Experiences and Strategies of Young, Low-Income, African-American Men and Families Who Navigate Violent Neighborhoods and Low-Performing Schools
1.1. Experience of African-American Youth in Violent Neighborhoods
1.2. Experience of African-American Youth in Low-Performing Schools
Once caught for infractions, African American boys with a history of spotty school attendance often are committed to state facilities for juvenile offenders that are best described as finishing schools for crime. Once in the system, it is difficult to emerge from it. Most juvenile offenders recycle multiple times through the system. Recidivism rates hover around 60%. The consequence of this entanglement in the justice system is a life at the margins (p. 84).
Whereas black Americans traditionally have placed much faith in public schools, regardless of outcomes and deliverables, current schooling experiences of many black males remain yet another disappointment. For many of these boys, school is a place that ignores their aspirations, disrespects their ability to learn, fails to access and cultivate their hidden talents, and restricts their identity options. Unfortunately, too many of these students simply give up and give into low expectations and misguided notions about their authentic selves. (p. 489)
1.3. African-American Family Strategies and Experiences in Neighborhoods and Schools
1.4. Research Questions
- How do young men describe the neighborhoods in which they grow up and the role of the police?
- How do young men describe the schools they attended?
- What strategies have young men and their families developed to stay safe and achieve success in unsafe environments?
- What are the limits to those strategies and how do they shape young men’s experience with neighborhood and school?
2. Materials and Methods
2.1. Field Site and Sample
2.2. Data Collection and Management
2.3. Data Analysis and Quality
- Young men discussed the overall lack of safety in their neighborhoods from both unpredictable violence and aggressive police.
- Young men spoke extensively on their schools, in which they often experienced: chaotic learning environments; disengaged teaching; and bullying and fighting.
- Young men talked about strategies used by their families and themselves toward safety and success, including: messaging and role modeling; mobility and exiling; staying inside; and positive peer selection at school.
- Young men spoke expansively on limits of unrecognized and unsupported strategies, including: mobility and school; disproportionate family loss; limited educational partnership; and their desire for more support.
3.1. It Ain’t Safe Nowhere—Unsafe Neighborhoods
3.1.1. You’ve Gotta Look around—Unpredictable Violence
Not only did young men know that their homes were not safe, they understood that a level of alertness was always necessary, no matter where they were. They did not identify areas that were safe and unsafe, or streets and blocks where you had to be more careful, but were clear that it was not a good idea to ever fully let your guard down.It ain’t safe nowhere…nowhere you’re at… It’s some feeling in you like…you’ve gotta look around sometimes right? So it’s not safe.
The peace and quiet of a neighborhood was often disrupted by the presence of violent individuals who were familiar to residents. These individuals were not necessarily going to cause problems, but they often brought violence with them, and that violence was not small or unplanned. Vaughen described this:Like you can drive down through the neighborhood—neighborhood is peaceful, quiet, you see kids playing around… that’s like just a temp…
When certain people start coming around, that’s when it’s a chance of something big happening. That same time, that same day something may happen. You never know, no one says something’s gonna happen, it just happens. It just…it don’t happen every day but time to time it could. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it happens two days in a row in the same neighborhood…
He was both sad about what happened to her, and concerned that someone who also tried to stay away from violence and crime, like himself, could be murdered in his own neighborhood.‘Cause you…you didn’t see her doing anything bad. You didn’t see her have that type of violence where someone would want to kill her. She was just a lonely woman. She had a son who went to school. She went to work. She had a nice house than everybody so we was just like wow she’s gone because of somebody who wanted to rob her… but that scared me… it was like… that can happen to anybody.
3.1.2. Police Jumping out on You—Aggressive Policing
People used to be outside more… hang out on the corner. Police would just ride by. But now if you stand on the corner, police jumping out on you “Oh you’re selling drugs? What you doing on the corner?” So you can’t really stand on the corner no more...
3.2. “Why Am I Here?” Chaotic Schools
Every day I wake up and I’m excited to go to school … because no matter what school you go to in Baltimore, something exciting is always going to happen. Whether it’s a fight, it’s a like a basketball game, something always going to happen every day. So you always…I always woke up ready to go to school. It’s just when I got to school, it was more so “Why are you here?” (Jayson)
3.2.1. Chaotic, Noisy, and Boring Learning Environments
Marcus felt that he and other students could do whatever they wanted without getting into trouble. Eventually, he was expelled, he thought for truancy, although he was not certain.Probably was tired too but like a lot of noise and distractions in the class… Distractions in the hallways. Um it was probably like a good five out of ten students that was in there doing their work and I was in there acting up.
They frequently complained of being taught the same thing, which may have been due to disorganization, or it may have been that after chronic absenteeism, many of these young men got placed in remedial classes. Marcus was hoping that his specialized charter high school would provide him with academic challenges, but found the curriculum to be repetitive.It’s a nice school and all; just the organization was messed up… people be running in the halls and all of that. They got security in there, they’ll just walk right passed the student in the school and won’t say nothing. They just let the student just like do whatever they want but I guess they just let me do whatever I want and I guess they just put me out… I guess because I was missing too many days.
He found some of the repetition to be tiresome, and often skipped classes, until he was expelled. However, he learned that he might have to be more patient with the curriculum to get his GED.I just had stopped going after a while because it was the same old stuff every day. Like, they kept teaching the same stuff… like in our school, they’re supposed to be teaching like more advanced stuff. Like they was teaching like in the middle between middle school and high school like it was right in between… and some of the stuff I already knew. And I just got sick and tired of it. But I know not to make that mistake again though.
