In his two and a half years at Roberto Clemente High School in Chicago, Brandon Bailys has supported his students through the range of experiences that accompany growing up in one of America’s most violent cities. He’s counseled teenagers who have lost family members to gun violence, and rejoiced to see them walk down the aisle at graduation.

Bailys, 28, works a guidance counselor for “Becoming a Man,” or BAM, a program designed to give at-risk young men of color a safe space to express themselves and develop social and emotional skills. For an hour each week, he leads a group of roughly 15 students in exercises and discussions that, he says, provide something kids can’t often get on the streets: a support system. Many sessions center on gun violence: Almost 2,000 people have been shot in the Chicago this year, including 97 teenagers in just the last month.

The program serves 2,500 young men in 48 schools across the city, and has shown promise in reducing violence. A new study from the University of Chicago Crime Lab found that the program reduced violent crime arrests among its students by 50 percent. (One troubling indicator: Researchers noted that the decrease in arrests didn’t continue after the students stopped participating in the program.) The students’ on-time graduation rates also shot up by 19 percent.

In an interview with The Trace, Bailys discussed his experience with BAM and the most gratifying moments he’s had as a counselor.

“Becoming a Man” is a pretty striking name. Could you tell us more about the origins of the name and the program itself?

The name is important. The program’s not called “Being a Man” or “You Are a Man” because we’re always in the process: Even as a counselor, I am still becoming a man. There are still things that I don’t show integrity with, and there are still times when I don’t hold myself accountable. The point isn’t, “Oh, you go through BAM and then, boom, you’re a man.” The moment that we settle and say, “I know I’m becoming a man because of X, Y and Z and I’m not struggling to become a man because I am a man,” that’s the moment we stop reflecting on ourselves and that’s the moment we start acting like there are no repercussions for our actions.

What does the BAM program look like in practice? What do you and your students do in a typical session?

The first thing we do is sit in a circle, create a safe space, and the students will check in. The check-in is really kind of identifying where they’re at, holistically. So, physically, where are you at? How is your body feeling? Are you tired? Are you hungry? There may be kids who come into school and they haven’t eaten the night before, and so they’re coming to school to get fed.

After that, we’ll ask, “What’s on your mind?” Recently, toward the end of the year when we did our weekly check-in, a lot of violence was happening. You’d hear, “I’ve been thinking about my friend who got shot,” or “I was thinking about the girl on Lake Shore Drive who got killed.” Another student came to see me in December, and I could tell he was upset, and he told me, “This morning I got held up at gunpoint just coming to school.” When he was walking to school! I grew up in a suburb outside of Cleveland, and I would have been holed up in my house for months after that. And he came to school and sought support. They’re able to talk about those moments and put those feelings out there — they’re not going to suppress or repress them anymore.

After the check-in, we’ll most likely do an experiential activity. We have 32 different lessons, but at the end of the year we do what’s called visionary goal setting. Within that is something that we call “affirmations and clearances.” An affirmation is “I know I’m becoming a man because …” fill in the blank. And then after that is clearances. “I know I’m still struggling to become a man because …” fill in the blank. And in that moment, they’re recognizing all the work that they’ve done throughout the year and all the work that they still have to do. It’s a really thoughtful, deep reflection on where they’re at.

Chicago is experiencing a significant spike in gun violence. How do your kids deal with it in their everyday lives? How do you approach it?

I think back to a month ago when one of my kids said, “I’m just scared all the time.” There’s just a baseline of anxiety every day because there are so many shootings. And so we talk about what’s that like. Part of that is just listening to their experiences. I’ve had kids who have been arrested for possession of a firearm, or they have seen their friends get shot or murdered, or they just hear shootings outside their home every day. I also think they reflect on what it would be like if they had a gun. Or, if they have a gun, on the damage they could do.

I don’t share my own beliefs on guns, because it would immediately take away from their experience. And that’s not what BAM’s about. It’s hearing their opinions. What does a gun do for you? How do you feel if you have a gun? Does it change your identity as an individual? Are you actually safer? All those questions come in. Overall, I think they believe that guns are doing a significant amount of damage to their communities.

What makes a successful BAM counselor?

The most important thing you can do is just accept the kids for who they are and what they’re going through. A lot of people don’t realize that there’s a picture painted of these kids before they’re even born. Often when people think of a young man of color in Chicago, they think of violence. And so there are so many things that are already against them, whether it’s this stigma or worrying about being able to support their families or being in an environment where every single day they have to watch their back. Every single day, a simple, “Hey, how are you?” is going to add some value to their lives because there are more people who are invested in seeing their success through.

When you hold group sessions, is it easy for your students to open up? And if it is a struggle, how do you encourage them to share with the group?

I think society creates this expectation of men that we don’t talk about anything. We don’t have feelings, and the only feelings that we do have are anger. And so for some groups it does take months to really break those barriers and open up. But in my experience, the group is powerful within itself, and just participating is what encourages the kids to open up. A lot of it is the comfort of hearing that you’re not the only one going through something.

I’m thinking about one of my groups last year, kids who will have just graduated. One of the students checked in and said, “I’m feeling really sad because my brother just got locked up for armed robbery.” And in that moment, another student interrupted him and said, “My brother just got locked up for armed robbery.” Well, unbeknownst to the students, both their brothers committed the crime together. And so in that moment, they were able to find safety in the group, and in that moment, they became brothers. All their barriers were gone — because they were going through the exact same thing.

At the same time, I do a lot of individual counseling. There are certain things that can’t be dealt with on the group level. I think about five to seven of my students lost either a parent or a grandparent within this past year.

Have you had any notable success stories? Are there any really gratifying moments you can think of, after working with these kids?

I’m thinking about a specific student who I’ve been working with for the past two years, and I see on a very regular basis. We’re actually in the process of getting some of his gang tattoos removed, which is a really, really cool experience. And the reason why he wants them off is because he believes his external self does not reflect who he is on the inside. Within the past year, his brother was locked up and his father was murdered, and in spite of all the trauma he’s dealt with, he came to school every day, he walked across the stage, graduated, and now is hopefully going to get an internship through our organization.

At the end of every year, we do a celebration to recognize the students for all their hard work. And I took my students — I think it was about 60 guys — to Sky Zone, a trampoline park. In this environment where there was absolutely zero threat to their well-being, they were able to take down all those walls that they’ve had to create to be safe. They were 14- to 18-year-old boys jumping around and being goofy and having an amazing time. And unfortunately, whether it’s their neighborhood or their families, they don’t get to be like that, where there’s no threat, very often. So, it’s really, really good to see them be able to take down those walls and just be kids. Because they are kids.

[Photo: Youth Guidance]