Eight young men between the ages of 15 and 18 linked arms and intoned: “Truly, in the flow of human development, our community is a river and we who call ourselves people of humanity are standing deep in its water. And with amazing grace, we are beginning to recognize the ancient flow of human wisdom, as well as the indelible marks of human development.”
So began the graduation that marked the beginning of the end of a nine-month journey of transformation for the young men, all of whom had been deemed at moderate risk by the criminal justice system.
The Tuesday evening series of rituals defining these young men’s passage into responsibility was nothing short of life affirming for those of us sitting as a council of elders and the 150 friends and relatives who attended their once-troubled loved ones’ graduation from the Bakari Mentoring Program at Harmon Hall in the Cal Poly Performing Arts Center.
It was a mixed group of whites and Latinos, who at one time in their young lives had shared any combination of drug use, impulsiveness, sense of entitlement, anger, gang involvement, aggression and dysfunctional family lives.
They’d been given an option by the county Probation Department to attend Bakari (which is Swahili for “one who will succeed”) as an intervention, and now these young men were undergoing the program’s Rite of Passage Ceremony.
Bakari wasn’t on my radar until the program’s director, Dr. Roslyn M. Caldwell of the university’s Department of Psychology and Child Development, tabbed me to join county Supervisors Jim Patterson and Paul Texiera, Sheriff Ian Parkinson, county Library Director Brian Reynolds, Judge Linda Hurst and program facilitator Steffanie Medina (yes, I’m also at a loss as to why I was asked to join such august company) as the Panel of Elders for the Rite of Passage Ceremony.
Our duty was to grill the candidates as to what they learned and how they planned to implement their new skills once they returned to their neighborhoods, knowing that the potential for slipping back into previous illegal behavior is possible. To a person, they did themselves and their families proud.
It’s small wonder, though. These young adults made the commitment to weekly three-hour sessions where positive behavior, community service and mentoring by Poly students was stressed. There’s little leeway for those who don’t give their all, and that’s directly attributable to Caldwell, a no-nonsense individual who delivers her expectations with equal dollops of hammer and honey.
Funding for the program comes from county probation, the sheriff’s asset forfeiture program, the San Luis Obispo County Community Foundation and Wells Fargo. And it couldn’t operate without the combined forces of Cal Poly and dozens of agencies and businesses taking a chance on these young men in giving them a broad range of education and community service.
Is the time and effort worth it? Consider that it costs, conservatively figuring, more than $20,000 a year to house a prisoner and $100,000 to build a single cell. The program pencils out.
But what really resonates is that these young men have been transformed and will succeed; the numbers are on their side in their graduation rates, college attendance, lack of recidivism in gangs and any further involvement in the criminal justice system. They will go back to their lives with a sense of self, purpose and pride — perhaps to become mentors to others who have been caught up early in the mean streets of life.
So, as they closed their Rite of Passage, tears of pride coursing down Caldwell’s cheeks, these eight transformed young men once again linked arms for the final stanzas of Standing in the River:
“The river of our community speaks to and through us. Brothers and sisters in this community must ‘listen’ to the laughter and the pain and ‘feel’ the sorrow and the strength of our river. People of Humanity! We are standing in the river. Alone we shall be swept away by its current. United, we can know the many rivers to cross. Individually, we shall drown in its depths. Combined, the river will guide us to the higher ground. Singularly, we are halted by its torrid banks. As one, the river shall carry us to a distant place. As one people, the river shall return us to the Source. People of Humanity! We are standing in the river, transformed and transforming.”
Reach Bill Morem at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 781-7852.