Roses in Concrete: Helping Isolated Boys and Men

"Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature's laws wrong it learned how to walk without having feet."

- Tupac Shakur

The late Tupac Shakur's poem has always resonated with me. His words speak to the underdog, the overlooked and unsung hero, who finds a way to grow and thrive, against the harshest odds.

It seems to me that roses are growing from concrete all around us--in the form of boys and men who summon resilience in the face of adversity. Schoolboys who defy bullies on the playground. Young men who pull themselves up from poverty. Veterans who overcome PTSD. Homeless men who turn their lives around.

And yet, we shouldn't venerate the lonely archetype of masculinity; the idea that a man's struggles must be faced with stoic strength, or that "being a man" means dealing with life's varied challenges on one's own. If we want every "rose" in our society to not just survive but to bloom and flourish, then we must help boys and men forge new pathways to social connectedness and belonging.


Start Early: The norms we reinforce early in life are enormously influential. Setting healthier expectations for boys can make an important difference as they grow up.

That includes investing in social and emotional learning, to help kids develop better self-awareness, self-management, and teamwork skills. Helping children--boys and girls alike--learn to manage conflict, demonstrate empathy, and cope constructively with their own feelings can lead to what my friend Timothy Shriver calls "the heart payoff": better school performance, better relationships, and better lives.

At the same time, targeted outreach to boys can have a transformative impact. Take Boys to Men, a mentoring network created in San Diego, California. Boys to Men offers a community of male role models and mentors who visit teenage boys in middle schools, high schools, and foster care facilities, offering adult guidance and support at this crucial juncture of a young person's life. Many of the boys who participate have no father of their own at home; they struggle with feelings of abandonment, insignificance, and isolation. The program offers a pathway forward, and a better perspective on themselves and their futures.

In the words of one participant, Joe Ross, "I never felt accepted and I never felt wanted. I just wanted to die and stop bothering everyone. Then I found Boys to Men, and got a second chance in life. I started going to the groups once a week. I could see that they cared. I have never felt that before. Like I was cared about and accepted for who I am. I knew these guys had my back."

Help Men Support Each Other:
Men's experience of loneliness and isolation may be different from that of women, which means that sometimes, male-only activities and organizations are the most effective way to encourage conversation, community, and connection.

In Canada, for example, a group in Vancouver known as the DUDES Club (short for Downtown Urban Knights Defending Equality and Solidarity) helps men struggling with unemployment, addiction, and homelessness to reclaim and rebuild their lives. More than two-thirds of the DUDES Club members are indigenous--a painful legacy of colonial policies that robbed indigenous peoples of their dignity. The DUDES Club offers nonjudgmental companionship, compassion, and support. Together, the men can discuss health issues, reconnect with their culture, and reimagine their concept of masculinity. As journalist Adriana Barton wrote in The Globe and Mail, it is "the kind of place where men don't hesitate to say 'I love you guys.'"

Provide Purpose: As I wrote in my last piece, older men are often particularly vulnerable to isolation. In addition to the challenges that can accompany aging--such as chronic illness, disability, loss of hearing or vision, or death of a partner--older men are often more reluctant than older women to seek out social and emotional support. As the Campaign to End Loneliness, a UK charity combatting loneliness in old age, notes, "No man wants to go to the 'Lonely Men's Club.'"

Providing a sense of practical purpose can mitigate these concerns. Take Men in Sheds, a project that originated in Australia to bring older men together to practice woodworking and other skills. "Women will talk to each other and there are loads of groups for women but not so many for men," 64-year old John Nicholson, a participant in the Men in Sheds project of Hull, England, explains on the organization's website. "Men tend not to talk much. But if they have somewhere to go where they can do something practical, they will get more involved."

Walking Football is another initiative that has taken off in recent years, bringing older men (and women) together through their love of sport, and fostering social connectedness as a side benefit. According to the Walking Football United website, there are almost 800 clubs in the UK--a dramatic rise since the first club was created in 2011. Participants get to reconnect with their passion, to engage in healthful physical activity, and to make new friends in a setting that is built around joy and fun.

These are just a few examples of ways we can widen the circle of belonging for everyone, so that instead of growing in concrete, our roses bloom in an environment of recognition, reciprocity, and respect.