COMPTON — The critical need for male mentors, the importance and power of forgiveness and how to heal from violence and sexual abuse were just a few of the topics discussed April 27 during the third annual Manhood Conference held by the nonprofit Positive Results Corporation.
“Our goal is to engage men and boys to increase awareness of dating, domestic violence and sexual assault while being proactive in ways to prevent it,” said Kandee Lewis, executive director of the organization that sponsored the conference at the Douglas F. Dollarhide Community Center.
Boys and young men from the ages of 10 to 24 gathered for a day of talking, listening and healing.
“Big” John Harriell, the keynote speaker and the diversity manager and superintendent for Morrow Meadows, an electrical and data communications contractor, emphasized the importance of fathers. Harriell said that many boys lack a father figure to look up to.
“The absence of a father in the home can be detrimental to a young man or a woman,” he said. “Without that guidance, the children could do things that are counterproductive to themselves, their family and the community.”
Harriell, who grew up in a home filled with domestic violence, said he went down the wrong path as a youth. It was only after he did a stint in prison that he was mentored by other inmates — “father figures” who taught him how to be a provider, protector and leader.
On a Consent, Abuse and Other Conversations panel, featured speakers included community advocate Dustin Baker;Harriell, and Terry Boykins, CEO of Street Positive, a company that assists youth impacted by adverse childhood experiences. Donta Morrison, program manager at APLA Health, served as the moderator.
“How many of you young men have had a conversation about sex?’ Morrison asked the audience. Only a handful of young men raised their hands.
The panelists warned that young men who are not knowledgeable about sex could contract sexually transmitted diseases or be faced with an unwanted pregnancy.
“Please have that conversation with your parents or guardian,” Morrison urged.
Sexual abuse was also a topic of conversation.
“An adult engaging in sexual activities with a child is wrong and needs to be held accountable,” said Boykins, who added that sexual consent should occur between two adults, not with children.
Baker warned youths about predators.
“There are a lot of men who get molested by women like the babysitter,” Baker said. “Or teen boys who are seduced into sexual activity by their teachers.”
Baker shared his own experience.
“I was 15 and I was secretly struggling with my sexuality,” he said. “One day, this adult who was 30 years old and a mentor of mine leaned over and kissed me. I thought, ‘I was dirty, I was wrong.’ I was confused because my sexual identity was still being developed.”
He said he was coerced into embarking into a sexual relationship with the mentor.
“I wanted to instantly go back to being a teen, but I couldn’t,” Baker said.
Morrison confessed that he was also sexually molested at the age of 8.
“I told my father, but he called me a liar,” said Morrison, who was traumatized by the incident. “I didn’t tell anyone else about the abuse until I was 29 years old.”
Morrison added that every day, he tests young men at APLA who are stunned to find out that they are HIV-positive because they didn’t practice safe sex.
A young man raised his hand and asked, “If we’re in school and the principal touches us in a strange way, can they go to jail?”
“That’s a very good question,” said Boykins, who quietly passed the boy’s confession on to probation officers listening in the room.“Young people, if someone is touching you inappropriately, tell an adult you trust. When someone is a predator, you are probably not the first victim he has done it to.”
“Our culture says, ‘Don’t snitch,’” Baker said. “But you have to tell someone if you’ve been sexually molested because the trauma will affect you well into your 30s and 40s.”
“Remember, ‘if someone approaches you sexually, tell them ‘no’ means ‘no,” Harriell said.
The Importance of Mentorship featured Arturo Flores from the Big House,Dillon Iwo, senior field representative for U.S. Rep. Karen Bass; and Torrence Brannon Reese, CEO of F.A.M.L.I., a mentoring program for at-risk youth. The panel was moderated by Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Brent Burton.
“Where can a young person find someone to help them grow and develop?” Burton asked.
“A mentor can be anyone who can provide a level of guidance for you,” Iwo said. “Mentors can be people we aspire to be like in various aspects of our lives.”
“You can find mentors at the Boys and Girls Club or at church,” Flores said.
“It’s not hard to find people for inspiration,” said Flores. “Be tech savvy. You can find or read about mentors on Google, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat.”
Reese added that youths can also find mentors in books.
“Books saved my life,” he said. “My mother gave me ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ when I was 10 years old. He and Muhammad Ali became my mentors.”
“If you know someone you admire, be confident enough in yourself to ask them, ‘How do I make it out here?’” Iwo said. “Your mentor could be someone you are connected to spiritually or even in a book.”
“Be the best that you can be and you will attract mentors,” Reese said.
During a break, the room turned lively as the men showed the youths how to properly tie a tie — considered a definitive rite of manhood.
The third panel, Healing and Forgiveness, featured speakers Shontez Williams of Back to the Basics, gang interventionist Ben “Taco” Owens and pastor of Hope in Christ Community Church Ed Robinson.
“I am a survivor,” said Williams, who spent 17 years in prison. “I have to live on for my daughter who was killed by another female. My friends were upset. They told me, ‘Man, somebody should have her killed.’
“But I made calls from prison and told my crew not to touch the young lady or her family,” Williams said. “My healing and forgiveness came when I forgave.”
“My stepfather used to beat my mother,” said Ben Owens III, who was angered by the abuse and joined a gang at an early age. “When I got out of Los Angeles County Jail at 18, I asked myself, ‘Where was my real father when I was going through these challenges?’”
Owens tracked down his father in Alabama and found out that he was mentally disabled.
“I was holding a grudge against him for years that he didn’t have any control over,” Owens said. “I forgave him. That forgiveness changed my life.”
Robinson said that he also grew up in a home filled with domestic violence.
“My father was an alcoholic and he beat my mother. One day he approached her with a butcher knife. But at 13, I was an amateur boxer and I was ready to fight him. When he tried to beat my mother, I said, ‘No, not today.’” He stopped in his tracks.
“I forgave my father,” said Robinson, who forged a strong bond with his dad during the last three years of his life. “Not forgiving someone will destroy you physically,” Robinson said as he poured a sack of rocks on the table.
“We have a choice to release that bondage, pain and hurt or be weighed down with hate and anger for the rest of our lives,” he said, pointing to the rocks.
Sociologist Tre Watkins concluded the conference by holding a “healing circle.”
“Do your best every single day,” he urged the youths. “Repeat these words: ‘I am strong, I am powerful, I am intelligent and I am worthy.’”
“We need men to set examples for us,” said Abel, who stood up to speak. “If you see us young people going down the wrong path, show us how to go down the right one.”
This article originally appeared in the Wave Newspapers.