Jayson was ready to start again after spending time in jail, and was disappointed in the lack of focus in the students at his new school.Once I came home from jail, I actually wanted to go back to school… I took up business and transportation ‘cause they got those trades there or whatever… I don’t know it was just different… The people I was in school with…like the students was different. They was doing more wild and dumb stuff than when I was in high school. The teachers was stupid. I don’t know it’s just…me I’m the type of person that if I’m gonna learn something, it’s gotta be a challenge. It can’t be “Oh I can tell you just as much as you can tell me.” ‘Cause then I’m not gonna care. I’m just gonna do other stuff and you know to something that interests me. And that’s more like what it was. It was more so…but dang I learned this two years ago. Why are you still teaching this? So it wasn’t interesting…:
Ideally, participation in sports would help students to connect to school; it was not enough for Terrence. In the off season, he found his class repetitive and the environment tiring.…it was the same thing every year. Like the whole ninth grade year it was just the same thing. Football season ended and it was like “Why am I here?” Well I stopped going in the tenth grade in December which was… like a month after football season ended. So that’s what really had me going to school… like you had to go to school to play on…to be on the football team so then after that it was… like that was the only reason I was going.
It was just like…it was so much going on... Like every classroom, every child is just like…like it was just the same thing all day every class it was just the same thing. You get the same results out of every teacher. I wouldn’t say every teacher but most of the teachers.
3.2.2. They Won’t Teach You Nothing—Disengaged Teaching
I don’t really like no classes for real but math… ‘Cause when I was in middle school, my math teacher used to always be on me… and she was nice but she didn’t play… Like she didn’t care what you do as long as you did your work she ain’t care. So I just love math. She was always on me… everybody for real… if you didn’t do your work, don’t talk to her. You can’t talk, you can’t play, none of that.
He was unable to connect with teachers who seemed to judge him. By high school he was cutting classes and skipping school regularly, and teachers questioned him on his absence instead of trying to re-engage him in classroom work.But the other teachers will be like “Oh you didn’t do your work? Oh you don’t care. Oh he don’t care.” But her, she stayed on us to make sure we did our work, our homework, and everything. So that’s why I really like math.
Like my teachers or something, “Why you didn’t come to school today?” or “Why you come to school for only one period?” And I’d be like “I don’t know.” And I leave.
Some of the teachers, well I’m not gonna say some but most of them… they’ll just skim through the work. They won’t teach you nothing…like say you put a problem on the board, like a hard problem…it’s back when I didn’t know fractions. They put an um…fraction problem on the board and I remember that he said, “Can anyone tell me how to do this?” Ain’t nobody say nothing so he just went up there and did the problem. He just did it in his own head. He just did it like “That’s how you do it.”
Yeah it was just like the students… they wouldn’t care so the teachers wouldn’t care. So they would just talk and do whatever they wanted to do. And then the teachers just sit back…I mean it wasn’t like people was in there fighting and the teachers wouldn’t do nothing but like they was just talking and leave out the classroom, come in the classroom. And the teachers would just sit there like “Oh well I still get paid.”
Jamaar engaged in power struggles and passive-aggressive hostilities with his teachers, thinking that they made up lies about him to get him out of the classroom.Like my stress was… trying to like get along with certain teachers. ‘Cause when I was in school, honestly teachers have got their pets, they’ve got their favorites… you feeling me? And then it was always like, I was always one of those types that always get pushed, that gets pushed off. I’m like, “Why are you always pushing me off? You help them out when they need help. You let them use the bathroom when they…” Like you feeling me?
Jamaar even had a teacher once say to him, “You’ll never be nothing,” indicating that teacher had probably lost his or her temper in one of the previously describe exchanges.Some teachers had try to lie on you, say you’re doing this, you’re doing that, just to try to get you out of the room. Like me, if I get irritated…like say if like the teacher irritates me, or they throw a little slur, I start picking back. But I pick back in a way that they can’t really say nothing, or they can’t act towards it, so they get really irritated to the point that they’ll probably be like, leave the room, or they’ll wait until school is over and probably try to tell the principal that I did this, I did that, so I won’t be able to go back to their class. But I’m like, they don’t got proof. (Laughs) You know?
That type of control and confrontation with students caused Jayson to be defensive, and miss out on whatever it was instructors may have been trying to teach.At [former school], don’t get me wrong, it was the same thing, it was just teachers “Oh you do you and I’m gonna do me.” At [new school] it was more so with them, “You gonna do what I tell you to do.” And no, I don’t like that… I can’t learn here ‘cause I feel like…I don’t feel smarter than the teachers but I feel I could compete with them. Even though I probably couldn’t, that’s just how I felt…
3.2.3. Bullying and Safety Issues at School
Nathan really suffered from the experience of not choosing the right peers, and finding himself in confrontational situations that were over his head. He did not know how to handle it, and so, even though he had previously been a good student, he started skipping classes and entire days of school.Hanging with the wrong crowd…had a lot of people… like they try to fight me like and it really freaked me out. It was like gang members. Things like that and I was like “I didn’t do anything to you guys so why are you wanting to mess with me?”
Gang members in Nathan’s school acted as barrier between him and positive peers, his mother, and anyone who could help him with the situation.So I started school…I think I hooked a whole month… I used to get to the point where it was like my mother would come pick me up…this is after I got to the last high school which was my high school for the rest of my days of high school. Um…she would come pick me up when she got off of work but I didn’t go to school so I would…I would wait until the right time, catch a bus back to my school and when the bell ring I walk out like I was there all day… so she didn’t know…
Aaron felt like the students were running the school, more even than the principal, and that was when he gave up.The reason why I you know wasn’t able to finish high school is because bullying, pretty much in a nutshell. Peer pressure along with low self esteem and depression was just a terrible combination for me to be in school with people my age and younger who were immature.
