Urban Youth Use Myths and Drums to Become Men
Dressed in black shirts with a prominent red and white ring across the chest, they sit in a circle, in a classroom, banging their hands against tilted djembe drums. One would think this group of young men was a black drumming group, but something larger is happening here. These urban young men are participating in a mentoring program run by Alchemy, Inc, which uses the power of myth, journaling, and drums to unlock their potential. Although most of the students are black, and their favored instrument has West African origins, the group is open to any male students at the school. (Alchemy has run programs for girls before and intends to launch new ones soon.)
When pressed about its perception as being just for black young men, Kwame Scruggs, Alchemy’s founder, notes that it was mostly a matter of coincidence. “The first school we worked in happened to be 99% black, and the next school after that just happened to send us black kids. We have white kids in the program too, and they love it, man.” No doubt race plays an important part in how many of these young men navigate the world and uncover their place in society. Finding the Gold Within (2014), a documentary by Karina Epperlein, features several young men from the Alchemy program. One participant, Darius, talks about the normalization of racial jokes and the pain he’s encountered from it.
“I was done. That was mind-blowing to me. You have a lot of dynamics there. You have the fact that it was made okay for him [a new acquaintance] to think that it’s okay to say that word, for one, and how the racism comes out in jokes, and it’s able to be laughed off. The African-American male is forced to internalize that. He goes out and attempts to be accepted in a society that constantly tells him that he’s not good enough to be part of.”
When talking about how society perceives black men, another black teen anguishes, “We’re feared. Period.”
Epperlein’s documentary follows these young men through the trials and triumphs of their first three years of college, as they maneuver through persistent racial provocations. While her message aims to shatter the perception of young black men as an “international symbol of violence,” Scruggs says Alchemy offers a wider appeal that includes defying stereotypes. “We hardly talk about race. We are talking about myth and assisting them in their development. Back then we never really talked about black issues. We still don’t, not really.” For some, defying racial discrimination plays a central part in their personal growth, but Scruggs says one challenge stands high above the rest when it comes to the urban youth experience—they struggle to look long-term, wanting immediate gratification.
Shortsightedness is endemic to youth, but Scruggs asserts that it’s particularly pernicious among urban youth. “All these myths are saying pretty much the same thing. If you just listen, do what you have to do, in America, you pretty much can make it. You have to sacrifice.” While visiting a suburban neighborhood, pondering why more of his urban youth weren’t making it, he had an epiphany. When suburban youth come home, they live on quiet streets where they can already hold the fruits of persistence. They can see the results of foresight, patience, and sacrifice. They encounter nice houses and cars, full refrigerators. They have concrete pieces of evidence telling them that if they delay some gratification now, they can have greater stability later. On the other hand, urban youth don’t have that. Instead, they go home to chaotic neighborhoods. “They don’t have those nice tangible things to touch,” explains Scruggs. “They see their parents struggle. They don’t see where the sacrifices are going to pay off.”
The Origins of Alchemy, Inc.
Put simply, Alchemy is a program that implements myth to help young men develop into successful adults with a personal purpose. They utilize narratives to thrive as members of their families, schools, communities, and the world-at-large. Alchemy aspires to create socially responsible community leaders who embrace ancient values, particularly those found in myth.
Kwame Williams, an Alchemy storyteller, holds stories as sacred healers. “To me, it’s like the old African griot. It is a transfer of information about learning. You will get out of it what you need to get out of it. I do believe that stories heal. We hold true to the fact that wounded people will continue to wound others until they are healed.”
The seeds for this award-winning program were planted 25 years ago when Scruggs discovered Men and the Water of Life (1993), a book authored by Michael Meade. In it, Meade interprets several myths to unearth the rituals and stories young men can use to become exemplars in their own communities. Scruggs, a counselor at Akron University at the time, began integrating these mythological stories into the groups he was running with sixth and seventh graders. From there he took his workshops to Perkins Middle School, as an after-school program.
He didn’t intend for his workshops to become a nonprofit, but says, “It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.” Initially designed as a ten-week program in 2003, a student pleaded for them to extend the group. Sensing the momentum, Scruggs whispered to Williams, “Are you willing to stay with these boys until the end of the year, whether we get paid or not?” to which Williams agreed. Seeing the kids’ glee, Scruggs knew he couldn’t reject the extending road. He turned again to Williams, “Man, are you okay to stay with them until they graduate, whether we get paid or not?”
