The Ascension ProjectThe Ascension Project

A Message to Our Brothers

A year ago and while attending the International Boys Schools Coalition’s  (IBSC) Annual Conference at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, I delivered the opening keynote address to delegates from several different countries. The conference is held in a different nation each year and attracts educators and youth develop professionals from around the globe and particularly those who have focused their careers on the education and development of boys. I had decided to focus my comments on a film project that I had recently completed in Brooklyn, New York – a project that would ultimately change my understanding and deepen my appreciation for the plight and peril that so many of our U.S. urban boys are facing. To understand more fully the context within which this experience unfolded, I would encourage readers to review the essay, “My Year with the Sisters” posted on this site.

So how is it that I would be writing today about a group of high-school aged urban girls of color as having been the principle architects of much of my current thinking and as the source of much of my inspiration.

For a number reasons I decided to organize a group of thirteen girls all attending a Sisters of Mercy High School in East Flatbush, New York. This area remains one of the City’s most dangerous and has served as a prison pipeline for record numbers of boys and young men. In fact, boys in this community have a far greater chance of developing a relationship with the criminal justice system than they do in graduating from high-school on time. I had already spent nearly forty years working with these boys in trying to comprehend just why so many of them were being drawn into such destructive patterns of behavior – trajectories that have mired thousands in a web of recidivism and repeat offenses.

Left baring the weight of raising families whose boys fail to reach an appropriate expression of manhood and who then go on to create new legacies of dysfunction and despair, are extended communities of women who despite their circumstances, draw hope from reservoirs deep in maternal care and nurturing.

In completing the initial filming and recording, I worked with a young and very gifted film maker, Sam Powers. We gathered the girls weekly to conduct group and individual interviews in the school’s residential chapel. Our central thesis was really quite simple – did the failure of so many boys and young men matter to these girls and if so why? Their responses were at times eloquent, disarming and heartfelt. Their collective call for the boys on their block and in their neighborhood to do better, to believe in themselves, to avoid risky behavior were made with conviction and with a genuine sense of urgency. These girls and others just like them are the real stakeholders in this drama.

As a singer song-writer, music was an important feature of our work together and in many ways helped to create an atmosphere that was intimate enough to engender what I believe was an authentic and organic response to the question we repeatedly asked…why were so many urban boys failing at such an alarming rate? The lyrics from one of the songs we recorded – a song that the girls helped to author, suggests volumes as to the nature of their sentiments:

This little boy’s prayers we faintly hear
His lips are pressed against God’s ear
And we ask
How…how will he make it

His Daddy’s gone
His Momma’s strong
To keep him safe she’s give an arm
And we ask
How…how will he make it

This boy you see
He smiles still
Cause he’s the one to keep it real
And we ask
How…how will he make it

At six foot tall he stands above
On pinnacles and hills of love
And we ask
How…how will he make it

The post production and editing of the film has produced a documentary that has been well received and now used as a catalyst and instrument to promote discussion among both boys and girls, parents and others who have come to recognize that this issue is at the heart of much of what is going wrong in cities and communities like Cleveland, Baltimore, Ferguson and Staten Island. Without male ancestry, communities are rendered half of what they could and should be. The lyrics from a second song that was recorded clearly indicate that this phenomenon has significant traction and roots that will be difficult to clear:

You stop you make a dream come true
This boy his Daddy’s left the room
He’s gonna fire up some strife
He’s gonna mark and scar a life

A father’s job is never done
At birth this work has just begun
It’s a family left alone
The tears a broken home

An old man rises from his chair
He’s ready set to face despair
He’s gonna teach you everything he knows
He’s gonna teach you how to have an hold

To be a man you must be fair
You rise you fall you may be scared
It’s the state of mind you reach
It’s the promises you keep

This story must be told in three’s
A chance to face your memories
This boy he walks alone at night
A chance to vanquish all his fright

So Daddy can’t you feel the pain
This boy will never be the same
He’s just been waiting on his steps
Wondering why you left

A Message to Our Brothers is scheduled for general release in the fall of 2015. This summer it will be featured at the IBSC Annual Conference in South Africa and made available to schools shortly thereafter. The Ascension Project will continue to give voice to those who are seldom heard and will augment further its work with the use of film, music and the spoken word as vehicles best suited to capturing human expression and the need for cross cultural, cross boarder, cross social  and cross gender understanding.

Brad Zervas
Ascension Project Founder and Director