A Clayton church is fighting to end sexual violence against women by training male teens in a mentorship program.
The program teaches boys ages 13-17 the role they can play in preventing sexual assault. It does that in part by helping them understand how culture influences behavior.
Mt. Vernon Christian Church partnered with the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault to offer the nine-month program.
“We believe the earlier we start to talk to boys about gender equality, then it will lead to them seeing women as equal and that can lead to ending sexual violence,” said the coalition’s Monika Hostler.
Every month, 13 teens meet with their mentors and the Rev. Terence K. Leathers, pastor of Mt. Vernon. They focus on such topics as dressing well, speaking well and being well read. Many of the teens do not have other male role models in their lives.
Terrell McCaskill, 28, of Garner is a member of Mt. Vernon and a mentor in the program. “Once a week I contact my mentee by email or text and ask him about school, his family and what’s going on in his life,” McCaskill said.
Since the program began in December, McCaskill said, his mentee has become more comfortable sharing details of his life.
McCaskill, a mental-health counselor in Raleigh, said he joined the mentorship program because he wanted to help young black males learn how to be men and how to treat women.
Recently, McCaskill said, his mentee told him about a rumor that a classmate was spreading inappropriate photos of a girl. McCaskill advised the teen not to spread the rumor and report the matter to a guidance counselor.
“He sympathized with the student because we talked about what it would feel like to be a woman and be disrespected in that way,” McCaskill said. “It has showed me how much technology can influence their behavior.”
The job of the mentors is to make the teens aware of how their actions affect others and how society can influence their behavior, often in negative ways. In one monthly session, the group focused on speaking well. As part of that, the boys were asked to bring in lyrics from a favorite song.
Together they talked about what the lyrics meant. “We want them to notice if song lyrics are demeaning to women and understand what that means,” McCaskill said.
The group also learned about how to dress to make a good first impression and how to respect women no matter how they dress.
“We wanted them to understand that just because they see a girl dressing a certain way, like wearing a short skirt, it doesn’t mean they should treat her any differently,” Hostler said.
The teens’ mothers have been part of the program in a group of their own called The Nest. The women offer each other advice on rearing teen boys, and prepare food for the monthly meetings.
April Warren Davis has a son in the program who just turned 18. “At first, he was skipping school, but now his grades have improved, and he doesn’t skip classes anymore,” she said.
Davis said the program has brought her and her son closer. “He used to be more aggressive and irresponsible, but now he understands how important it is to let people know where he is,” she said.
When Davis and the other moms meet each month to make dinner for the boys, they talk about how their sons are doing. “We really all want to keep them off the streets,” Davis said.
Leathers, the Mt. Vernon pastor, wrote the curriculum for the mentorship program, which he plans to share with other churches and communities.
Since this is the program’s first year, it’s hard to measure its success. But the Coalition Against Sexual Assault will give each teen a post-program test to gauge changes in behavior, performance in school and how well they understand sexual violence.
The teens will complete the program in August, when they will each receive a suit. They will then become peer mentors, sharing what they have learned with others.