In that same year, when Perkins Middle School received a $5 million grant from the Knight Foundation, Scruggs was also gifted a share. Enabling him to form Alchemy, Inc., the ten-week program turned into four years. 1,500 students later, Alchemy now serves students in six schools and plans to operate in nine by 2019.
Why Use Myths and Drums?
The Kwames met each other as initiates in an African-based rite of passage ceremony in 1993. As Scruggs sees it, the group “reminds you of what you came to this earth to do, that everybody has a purpose to fulfill. It introduced me to African spirituality. And, it’s about helping your community out.”
Atheists and theists alike shouldn’t be worried about the program interfacing too much with religion or spirituality. Since Alchemy operates in public schools, they are very cautious about the blending of church and state. Regardless, Scruggs claims it’s been a non-issue, which is another testament to the power of myth. Mythological stories are able to transcend the cultural, political, and religious tribal lines that plague American discourse today because they don’t trouble themselves too much with metaphysical claims. They function in the metaphorical realm, using archetypes and symbols which allow individuals to mine unique meaning which aligns with their personal circumstances. Distilling significance from the myths, like the Firebird or Faithful John, is far less divisive than any political or religious discussion, and often, spiritually more invigorating.
Martin Shaw, the founder of the Westcountry School of Myth, combines myth and demanding experiences in the wilderness of England to help teens crack open their hidden abilities. He describes myth as “a story that instigates an intense, personal reaction, and at the same time a wider range of relational awareness.” Myth starts in a space of personal exploration, in frightening solitude, the hero on the road alone, which later demands the young man to return home with a unique blessing he gives to his community. Regarding adolescence, Shaw says,
“If nothing is presented to the individual at that crucial stage, if no Arthur, no White Buffalo Women, no Elder appears, then the energy loses focus, eats disappointment and becomes self-centered, because the world it’s heading towards seems dulled or greedy. Mythology, as we will see, helps us into adulthood by showing us a picture wider than our own self-absorption.”
What Is Alchemy’s Secret Power?
“Love. Love. Love.” says Scruggs. “It’s about creating an environment of trust and being able to share your wounds, so that others can see what you’re going through, and perhaps they can assist you.”
In Finding the Gold Within, Williams retells the myth of Faithful John while pounding away on a djembe. Faithful John is requested by a dying king to become a foster father to the king’s son and to one day show him how to live. After relating the myth, Williams prompts the boys to write down what it is that’s about to die in their lives, what is coming to an end right now, and what they are willing to die for—answers are a mix of football, music, poetry, and family.
Meade is a grandfather figure to Alchemy, Inc., having been a teacher to Scruggs. He speaks of the ancient world in which people believed that this place we inhabit, the real world, had to be dreamed up in the other world so that it could even exist. He goes on to tell the tale of Isaac, a dreamer, each line matching the engulfing rhythm of the drum.
“Once upon a time there was a village. And the people in the village were simple and down to earth folk. And everybody did their jobs and went their ways. And not much changed from day-to-day inside that village.
But at night, dreams would pound on the roofs of the houses. And one night a dream was pounding on the roof. And it came to a certain man. And in the dream, a voice spoke. And the voice said to him, ‘Isaac, it’s time for you to leave.’ And it took such a long time to travel back, that his clothes came back into style [participants laugh].
And Isaac entered the village all styled up again. A little dusty, but looking good [more laughter]. And when he entered his old village he went straight to his hut. And there, shining from the back of the hearth was a treasure of gold. And Isaac took all of the gold out of the hearth. Isaac built a great hall, and then he invited all people of the village into the hall.
And when the people came in, he gave them something to drink, and he gave them some food. And then Isaac would simply ask them one question, ‘have you had a dream?’ And soon the people began to share their dreams and were going in all directions, following their dreams, walking on the feet of their dreams.
And I hope, that something of Isaac’s intelligence and courage will enter each one of you, as you walk onto the road of life. And I hope, that you will find some gold. If you don’t find it out there, remember this, you can always find it deep, at the back, of your own heart.”
Meade reminds students that they must seek out “friends of the deep self, people like those in Alchemy who know that you have gold inside of you.” The young men talk about attending college, earning football scholarships, studying political science, music, and psychology. In a safe and therapeutic setting, these young men learn how to reveal and confront their feelings together, strengthening their emotional intelligence.
