Jason Watson

Part of a year-long series, presented by The American and the Brown School at Washington University, on changing the narratives and outcomes of young black males in St. Louis

At 12, I started selling.

At 14, I began using heroin. The same year, my best friend was killed.

At 15, I was kicked out of Beaumont High School.

At 16, I was charged with my first felony and landed in a medium-security jail, known as the Workhouse, where I spent the next four months of my life.

After all of that, at 18, I legally became a man. I had survived enough pain for a lifetime, before I was legally considered an adult.

Nobody is shocked that life is dark in parts of our city. But not everyone has walked the walk and lived the life to understand how hopeless it really can seem.

Growing up in Walnut Park, in the heart of North St. Louis, the youngest of 10 kids in a single-parent home, I know what living in that context means. That’s why I fight for change. That’s why I fight to show the men who come through Mission: St. Louis the dignity they possess. That’s why I fight to give them the resources they need to live a different story.

At 37, I am nearing four years of directing a program called Beyond Jobs out of Mission: St. Louis, helping men with stories like mine change their lives.

When Mike Brown was killed in August 2014, my family and I were living in Iowa to work with an educational program for students from Chicago. I had traveled the world for 10 years previous to that, touring as a Christian rap artist. We had always planned to move back home to St. Louis one day, but after Mike’s shooting, it felt more urgent to come back and make change here.

At that time, the former director of Beyond Jobs, James Westbrook, reached out to see if I was interested in working at Mission: St. Louis. Plans fell into place, and I joined the team.

In the 11 years that Mission: St. Louis has been a nonprofit organization, it has developed a three-fold focus to manifest change in our city. We focus on emotionally, socially and educationally enriching the lives of students through a program called Beyond School, building relationships and coming alongside men through Beyond Jobs, and practically assisting seniors in our neighborhoods through Beyond Charity. In Beyond Jobs, the bulk of our time is spent on our eight-week Job & Leadership Training (JLT) sessions.

JLT revolves around recognizing potential in men and cultivating it. That means that when I look at our men, I don’t see what they are, but what they can be. So JLT, on a big-picture level, looks like first and foremost, seeing and speaking the worth of these men—sitting across the table from a guy who has a story like mine. He is likely justice-involved, potentially a former or current dealer.

And we get to say to him, “You are a man to us. You’re not number. You’re not an inmate. You’re not a felon. You’re a man, and we will treat you as such.” We get the opportunity to tell these guys that they do not have to be what they have been nor are they defined by it. Every time they enter our doors, the men recite a mantra reflecting those exact beliefs:

We are men. We are not less than men because we choose to stand alone. Real wisdom is choosing the right men to stand with me. I admit that who I was was not who I want to be, but I am committed to the change necessary to become the man that I was made to be.

So the speaking of that mantra – the act of our guys owning a belief in something better – is what we shape our curriculum around. It plays out in both practical, very tangible ways, as well as very intangible, inwardly focused ways. So some of JLT looks like teaching what it’s like for a man to gain employment and maintain it. Men who once were selling drugs no longer possess the desire to do so, so along with that switch in lifestyle comes a need for skills like money management, interviewing, timeliness, resumé-building, and networking.

For that piece of JLT, men are partnered with mentors and job coaches whom they meet with regularly. We teach classes two times per week focused on this skill set. I frequently teach those classes, as do other staff members here, as well as outside speakers. Guys also have the opportunity to intern at sites outside of Mission: St. Louis. They go to internships twice a week and gain experience and practice diligence in their work. All in all, we are equipping them with a well-rounded set of skills and experiences for the workforce.

On the flip side, much of our program focuses on the inward cultivation of these men. We encourage the development of vital aspects of their lives: brotherhood, the recognition of their own dignity and dreams, proper conflict resolution, the desire to not harm their communities but instead to do good for themselves and their families. Those things aren’t measurable statistics that we are writing on our grant-fulfillment paperwork, but they are some of the most game-changing pieces of what we get to do.

Because every guy is different, their success looks different. For some it means they’ve made a choice to not do drugs anymore or to stay out of prison. In a lot of cases it’s receiving their first paycheck of all time or maintaining sustainable employment. One of our guys went from making minimum wage to a $60,000 salary. That success means provision for his family in a wholly new, life-changing way.

That’s not always the story. Some days it is brutal work. But, on the whole, I do see change happening. I see men of color stepping up into leadership roles in this city. I see African-American men and women throughout St. Louis giving their lives to make a better story.

In the end, my thought for these men – for our region, really – is that we don’t have to be what we’ve been. We all need each other because we are in the story together – city and county, black and white, young and old. The story doesn’t have to be the one we’ve been telling for years here in St. Louis.

It can change and is changing in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day work that we get to do. We’ve just got to keep showing up for these guys with the resources they need and the supportive relationships they are craving, and they are going to keep amazing us with their success and commitment to transformation.

Jason Watson is director of Beyond Jobs at Mission: St. Louis, husband to the beautiful and deeply loyal Nikki, and father to De’Juan, Jalen and Isaiah.

“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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