Chicago, ISIS, and Elephants: or Why National Mentoring Month is So Important

I read the news this morning, just like any other day. Except today is Monday so I get the updated YTD shootings/homicides report for Chicago: 88 shootings and 12 homicides, 100 people. A nice round number following a year where 487 people lost their lives amongst 2,986 shootings. I’m not even sure that counts victims of state violence, like Bettie Jones and Quintonio LeGrier who were gunned down by police on the morning after Christmas. It is 4 degrees outside and we are ahead of last year’s record pace after only 11 days.

The Middle East has been burning for years. To try and count up the civilian and military casualties from the last decade would be too much. Civil war in Syria, horror in Lebanon, occupation in Palestine, Iran and Saudi Arabia trading barbs and violence – to just name a few – plus refugees drowning in the Mediterranean and extremist out-flowing terrorizing San Bernardino and Paris. The numbers are staggering. I’m not willing to just dismiss this with a cliché about Ishmael and Isaac, or a poor interpretation of Matthew 24:6-7.

Since the declaration of the War on Drugs in the 1980’s, we have seen communities of color, specifically poorer neighborhoods, decimated by non-violent incarcerations and mandatory minimum sentences. A generation later, we wonder why there are fewer fathers in the home. It is easy to decry this apparent lack of personal responsibility, but there is more to it than just “being deadbeats.” In Illinois, there are more black men in prison than there are in college, also partially because the black male graduation rate in Chicago Public Schools hovers around 35%. When they went after the local gang leaders, the idea was that cutting the head off the snake would eliminate the problem. This targeting has created disproportionate minority contact with every level of the justice system, and eliminated generations of men in the neighborhoods. Faced with no leadership and no economic alternatives, now we have hundreds of block-by-block cliques running around with their heads cut off. Nobody is left to enforce street justice and the gangster “code of honor” that used to exist in neighborhoods is almost extinct. Petty arguments turn violent, and if we are expecting 14 year olds to keep a level head while confronting perceived disrespect, our heads are way up in the clouds. If we want to curb this stuff in the city, then we need some more Big Homies with level heads to teach these kids how to be adults.

Since the declaration of the War on Terror in the early 2000’s, we have seen entire geographic regions decimated by the real-politick of state building and influence peddling. Elections are rigged, rebel groups are armed or sanctioned, and strong men that we like become strong men that we don’t like. Afghans are armed to fight the USSR, but they take their weapons and lack of development support and then embrace their radicalization. Iraq is armed to fight against Iran, but then they take their weapons and lack of development support and embrace their radicalization. Taking those leaders out should have taken the head off the snake and solved the problem, but ironically, the same problem Chicago faces has happened. With nobody left to strong-arm the factions, militant groups have gone crazy. Syria’s civil war isn’t quite as clean cut as ours was. There is no North versus South, but about four different factions, backed by various states and world powers, all fighting for the same power. ISIS rose to power because there wasn’t anyone to impose street justice in the region. Saddam was certainly a tyrant, and I’m not advocating for him, but how many more civilian deaths in Iraq should there have to be before we acknowledge that we probably should have had a better plan. Did we think that this snake of violence and extremism would just wither and die when he was gone?

And then I ran across this article from about fifteen years ago, and the pieces started to fall into place. Rhinoceroses in South Africa’s Pilanesberg Park started dying mysteriously, and nobody knew why. With no natural predators, and the thought of poaching quickly dismissed since their horns were not removed, the alarms starting ringing. Diligent observation brought a stunning explanation. When elephants in nearby Kruger National Park began to thrive, park rangers were concerned about overpopulating the area, they devised a plan to transport a large number of juveniles to another park (since adult elephants are much more difficult to transport). Without any mature adults to keep the youngsters in check, there quickly became chaos among the structured social order of nature. Testosterone levels went through the roof (as they would with any group of adolescents) and as the less-than-fully-grown males were now becoming fathers, the violence began to spike. Investigators found that these leaderless male adolescent elephants, all “hopped up” on unchecked testosterone, were trampling and killing the rhinos. Shortly after this realization, mature adults were brought in to restore the natural order. When the younger elephants were returned to their proper place within the herd, peace was restored and there was not a single additional rhino death.

This is hardly an attempt to provide a solution to a geopolitical war in the Middle East, nor address the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration, although those are admirable battles to fight. This is about the realization that without someone to show us how to grow up, sometimes we never will grow up. Or maybe sometimes it is like the vines that grow up in the shapes of chaos without the shepherding influence of the garden trellis.

How do we expect fathers who have never had fathers to be good fathers? How do we expect people who have never experienced peace and freedom to allow or advocate for peace and freedom. There is a saying in social work that says “Hurt people hurt people.” When the wound of a missing parent is never addressed, it never has a chance to heal. When the wound of living with perpetual traumatic stress is never addressed, it never has a chance to heal. When a vitally important part of ourselves is missing, we can never become whole people. And to paraphrase Edmund Burke, when good people don’t do anything about it, there is no influence left except the bad influence.

This is exactly why National Mentoring Month is so important. Without good people to stand in the gap, what can we really expect to come out of these situations? A lot of people are really overcome by fear when it comes to mentoring. Is it weird to ask someone to be my mentor? Is it weird telling someone I would like to mentor them? Well, it’s only weird if you make it weird.

We all need people in our lives to help us. If we want to be something we’ve never been, we’re going to have to do some things we’ve never done. Sometimes that includes getting in touch with someone who has already done what you want to do. Want to be a good father but didn’t have an example at home? Find some people who really love their dads and get together. Want to be a good lawyer, gardener, teacher, preacher, or chef? Find one you look up to and ask for a couple of minutes of their time. Those are the easy ones.

If you want to really change someone’s world, though, you have to realize that they might not even know what they don’t know. The mentors that change the world are the ones who decide to love someone, in whatever way their mentee need to be loved. If they want to be a fashion designer but you are a jeans-and-t-shirt kind of girl? Love them enough to help them explore their dreams, and then find someone in your network that owns a sewing machine. If they want to be an accountant but you can’t balance your own budget? Love them enough to help them explore their dream, and then find someone with a calculator to help you out. Kids of all ages are hurting for some mentoring. Whether it is elementary schoolers who still want to be professional athletes, middle schoolers who don’t like biology, high school kids that think they know everything already, or twenty-somethings that realize they don’t know anything, we all need to find someone and love them.

Without vision the people perish, and without mentors, we all languish right where we’re already at. And the world is in too much pain for that to happen.