President Barack Obama and Tony Gunn Jr.

From the streets of our local communities, where we aid in the advancement of black boys and men, to shaking hands with President Barack Obama, young men and organization leaders from all over the country convened at the Scottish Rite Temple in Oakland, California for the Obama Foundation My Brother’s Keeper Rising summit.

Over the course of this three-day summit, I met an abundance of the most ambitious young men. It was a heartfelt sight to see so many brothers, and even a few sisters, who look like me and have been working in their perspective communities doing similar work as HomeGrown STL. Being surrounded by so much love and advancement, dissecting conversations really honed in on some key issues in the minds of all who attended.

We identified some compelling facts and misguided narratives that plague our communities across the nation – everything from systematic injustices in legal structures to the faulty educational systems that are based off zip codes. Progressive conversations filled the space and inspired deeper conversations.

One of the conversations was about mental health and the role that societal definition of masculinity plays in the mental health of boys and young men of color. This conversation nearly brought me to tears because it directly touched my heart on so many levels.

I grew up in an abusive turned single-parent household and then became a role model to my son, brother, little cousins, niece, and nephew whose fathers weren’t around. This put a lot of pressure on me. Inevitably, I built up this societal depiction of masculinity where you limit your cries, take a hit and show no feelings. You become desensitized to fighting, death, and violence. You handle everything on your own.

Listening to President Barack Obama, Steph Curry, and others break down this conversation on toxic masculinity explained so many things to me. Just to see such powerful, graceful men of their stature being able to relate to the bottled up pain that many brothers carry within us daily showed us two things.

This societal definition of masculinity and bottling up our feelings is a burden on us that needs to be recognized and cared for. And not only is it a staggering burden on us young men of color (and young men in general), but it also burdens our strong, supportive, ever-enduring sisters. Although it was a summit for young boys and men of color, there were a good number of young girls and women of color in attendance aiding, supporting, managing, and encouraging the event and uplift of us boys and men.

This incredible experience inspired me to continue do the work I’ve been doing and to do more and love more. I hugged more men during the time of the summit than I have hugged in my entire life. The genuine atmosphere allowed for us boys and men to love one another as brothers working towards a greater goal of safety, upward mobility, and well-being of all.

Tony Gunn Jr., a St. Louis native, is a father, entrepreneur, author, motivational speaker, comedian, recording artist and senior honor student at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri majoring in Computer Information Systems.

“Homegrown Black Males” is a partnership between HomeGrown STL at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and The St. Louis American, edited by Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, and Chris King, managing editor of The American, in memory of Michael Brown.

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