Finding the Gold Within captures a particularly trying time for CJ, a graduated member of Alchemy. During a reunion workshop, CJ reveals that he’s not in college and recently out of jail on bail. “I can’t do this shit,” he says tearfully. “I’m going to be a statistic. I don’t know if I’m going to go outside making a play and not come home. I don’t even speak to my mom no more. I’m on the streets. I sell drugs.” He absolutely breaks down when he discloses this to the group. His comrades envelop him in love, armed with ancient acumen. Scruggs counsels them, “You judge a man by the company he keeps. You make your friends your teachers, and you mingle the friendly art of conversation with the advantages of instruction.”
Imani, a friend who has gone off to college, reminds him that the last time they saw each other he knew CJ wasn’t being straight with him. With tenderness he reprimands CJ, “You can step off your horse. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You know you can come to me or my dad.”
Facilitators, like Williams, scatter carefully-curated quotes within these sacred circle talks, awakening wisdom in these raw young men.
“You are out there in this ‘you better make it world.’ If you don’t make it, it’s going to eat you alive. I am more confident than ever that you all have been trained already to go out there and face whatever issue is going to confront you. Feel the pain, but take that pain, and let it become a motivator. Flip the script.
The whole key is that you have been prepared to face this monster you’re running into now. I hope you don’t think you wasn’t [sic] supposed to face it. You need it for you to become who you need to become. This is the fire that needs to fortify you, burn you into that man. Allow that fire to burn in you, man. But stick to it. That’s the whole key.”
How Do You Measure a Man?
As a nonprofit, donors and foundations require metrics of success. In addition to testimonials, evaluations are conducted by Kent State University each year, based on social and emotional learning. These assessments offer qualified insight into the growth made by program participants, but Scruggs determines success a little bit differently. “Our evaluations are great,” he reminds. “But, you’re not going to see the value of this program until these kids are 25 years old. I measure it by their outlook on life, when they realize they can be the hero in their own story. They start to incorporate the character traits of the hero in their own lives, which is making sacrifices, persevering, and overcoming obstacles.”
Stacee, who is featured in the film, describes himself as somebody who grew up in a financially and morally stable family. Then tragedy hit. At the same time that his mom lost her job at a hospital, his dad lost his job and moved out. Everything fell apart and he turned resentful. He says he latched onto the myth of White Snake as a unique guiding story in his own life. “In hearing that myth, I felt like that was me. All I needed was that taste or the bite of the White Snake. And then everything was going to be just visible to me, and audible, and I could hear and see everything.”
From the original core group, 26 of 28 graduated high school on time, 24 went to college. 12 of those graduated from college and five went on to graduate school.
Scruggs’ real pride shows when he talks about being able to see pictures of the four who are now fathers, taking care of their own sons. He estimates he’s had little direct impact on the participants’ academic accomplishments but feels some responsibility for their other successes. “We do take some credit for the love that I see them have for their children and being involved in their children’s lives. A lot of what we do is talk about fathers and sons. It’s amazing to see these cats talk to their kids about the myths they learned in sixth grade.”
In 2012, Alchemy became one of ten programs to win the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, the highest honor one can win in the realm of youth development. They received the accolade from former First Lady Michelle Obama, as invited guests to the White House.
Can Programs Like This Be Replicated?
Many observe Alchemy’s success and want to see it duplicated, but doubts linger over whether that’s possible, citing that much of the program’s power resides within Scruggs’ personality. Facilitators elsewhere in Akron have been trained, and Alchemy hopes to pilot a program in another major urban city in the near future. The challenge of scalability centers around finding emotionally intelligent individuals who can memorize myths, play drums, and guide discussion groups.
If the same success continues, donor money should follow, and Alchemy should sustain growth. When asked where he hopes to see Alchemy in ten years, Scruggs emphasized that he “would love to see it in every major urban city.”
One of the more promising moments from the film comes toward the end, in which the protagonists are seen carrying on the torch, telling myths and drumming for a rapt audience of sixth graders. “Once upon a time, there was a boy, or a prince rather. One day he felt the need to mentor the young males of his village. And he went far, and brought back something mystical. And so a circle was formed, like the one we’re sitting in now. Let’s keep the circle going.”
Jeffrey is the Founder and Editor-in-chief of Erraticus. He also hosts and produces the philosophy-centric podcast Damn the Absolute!
He is a journalist and writer whose research interests center around bioregionalism, philosophical pragmatism, pluralism, and resilient communities. He lives in Southern Appalachia.