There was no safe place in the school for Aaron, not even the cafeteria, which he said was so unpredictable that he did not eat his lunch there. He eventually decided that the school was simply too unsafe for him, and dropped out three months before graduation.And that’s when I was like fuck this I’m done. I’m not coming back. The principal can’t even do nothing. The principal is scared to suspend the damn students ‘cause he thinks he’s gonna get his car shot up. So I’m like what’s the purpose of even going to school if you know there’s no protection, there’s no safety. I just felt…I felt uncomfortable, unsafe.
Aaron was not just intimidated by bullying peers, he was frustrated and tired with how much power they had in school, and that no one could control them.It was too much. It was too much. It was too much. I was like fuck this I’m done. Like fuck it I’m done. I’m not going back. And that’s when I just never went back… I was in the 12th grade. I was three months away from graduating… I was so damn close. So damn close.
When I was at [former school], there was a little crowd… we all played… We had problems, we talked it out. That’s what it was. But I went to [new school] and it was just fight, fight, fight, fight, fight. Every day. “Oh he stepped on my shoe, fight…Oh he took your answers, fight him. Why you looking at me? Fight them.” No, that’s young. “Oh the teacher’s gone, go punch that dude. Didn’t he say something about you yesterday?” Yeah that’s what that was… They’re all some dumb, retarded people. You all fight every day and for one day, they’re doing good and you just want to fight to fight… Very disappointing. It made me angry. Like all these people you know? Coming here to do work and have fun or whatever and then just take one person to mess it up.
Conflict and potential for conflict were tiresome for young men, but also dangerous. Jamaar had a difficult time engaging with any school he attended, and left the last one due to a perceived potential conflict with another student.I think going to the group homes made me start to dislike certain people and the way people act… Like in the group home, it was this little Blood boy…first when I got there we wasn’t cool… I wasn’t really into it but most of my whole family is Crips so I ain’t gonna say I disliked him…when he found out… when you found out that my family was Crips, he started the get similar type of hatred towards me… So yeah so that played a part when I got back to Baltimore and I went to school and started seeing them and it was more so like… “Them niggas some clowns.” Especially if they act like that dude out there. And then when I went to school it was all these little gangbangers and you’ve gotta watch the way you gotta walk through the school.
Jamaar tried to anticipate conflicts with his peers, but his only method for de-escalating a potentially violent situation was avoidance. He had no conflict resolution skills, and did not recruit any adults to assist him.Like with a guy from New Orleans. And I just told him like I can’t do it you know? … One of us has got to leave… ‘cause I can’t sit out here jeopardize myself and we get to a certain extent, somebody gets hurt, and somebody ends up locked up. Not trying to go there… So I’ll be like, if I do that, that’s going to happen, that’s going to happen, that’s going to happen. And then I just like…don’t do it, won’t put myself through it for real.
3.3. “People in My Life that Expose Me to More”—Family and Youth Strategies for Safety and Success
3.3.1. Families Model and Message
I have a very positive outlook towards myself… although I have…faced some shortcomings… my mother how she brought me up…how she raised me…and she leads by example, that I see hard work. It kinda trickled down to me and I emulate her by continuing to try to succeed or go…push the boundary caps that I can achieve. So I guess I have a pretty positive outlook given the fact that I’m always trying to…I’m not never…content currently with how my life is.
It came a lot from my mother. ‘Cause like, we’ve been through a lot. Like a whole lot. And no matter what she was dealing with…like she could be crying, but as soon as she sees us walk into the room, she’d be smiling. You know? I could know…she’d tell me, like “Yeah I was just crying.” But at the same time, when we’re around, she’s like “Okay, this is a family moment. Everybody be happy because we’re together.” You know like, take pride in the little stuff that we do there. Like everybody worries, but we don’t…
He knew that his way of carrying himself and the choices that he made were not just good for him personally, but helpful to his mother and those around him.My family looks at me like I’m a good kid, like I’m respectful, I have manners… My mom always says I have a certain drive about me… She says thank you for…I was going to give her something for Christmas and she said “Don’t give me nothing for Christmas ‘cause you’re giving me my present year round. Thank you for staying out of trouble” and she says “You’ve got a certain drive about you and I thank you for that.”
Charles’s cousin was a role model on many levels, ranging from correcting his grammar to demonstrating that young black men can go to college.I think ‘cause I have certain people in my life that expose me to more… I have a cousin on my father’s side who graduated from Morehouse and he kind of played the big brother, the uncle, the father role in my life and because he exposed me to so many different things…although he wasn’t my father…although he wasn’t as much as you would expect a person who figure plays one of my parents…he’s my cousin…I still was exposed to things so I kind of knew what was out there rather than what…we all can find.
Charles was fortunate to have an older man in his life that he knew, who taught him things he might not have learned otherwise. Despite feeling valued and learning about what was most important in life from his mother, Martin felt the absence of professional role models.Simple things… When I was younger I had bad grammar saying things like “You is” when it’s supposed to be “you are.” If no one around you is kind of correcting you on small things like that how would you ever know that you have bad grammar?... Small things and also given the fact that he had a college education to kind of explain that “Oh we can go to college.” And someone that actually has… it’s just showing me a path you can take rather than…if I had never had that vision… he presented as a role model… I had a positive role model… I was able to realize that there’s other things rather than what I was confined to.
This made it very difficult for Martin to feel as though pursuing a professional career was an appropriate choice for him, and not turning his back on the neighborhood.That side of life isn’t really shown to us. Like all the doctors and lawyers and teachers, stuff like that. They’re there, but you don’t really…growing up as a young, black boy you don’t really see them. You know? They’re not in the neighborhood; they’re not on the TV.
