents and teachers struggle with that authenticity.

Di Vittorio: Yes, this is one of the biggest problems, and it's different depending on the role, whether that’s social-service providers or parents. We have to hold people accountable.

But we all show our own vulnerability. I do it to my son to this day and he’s 23. So there are times where I’ll be like, “You know, let’s check-in and I’ll talk about some things. I’m going to share with you what’s going on with me.”

Boser: So he knows that you’re going to share?

Di Vittorio: I’ve been doing this work with him since he was 13. He knows what’s coming. He knows the sign that I’m not being Daddy anymore. I’m not being Papa. I’m being a man with another man and we’re going to check-in about how we feel.