A Well Formed Soul

In his recent Op-Ed, "Becoming a Real Person," David Brooks explores the importance of developing one's "moral self" and the lack of elite universities and colleges focusing on this development. His Op-Ed is, in part, a commentary on the essay written by William Deresiewicz that has gone viral -- "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life." Brooks writes that: "People in authority no longer feel compelled to define how they think moral, emotional and spiritual growth happens." He calls this work an "abandoned ground." This abandoned ground is the earth that The Brotherhood/Sister Sol tills each and every day -- planting seeds, cultivating and helping our youth to grow.

Based in Harlem, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is a comprehensive youth development organization founded in 1995 and based on the themes of positivity, community, knowledge and future. We work to develop and hone the moral codes of young people -- helping them to investigate their sense of morality. It is the foundation and essence of our work. We work, in part, in single gendered environments -- collectives of girls guided by highly skilled female youth workers, and boys by equally committed and skilled male youth workers, over 4-6 years, as they define what it means to be women and men, leaders and brothers and sisters in their community. From the age of 12 until 18 these young people learn a curriculum that teaches them both history and ethics.

The need for developing a moral center in individuals and groups accompanies our more traditional academic curriculum. We investigate the essence of conflict resolution as we confront bias with a direct focus on sexism, misogyny and homophobia. Each collective, or chapter, chooses a name that represents them -- a statement to the world: Endure and Inspire, Intrinsic Kings, Legacy, Eternal Sisters, Sol Axe. The youth are taken through a process of writing and re-writing a personal oath of dedication, a statement to the world regarding how they will live their lives, the moral and ethical path they will follow -- and they present this statement to their peers and a ceremony represents their passage into the next stage of their adult development.

Brooks writes: "Everyone is born with a mind... but it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self." While Brooks focuses on Deresiewicz' theory that it is elite schools that have abdicated their responsibility to develop these skills and provide opportunities for their development - I have seen, all too often, that this essential work is also not done in the public schools, most of them mired in mediocrity, that my youth members attend. Their schools are not teaching them to focus on developing analytical skills or to find meaning in experience -- all too often the focus is solely on rote memorization. Yet one's freedom is found in both intellectual and emotional introspection -- the ability to find one's own meaning and vision of the world. This connection of the head and heart that Brooks writes of, this connective tissue, when established, is what produces great artists and innovative reflective thought, it is the creative path that can so often lead to meaning and a connection between the individual and the community.

We teach our young people at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol that they are intertwined with the larger society, that they must reject the fundamentally American and ever increasing focus on the individual, the self and material accumulation. It is a difficult time to be an adolescent -- hard to raise a child. They are inundated with social media that guides them to consume the vapid and degrading, to imitate the most surface and selfish and violent, and to accept gross inequity. This is a barren path to walk.

We have worked for 20 years to decrease poverty and to help our members build long term stable lives. We of course recognize the economic security that children born into economic poverty need to achieve. The latest census for New York City has only re-affirmed what we all knew -- that the county with the greatest disparity of income in America is New York County, or Manhattan, where the top 5 percent earns nearly $900,000 a year and the bottom 20 percent survives on less than $10,000. We know that our youth are young people who face assorted suffocating pressures of income inequality, inadequate education, and who so often see and experience violence and deprivation that produce harrowing trauma. For these reasons we know that our youth must heal and develop the skills of endurance and analysis, must form a moral and ethical code that allows them to understand the conditions they were born into and the strength needed to overcome these conditions. They must become critical thinkers who also focus on growing their spirits and becoming emotionally strong. Since our founding we have framed the holistic development of our youth as one that guides them on the path to understand and develop their minds, bodies and souls. What does it mean to be men and women? How can we redefine gender roles and assumptions in a way the rejects patriarchy, violence and hyper-masculinity? What does it mean to be strong when you are raised in a community rife with violence and in a country consumed and addicted to violence? How do you achieve success and also happiness? What does it mean to be a committed mother or a father? What is your responsibility to community? What do you believe in and to what will you dedicate you life?

Brooks states that there are three possibilities for a university -- a commercial focus on career, a cognitive focus to acquire information, and a moral purpose -- building an integrated self. Our formal theory of change is to provide support, guidance, education and love to our members; to teach them to form discipline and order in their lives; and then to provide opportunities and access so that they may develop agency. As an organization that works with some of the most economically disadvantaged youth in New York City -- we see all three areas of focus as our integrated commitment. We augment our members' school-based education and help them to achieve academically, to develop a life long love for learning, and to expose them to a wealth of information and learning -- and we also offer pathways to college and workforce. That said, no focus is more central than the focus on the self. We provide a protective and nurturing space for our youth to reflect and experience, to wander intellectually and curiously, seeking to understand the world, all the while confronting issues of morality and the spirit. We know that through this process our members will gain, both, as one of our founding Brotherhood chapters named itself, "Knowledge of Self," and also a well formed soul that is interconnected to the wider world, to the greater good, but also one that is steeled and strengthened and inward facing. A well-formed soul in possession of knowledge of self -- feet firmly planted on reclaimed ground.

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