3.3.2. Family Mobility
The family moved back and forth several times, and often in slightly different configurations, depending on which in-laws or extended family members were living with them at the time. Deon’s mother also did not like the crowd that he started hanging out with, and so they moved from Baltimore City to Owings Mills.We moved from the house and moved back to the same house… We moved a few times… Different reasons…‘cause of rent or whatever … just got tired of the house. Then we moved back cuz I think my mother just missed the house… We moved the last time and got, the house got robbed, broken into. So she didn’t really feel comfortable, but then time go past, she be like, “I miss my old house,” so she want to go back.
This was effective in helping him change crowds, but he found it difficult to fit in with the kids in his new school, and he was never able to become the student that he was before.My mother had just gotten tired of that place. We moved from the city and we moved all the way to Owings Mills, so I would say it was just more to get away. You know I guess she really didn’t want me to be like the people I was growing up and seeing every day. She wanted me to see something different.
Deon missed his old friends, started smoking more marijuana, and getting into as much trouble in the county as he had just started to get into in the city.When I was in middle school, it was just like…like honestly a transformation… it was a different surrounding from where I came from. And you know my grades slipped a little bit. They slipped a lot actually. And then when I moved again, you know I moved away from all of the people that I… my grades, they never got better. That’s why I had started smoking and stuff like that. ‘Cause before that I was honor roll every quarter. You know? All that stuff but until then, when I started smoking and all that stuff, it just changed everything.
Charles gradually moved not just his academic life out of the neighborhood, but his social life too, replacing local pick-up basketball with games at the school recreational center, and hang-out time in the neighborhood with after-school programs.When I was in elementary school I just was a wreck, another normal kid… once I got into middle school and teachers was telling me “Oh he’s a smart kid, he does his work” and not that I was smart, I just did my work… that’s when I started to realize that maybe there is a difference… the teachers started telling my mother that, and my mother was signing me for programs and having me be around different people… the more I got involved in other things, the less I became involved in my neighborhood.
3.3.3. Young Men Avoid Trouble
It made me kind of nervous to go outside… Like, “I hope nothing else happens while I’m outside but I hope it doesn’t happen at all but at least not while I’m outside…”
Marcus was careful to get himself inside early in the evenings for his own safety, and to keep his family from losing another young man.Like I was never out like twelve or one in the morning. ‘Cause my cousin…he had …passed away… in the morning, and I had learned from that not to go out because I wouldn’t want to experience that like right now. So I just told myself like being out like at a certain time, like eleven o’clock, eleven thirty or something…like trouble and plus the police and all that, they be outside like jumping on anybody. So I just try to prevent that from happening.
‘Cause you… like say you let your kids go out and play with them. You’ll have to see how the neighborhood is first to see what’s the things that’ll happen. You’ll have to pick up a paper and read the guide and see what’s going on around there and stuff like that but just knowing Baltimore, you know it’s not safe. Nowhere in Baltimore. Anything can happen any time.
Just as young men benefited from positive role models, they often felt overwhelmed and outnumbered. Martin talked about how difficult it was to make good choices in a city that continued to be damaged by years of poverty and drug addiction.I’m like a good person, like a good boy. Like I try to stay out of trouble. I try to stay as far away from trouble as possible. But it’s just like when you live in a neighborhood that has so much trouble, it’s just hard… like it’s hard to stay away from it. That’s why.
So like me coming up, I always knew right from wrong and my mother, she trusted me and my brothers ‘cause she could tell we were responsible but at the same time, the crowds…it was too overwhelming.
Like, you really can’t escape it. It’s like…it’s crazy to say, but it’s really like you’re against the world because Baltimore’s so small in the way that everybody’s so out of their minds. It’s like everywhere you go, that’s the life that everybody’s living. Grandma’s…like who do you look to?
3.3.4. “My Friends Are on the Same Level”—Young Men Develop Peer Support
Well my friends they’re on the same level… same page trying to do something with their life. You know we all came…like we all tired of living around in neighborhoods like…you know that we have to… and going to the city and get more.
I really watch who I hang around with. I pick my friends wisely and if I feel as though I’m gonna be around trouble, I try not to get into it or be around the person… I have two friends, well now I call them brothers ‘cause that’s how close we’ve gotten over the years. And they’ve been my two friends for like…I believe like eight or nine years and I usually say it’s too late to make friends by the spot I put them in.
You can call it a magnet school. It’s predominantly black, but my friends there… they were from Baltimore County, so they kinda… already had a different outlook towards… everyone would view me as though I wasn’t from the city just because of how I carried myself so… so my peers at the time just always assumed that I was middle class, good upbringing, suburban kind of kid… whereas my neighborhood friends…I just was the guy that just was never around. They’d see me going to school… coming from school…going to the after school program, coming from the after school program. And I never quite fit in in my neighborhood… I guess I just was the stoop kid… never involved too much in the neighborhood…
Positive peers were important for school focus and safety, but also for emotional support. Not many of the young men were fortunate enough to have peers who supported them or helped them to stay focused, but those who did, understood their value.Say I’m in day to day life and I see a guy and I’m angry and we almost get into that, I know the type of environment I’m in. Nothing ever ends around here…nothing ever ends. So if we get into a fight, I may lose…I could actually lose the fight. I could come back around here and we could have another altercation, maybe worse and maybe him and couple of his friends, or maybe him and a weapon… and I guess since none of these people are my peers I don’t have that peer pressure to actually be…I could walk away from it.
In addition to the support he received from moving in with his aunt and father two months prior to the interview, he got peer support from his cousin, who also attended the Get Ready program.The last three and a half years I’ve been procrastinating this G.E.D… it’s just trying to work and take care of my son and like just trying not to have other people help me out with things and now it’s just like…like my aunt and my father they won’t take “No” for an answer. Like “No we’re gonna help you out” and so now it’s just like I can just like take some pressure off and focus on some things that I need to do.
