Myles Bess didn’t receive his mother’s advice with the same resistance most 11-year-olds do.
Bess accepted with apprehension her instructions to change the route he took home each day, or take a new bus line, or to constantly watch his back, as he grew up in Oakland, California.
It didn’t make sense to Bess at the time, and it still didn’t quite click at age 14 when 22-year-old Oscar Grant was killed at a local BART station. But in 2012, when a young black man of the same age—Trayvon Martin—was shot and killed in Florida, Bess, now 18, finally got it.
“I thought it was just me being a child,” he said. “As I got older and more aware of my surroundings, I realized [my parents] weren’t so much worried about me – they were worried about the people around me and what they could do.”
Suddenly he understood why the police stopped him and asked to search his bag as he walked home from school in a tidy uniform—khakis and a collared shirt—one afternoon in sixth grade.
“As a young black man, you’re always going to have this stigma that follows you as a person of color. No matter what, no matter how much you try to fight it you’ll always be a person of color,” he said. “It’s always going to be something that nobody but people like you can relate to.”
That solidarity between men who have face the same stigmas and dangers on a daily basis was a prevalent theme at a recent hearing of the state Assembly’s Select Committee on the Status of Men and Boys of Color. Bess and other young men of color came in large numbers to the hearing with various organizations, such as the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, which seek to improve the conditions faced by young men.
Those conditions, however, go far beyond the scope of a single legislative committee or piece of policy. A common theme discussed at the hearing was the fact that these issues begin at a ground level, and changes that are made must be systemic and far-reaching, to affect the families, educations, and environments facing men and boys of color.
“There’s something about the way young men are acculturated to be men that we actually end up causing a lot of harm to ourselves and to women,” said Rubén Lizardo, an associate director at PolicyLink, a group working with the Alliance at the legislative level. “So we’re right at the center of basically whether or not we’re going to have health in our communities.”
Understanding how to create that health among young men of color, however, requires an in-depth understanding of the situations they face that can only come from the integration of more of those young men’s voices, according to Bess and many others at the hearing.
“We live in very unhealthy situations, we come from broken families, so when you come from places where love is not in excess as it should be and attention is not being paid to you, you don’t feel valuable,” said Ajman Thrower, 20, one of the young men who attended the hearing with the alliance. “It’s not conducive to growing up healthy in any aspect. I would love to see a more health-centered culture where we focus on love of self.”
He added, “That has to be implemented in the schools, the families, the workplace, all different areas, but it starts at home.”
When so many young men of color grow up in circumstances that are less than ideal, however, it’s difficult to say what kind of policy could create the kind of change Thrower and others hope to see. Despite the difficulty of addressing obstacles young men face at home from a legislative level, Lizardo believes there are areas of policy and principles that will promote a holistic approach to improving the support for men from all backgrounds, both advantaged and disadvantaged.
The Alliance focuses on communicating with local communities to unite around policies that improve access to healthcare, education, and safety for men at a local level.
Meanwhile, the presence of youths like Bess provided a voice to characterize those local needs. He pointed out that in his experience, after-school programs that relate to possible careers helped motivate young men like him to stay in school. Bess got involved with the Alliance through his work for Youth Radio, where he recently wrote a radio essay about the Trayvon Martin case that aired on NPR.
Bess added believes that police aggression towards young men of color needs serious consideration as well. Change may be coming in that area, as New York’s “Stop-and-Frisk” program was ruled unconstitutional Monday.
But the problems of creating a holistic picture of how to improve the status of men of color remain. Legislators voiced Bess’ concern that only men who had faced the same problems could truly understand the conditions they face and how to help.
For example, Assemblymember Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, asked Whitney Staniford from the office of state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson about the diversity of the superintendent’s staff.
“I say this because often times there are wonderful phrases and platitudes about diversity,” Weber said. “Central to the thinking about what the superintendent’s going to do for men and boys of color, as well as all children in the diversity of California, is going to be reflected in the kind of thinking that occurs around the table of decision-makers that gather together.”
Weber added that diversity of educators themselves is equally crucial. Meanwhile, Thrower said that one of the main problems facing young men in communities like his in West Oakland is that they lacked leadership at home.
“I feel it’s going to get to a point where people are going to get fed up, and leaders are born from situations like that,” he added.
Thrower and other youths who attended, like Juan Bautista, 18 of Fresno, may typify the kind of leaders that will be born from this movement. While Thrower says he was lucky to never fall into the negativity he saw so many others in Oakland, including his brother, fall into, Bautista described his extensive experience with the criminal justice system to the committee.
“This is my first hearing where I’m not a criminal, where I’m trying to do something different,” he said.
“I want these youth to come out and have a chance at the world like I did. I felt like I wasn’t even supposed to be here in front of you guys,” he added. “I’m speaking for every person in my neighborhood. I’m speaking for my friend who got killed. I’m speaking for Trayvon Martin. I’m speaking for everybody.”