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A mentoring program is using talking circles, adventure outings and overnight camping trips to help young men develop positive and healthy relationships.

The Boys to Men Mentoring Network, founded 27 years ago in La Mesa, California, has grown to cities in 11 states, including three in Arizona, and internationally. Its mission is to strengthen communities by nurturing intentional spaces for boys and men to practice honest and mindful relationships. The goal is to give every boy in middle and high school access to safe and trusted men.

Last year, there were 10.9 million one-parent families with a child under the age of 18 in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Its data showed that 80% of one-parent families were maintained by a mother. A Pew Research Center study of 130 countries found the U.S. had the world’s highest rate of children living in single-parent households in 2019. Almost a quarter (23%) of U.S. children under 18 live with one parent, more than three times the share of children around the world (7%).

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The National Center for Fathering says children from father-absent homes are more likely to live in poverty, abuse drugs and alcohol, drop out of school and suffer from health and emotional issues. Boys also have higher chances of being involved in crime than girls, according to the group.

Boys to Men Tucson has weekly talking circle support groups in 20 middle and high schools throughout southern Arizona. Karina Valle, interim chief executive officer and director of development, said 16 more schools are on a waiting list to start groups. A community based group meets at 4 p.m. every Monday at Goodwill Community Circle, 1920 E. Silverlake Road in Tucson. The talking circle is free, no registration is required, and they welcome all young men “who would like support without being judged,” according to the website.

Boys and mentors at a weekend camping adventure for Boys to Men. (Photo courtesy of Boys to Men Tucson)

In the talking circles, the male mentors might tell a story about an experience when he was a teenager, talk about how he felt, mistakes he made and lessons learned. The boys, ages 12 to 18, can discuss their own challenges and feelings and are not judged or lectured.

The Tucson group’s own data shows boys who participate in weekly talking circles on average show higher rates of improvement in grades, fewer disciplinary actions as well as greater emotional intelligence scores and better social skills.

In May, Boys to Men Tucson was one of three Arizona nonprofits awarded $100,000 each in the Common Good Challenge, a philanthropic competition meant to fund solutions to complex community issues. Valle said the money will go toward its Healthy Intergenerational Masculinity Initiative, which will address how boys are raised and how that upbringing contributes to gender-based violence, an achievement gap, school shootings, addiction and untreated mental health issues.

The biggest roadblock to adding schools is finding enough mentors, Valle said.

Individuals who want to become mentors are required to participate in a seven-hour training session. Workshops are available for additional training.

Mentor Joel Silva said the biggest thing he took from his training was to trust the young men he mentors. His training allowed him to connect with his younger self, he said, and taught him tactics on talking with young males.

“In training, they teach you to make sure that you’re not giving advice to the youth, that you’re there to listen,” he said. “They’re going to make their own choices and even if you see a bad choice leading them to not a great path, we still have to refrain from giving them advice and trust that they’re making the best decision for themselves. If they don’t, that’s the process of learning and that’s how we grow and develop in life.”

The organization says young men thrive on its core values of accountability, community, growth, equity, healthy masculinity and fun. In addition to talking circles, individual school and community groups schedule monthly adventure outings such as rock climbing, hiking, ropes courses, bowling or visiting the zoo and camping weekends three times a year.

“We try to be outdoors as much as possible so that folks have the opportunity to connect back to the land,” Valle said. “We always check in and have a (talking) circle and provide that space because there might be other folks that they’re meeting for the first time. We try to incorporate the process of creating the space, but also providing opportunities for fun and deeper self-reflection throughout those outings.”

Boys and mentors enjoy their dinner around a campfire. (Photo courtesy of Boys to Men Tucson)

Silva, a small business owner, became a mentor a year ago.

“I see a lot of issues going on in the news with school shootings and violence, or just things that are generally perpetuated by men,” he said. “I thought that focusing on young masculine-identified youth, we could maybe help prevent some of those issues in the future by listening to them and sharing a space with them.”

Silva participates in three talking circles a week that are each an hour long. He said a good percentage of attendees are deemed by their schools as “problem kids,” but he said many of the kids are willing to be vulnerable in the group.

“You would think – just from on paper – that it’s going to be like pulling teeth to get the youth to talk, to share and to be vulnerable, but that’s not the case,” he said. “A lot of the time, they just talk. A good circle is when I don’t say much and the youth are just having conversations about anything.”

Silva said he knew his mentoring was making a difference after an experience during a camping trip. The activity had one person sit in the center of a circle and each person paid them a compliment or said something they appreciated about that person.

Mentor Joel Silva passes out doughnuts at one of the Boys to Men challenge adventure weekends. (Photo courtesy of Joel Silva)

“It was wonderful seeing these young men express themselves to each other with these wonderful things that I doubt they would say otherwise in a different space,” he said. “They were expressing their feelings and saying all these nice things, and it seemed genuine.”

The Healthy Intergenerational Masculinity Initiative, which received the Common Good grant, is a five-year project led by Emerge Center Against Domestic Abuse, Goodwill Youth Reengagement Center, and Boys to Men Tucson. The goal is to increase mentors for Black, Indigenous young men and other young men of color, influence policy changes and end the school-to-prison pipeline.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the school-to-prison pipeline is a national trend where youth across America are pushed out of the public school system and into the juvenile and criminal legal systems. Its research shows that Black students represent 31% of school-related arrests and are three times more likely than white students to be suspended and expelled. Students that are suspended or expelled for a discriminatory violation are about three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system within the following year.

In its annual report following the first year of the initiative, director Mariah Harvey said they saw “significant gains in accessibility” for young men of color in Tucson. Parent surveys, the report said, showed 100% of parents saw a positive change in their child, and 91% reported that their child was more willing to express their thoughts and feelings.

In addition to Tucson, Phoenix and Prescott, Boys to Men programs are active, and are looking for more mentors.