It helped that his father and aunt told him to go to the Get Ready program, and that he already has a cousin in the program.Like the motivation is the same between both my parents and my aunt but like on my mother’s side I really don’t have nobody around my age that I look at them and my situation. Like on my father’s side my cousin, he actually goes here too so it’s like…it’s just like I’m trying to be better than him and he trying to be better than me so it’s just like we pushing each other.
3.4. “Never Been Back to School”—Limits of Unrecognized and Unsupported Strategies
3.4.1. Mobility and School
At the same time that he started staying out late with his friends, he found it difficult to get up as early as he needed to get to school on time.I went to a lot of schools, two more schools… I went to one school for a year and then transferred when we moved, we moved to somewhere else, so I went to a school closer to my house… I liked the school… Like it’s a far ride that’s why I probably won’t going there… A far ride, a far- it was a long way, that’s why I probably wasn’t get to school and all that… I had to catch the light rail and all that… it wasn’t near my house…
Antoine stayed out late with his friends from his old neighborhood in the city, could not get to school on time at the county school, and ended up being “dropped off” the roles at his new school during his 11th grade year of high school.Oh, I got kicked out… I got too many D’s… Cause my mother and then lived in the county and I was always late and stuff like that. [Staying out late] hanging out with my homeboys. Yeah I come I come, but I missed too many days. I missed a lot of days, when they dropped me off… That’s how they dropped me off because my grades were low, school, I missed a lot of days, I came, I use to come to school but I missed too many days… I was in 11th grade…
Drew ended up not being able to take his three classes, and was unable to graduate from high school. That is why he created his five-year plan for getting his GED and then going to college.I went to school in the county… and at the time I was taking classes that in the city, I would’ve been taking in a different year. So when I transferred, the classes they couldn’t put me in the same classes I was taking so it’d be basically…half of the classes I was in out the county, they basically cancelled those classes and started me in a different…it’s hard to explain… they basically had to wait for a certain time period for me to have the classes that I was taking. So they cancelled those classes and basically when I had gotten to the twelfth grade… I had basically graduated but they forgot all about the three classes I was in… so I had to retake those…
Powell was more successful academically at the county school, but he got bored, and moved back into the city. Unfortunately, he did not re-enroll in school when he moved back into the city.I was staying my mother and then I was going to school down here [Baltimore City]. I was doing good but… back then like my attitude and all was real low and everything… when I was in the county I was doing better than I was out here… So when I went out there I decided to just stay out there and continue school out there. I was doing good out there getting all mainly As and Bs… honor roll and all that.
I ain’t never been back to school since I came back here… I mean I tried [to get re-enrolled in school] a couple times but it was always something… It was always something that’s why I was like I’m gonna go ahead and get my GED instead of not doing nothing at all.
3.4.2. Disproportionate Family Loss
Although the school did attempt to keep him engaged, and Andre did some family therapy with his family that was useful, it was still quite difficult for him, and Andre eventually dropped out of school.‘Cause when they was together, I was an A student, an A+. I was ruling the school. My father was taking me to school. I was finishing all of my work in class, staying every class and I stayed in school until school was over, until the bell ring. Probably stayed even a couple minutes later until my father and mother came and got me from the school. And then when they started breaking apart, that’s when I started messing up in school. ‘Cause I was having problems like my mother and father let me go so I was…I’d go to school and I’d be thinking…that’d be on my mind so much I’d just go to class and don’t do nothing. But just a week ago I was coming to class doing all my work and all of that.
The school intervention and therapy was helpful for Andre, but when it stopped, he was still quite sad about the loss of the family with which he grew up.So the teacher knew something was wrong with me and he told the principal and the principal got me some help or whatever and then I went and started seeing a therapist… when I was going there for a nice minute, my father would come and my mother would come in there and talk to me… my mother and father would come and I’d get a chance to spend time with my mother and father... But it still was kinda stressful ‘cause on me… ‘cause I was used to seeing them together … I was used to coming home and being with my mother and father. Used to coming home every day from school…used to leave at home seeing my mother and father together. Taking me to school, coming home, we’d go out to eat or something. And then start our day over again…
Deon and his mother also experienced additional hardships, such as being homeless and living in a shelter for a while, and felt like he did not have anyone to talk to about these things.Most of [my friends] did [see their dads]. The ones that I rolled with, most of them did. You know you’ve got the couple that were in my situation but a good majority of them if they didn’t know or at least live with him, they talked to him or at least seeing him. I haven’t seen him like…he moved to Ohio when I was like one… I didn’t talk to him until I was like ten or thirteen. Didn’t see him or anything. So I mean but most of my friends they grew up with mother and father. Some of us didn’t but the majority of them did…
My friend Eric, he had his mother and father there. Yeah they were just around. They didn’t have to be together. They didn’t even have to live in the same house. It was just more that they was around. If they had a problem that they wanted to talk to that they could only talk to their father, they had somebody to talk to. You know I only had my mother to talk to and I couldn’t talk to my mother about everything… Yeah so you know I just had to find somebody else to talk to. But yeah most of my friends, they know their fathers or he’s been around to see them.
Deon may not have been able to talk to his grandmother about some of the things that were troubling him, but he was able to feel her concern for him, and think about making better choices than his peers.I mean she just really convinced me that it wasn’t nothing good I was doing. ‘Cause I was doing a lot of fighting, I was smoking, I would skip school. And she just you know she just told me if I want to rise above, I hate to say it again but if I want to rise above, you know the typical stereotype then this is what I need to be doing. And this is how I need to be doing it. I just really took all my advice from her. Everything she told me I do as far as school, jobs, girls, anything. I listen to my grandmother for it.
