Anyone who has ever had the opportunity, and frankly, the honor, of working with Black adolescent boys will tell you: they are a dynamic, agentic, and diverse group of young people focused on thriving in a society that structurally and systematically makes their thriving precarious. As a Black, cis-gender man, I have a grounded, intimate understanding of just how important Black adolescent boys’ thriving is, and a commitment to promoting and protecting it. Unfortunately, negative rhetoric and social imagery about Black adolescent boys is pervasive. Black boys are routinely dehumanized in schools, in communities, and in other social contexts of their youthhood, making teachers’, youth practitioners’ and leaders’ attention to, and promotion of, their thriving all the more crucial.
In order to cultivate Black adolescent boys’ thriving, youth practitioners, teachers, leaders and youth-focused social scientists need a clear, holistic, and socially-relevant understanding of how to do so. We know from research and practitioner wisdom that an essential input into Black adolescent boys’ thriving are humanizing relationships with adults anchored in radical care and mattering. We also know that learning and developmental spaces (e.g., schools, afterschool programs, etc.) with racially and culturally-affirming ethos and equitable practices from adults are integral to Black boys’ thriving. Finally, relationships and equitable processes and practices in schools and youth-serving programs can have profound effects on Black adolescent boys’ developmental outcomes such as their social and emotional development.
Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships Survey provides rich data to understand Black boys’ thriving holistically and substantively. In the survey, Black adolescent boys’ (grades 6-12, n = 3768) perceptions were captured on a host of themes in order to understand the extent to which they have access to humanizing, developmental relationships with teachers and youth practitioners in schools and programs; access to equitable practices in these developmental contexts; and, how they feel about their own social and emotional capabilities in these contexts.
Here are four meaningful and relevant findings from descriptive analyses utilizing the Developmental Survey dataset:
These examples point to key areas in Black adolescent boys’ thriving in schools and programs that teachers, youth practitioners, and leaders need to pay closer attention to and address. While many Black adolescent boys are indeed thriving in these spaces – something we should celebrate in a society that too often negates Black boys’ thriving, these findings also show that schools and programs are not ideal conditions for thriving among far too many Black adolescents boys.
These findings show that Black adolescent boys are thriving in important ways, such as in their access to humanizing relationships with youth practitioners and teachers. Yet, this exploration also highlights areas where teachers, youth practitioners and leaders should devote more attention in order to help cultivate Black adolescent boys’ thriving. Here are four recommendations that schools and youth-serving organizations can explore to promote the thriving of Black adolescent boys in their care:
Navigating societal and institutional systems of oppression and receiving messages that their thriving does not matter contributes to the reality that Black boys transition into young adulthood with lower well-being than their peers. Youth practitioners, teachers, and leaders can play a crucial role in disrupting this trajectory. But it starts by first imagining Black boys’ thriving, and is followed by relentlessly cultivating, promoting and protecting their thriving. Nurturing a more holistic idea of Black boys’ thriving, and using affirming and meaningful practices to promote it can put them on a more beautiful trajectory towards long-term thriving in adolescence and beyond.
Wallace Grace is a PhD candidate in Educational Policy Studies in the School of Education at University of Wisconsin – Madison. Prior to pursuing a doctoral degree, he spent many years in education in a variety of capacities in schools, districts, and nonprofits around the country. Wallace’s research aims to support marginalized children and youth’s thriving within social contexts of their childhood and youthhood. Wallace is one of Search Institute’s 2023 Summer Scholars.