Yesterday, Bwogger Isabel Sepúlveda attended a talk, “Playing with Anger: Racial Literacy and Health Interventions for Black Boys and Men” hosted by the Justice Working Group with University of Pennsylvania professor Dr. Howard Stevenson. He discussed his work developing culturally relevant heath interventions for men of color and, more broadly, how we can think about race in ways that limit the tension and increase empathy.
Talking about race can be difficult at best, meaning at times, we tend to shut out any dialogue in favor of sparing ourselves from the awkwardness and potential pitfalls that come hand in hand with discussing a difficult subject. While Dr. Stevenson’s talk was aimed more toward people with experience in fields of health and racial interventions, as the environment created was as open as it was educational. Though perhaps not completely obliterating our resistance to discussing these issues, it opened the floor to questions and conversation that elevated and personalized the experience.
Dr. Stevenson began by talking about his own background, discussing his childhood and his parents’ contrasting viewpoints towards dealing with racial tension. He went on to discuss how his childhood in South Delaware and how the reactions of his neighbors to his ultimate career in academia led in part to his desire to study the effects racial stresses have on marginalized groups and integrate racial experiences into health interventions in order to lessen the effects of said stresses.
He discussed two programs he’s implemented in Philadelphia, PLAAY (Preventing Long-term Anger and Aggression in Youth) and SHAPE-UP: Barbers Building Better Brothers Project. The former, which formed the core of much of our later discussion, integrates basketball into therapy in order to help youth and their parents cope with the stress of violence and social rejection. According too Dr. Stevenson, the youth open up more on the court because they’re engaging more systems than just the verbal system engaged in most typical therapies. Similarly, it allows the facilitators to see how youth act in high pressure situations in a controlled environment and give them strategies to cope in these situations. SHAPE-UP trains Black barbers as health educators so that they can educate Black men ages 18 to 24 and in turn reduce their risk of HIV/STIs and retaliation violence, as they tend to open more in these environments.
We then put some of Dr. Stevenson’s interventions into practice. About halfway through, we broke off into pairs and discussed our memories of how our parents discussed race with us in our childhood. People really seemed to appreciate this moment of connection, so much so that it was difficult for Dr. Stevenson’s attention back to the discussion at hand. However, the point was not just to share our experiences in the past, but also to share what we felt about our experiences. People were asked to share how they felt while they were talking and where in their body they felt this emotion.
The goal of all of this exercise, as well as the aforementioned programs, is to reduce racial threat reactions in face-to-face encounters. The majority of these face-to-face interactions last 3 minutes or fewer and these exercises can allow those who are engaging in them to have more time to think through their options and increase the possibility of a positive outcome. He discussed how he talked with kids about how to interact with police stops and how he’s worked with police departments to implement these interventions as well.
The most powerful portion of the discussion was the discussion of why teaching Black youth how to deal with such face-to-face encounters was so important. Dr. Stevenson said that he tells people it’s a shame that these youths have to “shapeshift themselves” while other kids of other races don’t. A large source of racial stress, highlighted throughout the talk, was the disjuncture between how these Black youth see themselves and how the rest of the world perceives them. Until the day comes we can close that gap, Dr. Stevenson’s work continues to be vital, and we continue having these hard but ultimately incredibly important conversations.