Deandre missed his grandmother because of how much she loved him and made him feel special. In contrast, Powell, a 22-year-old young man who struggled with many of his family members, also missed his grandmother, but because of the role she played in keeping the family together. He did not just grieve her loss, but her role and presence, and the ongoing impact of that on the family dynamic.Now don’t laugh at me. Like I saw her picture and I started crying… I just I don’t know I miss her so much. It still feels like she ain’t gone because you know we were so close. Like I was her favorite. She had so many grandkids, so many great-grandkids but it was at the point whereas though as…I was her heart.
His family members started fighting, stopped maintaining care of their homes, and generally, did not act as well as they did when Powell’s grandmother was alive, so not only did he grieve for her, but he missed the way that his family used to be.When my grandmother died ‘cause it was like the whole family had changed over. Like before…before my grandmother died everybody was like real close. Like I said we wasn’t really arguing or none of that. Like everybody gets together, stick and everything. Everything was just right but when my grandmother died it’s like the whole family just started falling apart.
He was sad and somewhat depressed around her loss, because of the role that she played in the family, and the implication for change that her passing had.I still be thinking about that sometimes. If she was still here, they wouldn’t be acting like that ‘cause my grandmother kept the family together. I mean she’ll come in the house and we’ll all be together in a three story house. She’ll come in the house, we’re all in there. She’ll look around like it ain’t really dirty but it just look like junky, messy, stuff out of place and all. She’ll just come in, look around there, next thing you know, all of us upstairs going from the top floor downstairs cleaning up…couldn’t eat, couldn’t go nowhere, couldn’t do nothing until it was done. My grandmother ain’t play that. I miss her so much.
3.4.3. Limited Educational Partnership
Edward’s father also used to try and keep him in school as well, asking about it, and was more effective when he had time to follow up on him.I used to not go to school… I just didn’t think I should’ve went to school… I used to think when I was little I used to… like think about like not going and get a beating. And sometimes I wouldn’t even go home until like seven o’clock. My grandmother asked me where I’ve been at and I just tell her I had to stay there for detention. And she’d be like “Stop lying. I called your school and they say you weren’t there.” And I just tell her the truth like “I didn’t go to school.” She take my games and stuff from me.
Lamont’s mother also tried to keep him in school, but she worked and was unable to keep close tabs on him.I go back to the house and my father probably ask me why I’m not in school. I’ll tell him I ain’t go... And then he like “Are you going to school tomorrow? ‘Cause I’ll take you.” And he’ll wake up in the morning and take me to school and I’ll be in school… Then I come home from school. He’ll ask me, “Did you stay in school all day?” And I’ll tell him “Yeah.” And he’ll be like “Alright. I’m gonna go see if you were in school all day too.” Go up and see if I was in school, they’ll tell him I was in school all day and then he’ll be like… keep going to school and stuff.
Lamont’s mother was reliant upon him to do what was expected of him, when Lamont was ready for this level of responsibility.My mother would go to work in the morning… she didn’t really know what was going on. I just be outside doing what I wanted to do. So she didn’t really know. So this went on about two years.
Yeah I was living with my father from the time I got abused up until I was about eighteen… He ain’t care. He ain’t really say nothing… Well he did sit down and talk to me one time and said that’s his fault for being a best friend to me instead of a father. And I think about that every day like what do that really mean? …I think he was meaning he was just too cool with me. We were more of best friends than father and son.
I was living with my mother… she knew I was not going to school and then I actually talking to her about I didn’t want to go to school, and I was gonna get my GED at that time, but I was just procrastinating… She wasn’t happy about it, but… she knew about the school and how the teachers wouldn’t care and so she was just, “I mean if you… you not learning nothing in there anyway, like, basically everything you doing is on your own so.”… I wouldn’t say she supported it but she wasn’t 100% against it.
They said there really is nothing different no more. They said it’s the same thing. My parents. My cousins. Everybody. That’s what I heard from just about everybody that’s telling me to go here.
3.4.4. Wishing for More Support
Just study with him. Put more time in like…and teach him to do all the right things. It’s not all about outside. Just get the work done first and then outside comes later. And instead of outside and then come back in and then now you’re all tired and… you don’t want to do your work. Now you’re sleeping on top of your homework.
He thought it would have been helpful to him if either someone in his family or someone that he knew had tried to get him to stay in school.I’m praying that he don’t. Then if he do I’m just talk to him and let him know like once I did it… I did it and I look back like…like still to this day and I still look back and I still wish I would’ve just stayed in school and just went to a different school and like it’s not a good decision at all.
He thought he would have done things differently if he had gotten better information about his choices from a credible source.Just like try to motivate me to stay in school… Well like if some people would’ve just like… “You need to do this and you need to do that.” And I actually know people who were older than me that had dropped out of school, and if they would’ve told me like it’s not easy then I probably would’ve went back… Like they just didn’t say anything like it was just like “Oh well I did it so why can’t you do it?”
- the lack of safety that the young men themselves identified in their neighborhoods from violence and police;
- chaotic school environments that require better common space and classroom management, as well as better learning environments for all youth; and protection from bullying and fighting;
- family use of messaging, role modeling, and mobility to keep young men safe and hopefully successful; and young’s men’s strategic use of danger avoidance in the neighborhoods and positive peer selection at school;
- and limits of safety and success strategies in the face of institutionalized and systemic oppression.
4.1. Connection between Neighborhood Violence and High School Dropout
4.2. Youth Experience in Low-Performing Schools
4.3. Systemic Constraints on Traditional Family and Youth Strategies of Success
4.4. Better Support for Family and Youth Safety and Success Strategies
4.5. Limitations of the Study
Conflicts of Interest
Appendix A. Interview Protocol
- Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? How would you describe yourself to someone who didn’t know you? Use as many descriptors as you can. Prompts: man, young man, kid, black man, student, worker, brother, son, father?
