Instead of the usual rhetoric offered up in community discussions about the obstacles young black males face in the territory, a forum hosted Tuesday night by the University of the Virgin Islands took a different approach: presenting real solutions thought up by local women who deal with those obstacles on a daily basis.
Tuesday’s forum was put on in honor of Women’s History Month and was set up to give a selection of panelists a chance to answer questions that many in the community ask every day. Sitting on the forum’s panel was Superior Court Judge Debra Smith-Watlington, UVI psychology professor Patricia Rhymer Todman, Global Life Church Pastor Everine Hazel and Department of Education’s director of intervention services, Cira Burke.
Throughout the forum, each panelist spoke in regards to her professional capacities, saying they see young black males dropping out of school, being incarcerated or killed, and fathering countless numbers of children that they don’t help to raise. While that’s all been said before, what was different Tuesday was that the panelists looked at women’s contributions to the problem, and how repeating a cycle started by the men’s grandmothers and mothers create serious psychological problems for sons and daughters that have no positive role models to learn from.
The theme of the night appeared to be “keeping it real,” as the panelists talked about women’s promiscuity and low self-esteem, poor parenting techniques and the inability of women to truly evaluate the men they get involved with.
Todman spoke about the lack of strong family values in modern day society, but said that has evolved over time. “Our young people are being parented by people who also were not raised to have strong family values and so the cycle continues,” she said.
“Young people learn from the examples they see before them, and they look at how we as adults spend our resources, our time, our money and, when they don’t have anything, they look at the public image of what manhood is, which is all about the money and being feared and respected,” Todman said. “When we don’t show them the optimal pathways for getting those things, they reach out for them in any way possible.”
Todman also discussed how young women in the community compete for men and do “whatever they think is necessary” in order to keep them. This allows men to see women as interchangeable and disposable, she said.
“Women need to value themselves and set very high examples for what they are willing to put up with and what kind of man they want to have in their life,” Todman said. “Mothers need to do that for their sons.”
Using her experience with young men in the public school system, Burke was the most vocal Tuesday night and won applause from audience as she talked about the need for women to also evaluate the “company they keep.”
“We have to take a look at ourselves and then look at who we’re surrounding ourselves with,” she said. “Are we with people who make things better for our children, who are in a position to influence policy, who are actually making a difference in the community?”
Smith-Watlington also spoke about the need for women to have more of a voice and “break the silence” when it comes to witnessing, or experiencing, domestic violence and abuse. Because so much goes on in the home, public schools in the territory are forced to offer wrap-around services to students who might need counseling or some other kind of intervention service in order to function properly.
“That’s the reality of where we are,” she said, adding that it is more important for parents – both parents – to be committed to the life of a child from the minute it is conceived and to “be in it for the long haul.”
Tuesday’s event was UVI’s third Women’s History Month forum and was sponsored by the Office of Student Affairs at the university’s St. Thomas campus.