- What does it mean to you to be a ______? Does it depend on the situation?
- How do you feel about yourself as a _____?
- What do you think other people think of you? Prompts: friends, romantic partners, family, instructors, employers, strangers?
- What brings you to Program *****?
- Why did you leave school? Tell me about that. In your opinion, was the experience fair, unfair, or both?
- How has been your experience here so far? How are things going outside of here?
- Have you had any experience with the criminal justice system? Prompts: been convicted for a crime, arrested and let go, just hassled by the police?
- How did you feel about it?
- Did it change the way you see the world? Yourself? Tell me how.
- Have their ever been times in your life when you have felt hopeless or depressed? Tell me about that: Do you remember what caused it?
- Stressed out? The blues?
- Do you ever feel hopeless or depressed now? Can you tell me about that?
- What do you do when you feel that way?
- Do you ever have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning or getting where you need to go?
- What do you do when you feel that way?
- Do you ever get or feel angry? What sets you off or gets on your nerves? How do you handle it? Can you tell me about what happens when you lose it? Can you tell me about what happens when you keep it to yourself?
- What are you hoping to get out of the program?
- What are your goals for yourself? Short term? Long term?
- What is going to help you succeed in achieving those goals?
- Having a child is a big event, can you tell me about it? Did you plan it? What did you think when you found out you were going to have a baby? What was it like when you had your baby?
- How is the relationship between you and your child’s mother?
- What kind of a father do you think you are? What role do you have in parenting your child?
- How do you think others see you as a father? Prompts: co-parent, intimate partner, family, instructors, doctors, strangers?
- What are you worried you will be like as a father in the future?
- What do you hope you will be like as a father in the future?
- What might get in your way?
- What will help you be the best father you can be?
Appendix B. Sample
- Michael is a high-energy young man, attending community college for nursing, and looking for a job. He has a supportive family and a positive peer group that helped him focus on graduating from high school.
- Martin is 18 years old, and the father of an 18-month-old little girl, with his girlfriend of a few years. They do not live together, but are still romantic, and will both be attending Morgan State in the fall. He is very high energy, but struggles with a dual consciousness of race and class.
- Drew is a 20-year-old young man, who is very focused and positive. He has a 5-year plan for getting his GED and then his bachelor’s degree. Although he had some challenges, he was not worried about it, as long as he can pursue college.
- Dominic is a 21-year-old young father with a 2-year-old daughter, but is on and off with the mother of his child. He is trying to get his GED and get a job, but gets a lot of support from his own mother. He fought with his girlfriend, so after the baby was born, she moved out. However, she still brings his daughter over almost every day.
- Charles is 20 years old, and attended one year at Morehouse College, but could not continue due to limited financial aid after his first year there. Charles’ dad struggled for years with drug addiction, but he was raised by his mom, who taught him how to be resilient, and made sure that he attended magnet middle and high schools.
- Sean is an 18-year-old young man, who was raised formally by his aunt since he was 6. Sean graduated from high school, but did not want to go to college, and went to trade school instead. He is currently trying to find work as a carpenter. He talked about being harassed and “jumped out on” by the police frequently.
- Lamont is a 21-year-old young man, who recently moved in with his grandparents, to help them out. He suffered from lead poisoning as a child. He went to Job Corps, but was recently dismissed for fighting with another student.
- Powell moved between family in the county and the city a few times during adolescence, and did not get re-enrolled in school after the last transition. He was successfully struggling quite a bit to outgrow negativity from his family.
- Deandre was diagnosed with ADD in grade school and repeated both the 3rd and 4th grades. Although his mother was a police officer, he lived with his grandmother, and learned how to hustle and sell drugs from his father’s side of the family.
- Marcus is an 18-year-old young man, who lost a cousin to homicide, and made it a point to not stay out too late at night. He had a lot of fatigue in high school. He tried Job Corps, but became frustrated, so he decided to pursue his GED.
- Jamaar is a 20-year-old expectant father, who did not live with his pregnant girlfriend, but hoped to be able to take care of her. He is a social father to her 2-year-old son with a previous boyfriend. Jamaar had positive disposition, but tendency toward anxiety, and a history of conflict in both school and Job Corps.
- Ramon is a 21-year-old young father, and is no longer with the mother of his child, but is in love with his current girlfriend, who has been with him through a lot. He is focused on getting his GED. Ramon is energetic, thinks that he made a bad choice in high school to hang with the wrong crowd, but is trying to make better choices now.
- Darius called himself a king in training, because his stepfather called him that. He grew up with both the example of his hard working stepfather who went to work every day, and his biological father who struggled with drugs and employment.
- Antoine was a 20-year-old young father with discernible fatigue and flat affect during the interview. Antoine had similar fatigue during high school, and dropped out but felt that he would be more successful with his GED.
- Terrence is a 20-year-old father with a three-year-old son. He was in a relationship with the mother of his son, but they have been on and off. Although he played football, Terrence had a difficult time connecting with his teachers, found his school environment to be chaotic, and dropped out of school.
- Jordan is a 19-year-old young father, who lives in his mother’s house with his own 8-month-old child and her mother. He struggled to get to class in high school, and his mother called him a “hall kid.” He dropped out of high school, but is clear that he wants to get his GED and be able to support his partner and child.
- Monte is a 22-year-old young father, who got in with the wrong crowd in high school, but was motivated to get his GED, inspired to change his life by his 2-year-old daughter. Monte lived in a tough neighborhood, and worried that he might be killed for a jacket or sneakers before his daughter got to know him.
- Edward is a young expectant father, who dropped out of school early, in the 9th grade. Edward said that he had been close to his family, and had gotten good grades in school, but both of those things changed when he started getting involved with drugs and the criminal justice system.
- Tyler is a proud young father, and trying to take care of his daughter, but did not always agree with the mother of his child about who should be taking care of the family financially, and who should carry the primary caretaking responsibilities. Currently, his baby’s mother has a job, and she would like him to do more childcare.
- Trent dropped out of high school to take care of his girlfriend when she got pregnant and was not feeling well. However, he also had a history of drug dealing and hustling. He felt that he handled himself well but that, in general, the streets of Baltimore City were unsafe for him and his family.
- Tony is 21-year-old young man who was waiting for sentencing for drug dealing at the time of the interview. Tony expressed symptoms of major depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. He also had Crohn’s disease. Tony grew up well taken care of by his mother and stepfather, but was more attracted to the street scene.
- Aaron is one of the most expressive of the young men. Aaron grew up in a series of foster care homes, and alluded to significant trauma as a child and adolescent. He struggled to fit in at school, was bullied, and used to go into destructive rages to keep himself safe at school.
- Robert is a 21-year-old young man, with a long history of avoidance, fatigue, and possible depression. He stopped going to school, because there were many days when he did not feel like going or have the energy to go. He enrolled in classes at the Get Ready program over a year prior to our interview, and attended for a while.
- Deon is 21 years old, and trying to make better choices for himself. Deon went through tough times in middle school when he lived in a homeless shelter with his mom for a while. He never knew his father, and felt that absence acutely; he was often angry and defensive.
- Eric is a daily marijuana smoker, who had dropped out of high school just two weeks prior to the interview. He was probably still eligible for graduation, but had such a difficult time getting to school that he thought the Get Ready program might be a better alternative for him.
- Maurice is a 19-year-old quiet young man. He struggled with avoidance during his school years, and ended up dropping out. He had a hard time keeping a regular job, but is happiest when he is able to give his mother some money.
- Cristofer is a 22-year-old young father, with a history of major depression, who was actually being treated for major depression at the time of the interview. He was a high school graduate, who had just completed his 2nd semester at community college.
- Dontae is a young father with a history of violence and drug dealing, who was recently shot, and wanted to make changes. He had a difficult time getting to school, but thought he would be able to get his GED, because it was closer and more flexible.
- Jayson is a young father, with a history of conflict with his mother, and was sent to a juvenile detention center when he was 14 after a fight with her. Jayson was in detention centers and group homes until he was 18. He was hoping to get his GED.
- Kadim is a young father of 2, with a complicated relationship with the mother of his children. Kadim is HIV positive, and went through depression related to his original diagnosis, but has since then become more positive.
- Demetrius is a 20-year-old man with a history of childhood abuse and neglect, and the criminal justice system. He has been in a gang since middle school. He appeared depressed and to have PTSD, but was going to try the Get Ready program.
- Nathen is a 19-year-old young man with a history of major depression. Nathen tried to be positive, but referred to himself as a quitter, when he actually just did not have great problem-solving skills.
- Vaughen is an 18-year-old young man who lived with his grandparents, and was trying to get his GED. Vaughen was a janitor at his high school, and dropped out when it became too much for him to keep up with his coursework.
- Dean lost his mom in 2005, and met his father, who is from Nigeria, at her funeral. He moved in with his aunt and that was okay for a few years, but is not a good situation for him now that her adult children have moved back into the home.
- Andre is a young father, trying to take care of his son. Andre’s parents divorced when he was young, and he did not adjust well. He had a difficult time getting motivating and attending school after the divorce, so he was trying to get his GED at the Get Ready program in order to take care of his son.
- Tariq is a mature young father, whose daughter has cerebral palsy. He was raised by his grandmother, but moved to a group home in early adolescence. He is very focused on the care of his child and her progress, and wants to marry her mother.
- Elon was very conscious of race and social class. He is hoping to be a carpenter, but struggling to find a job. He also had a difficult time finding a program that he could complete to get his GED.
- Malik is a young man with a very positive attitude. His goal is to figure out a way to make money, so that he can retire early. However, he was unable to say exactly how he was going to do that, given his lack of GED.
- Taye was in kinship care with his aunt until he was 14 years old, when he moved into a group home, because his aunt did not spend all of the money she received on his needs, he regretted moving out. He often slept in the street, was depressed and on medication, and frequently grieved the absence of his biological family.
- Tyrone was a young expectant father, living in the basement of his mother’s house with his baby’s mother. He wanted to move out, particularly because his mom and his sister come down to smoke in the basement. He felt he had a problem with anger.
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Approximately 621,000 residents, which is similar to Washington, DC, but one third the size of nearby Philadelphia, population 1,526,000, and much smaller than a large city, such as New York, with a population of 19,466,000. Residents are 64% African American, 30% White, 4% Latino, and 2% Asian. See: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/24/24510.html, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/11000.html, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/42/42101.html, and http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/36000.html.
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Fitzgerald, M.E.; Miles, A.D.; Ledbetter, S. Experiences and Strategies of Young, Low-Income, African-American Men and Families Who Navigate Violent Neighborhoods and Low-Performing Schools. Societies 2019, 9, 3. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc9010003
Fitzgerald ME, Miles AD, Ledbetter S. Experiences and Strategies of Young, Low-Income, African-American Men and Families Who Navigate Violent Neighborhoods and Low-Performing Schools. Societies. 2019; 9(1):3. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc9010003Chicago/Turabian Style
Fitzgerald, Megan E., Annette D. Miles, and Sislena Ledbetter. 2019. "Experiences and Strategies of Young, Low-Income, African-American Men and Families Who Navigate Violent Neighborhoods and Low-Performing Schools" Societies 9, no. 1: 3. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc9010003