In Black Youth Rising: Activism and Radical Healing in Urban America
, Shawn Ginwright lays down what he argues is the way to transform urban communities after years of disinvestment and negligence. Through an ethnographic study of Leadership Excellence, a youth organization he founded in Oakland, California, Ginwright features the experiences of young people as a way to define and promote the notion of “radical healing” and to argue that this healing leads to a political stance and political action.
The book’s introduction outlines one of Ginwright’s central arguments: in order to create social change through activism, communities must first engage in a process of “radical healing.” Ginwright proposes that this healing process operates simultaneously at the individual, community, and broader societal levels and that spaces which foster radical healing restore the hope and political imagination of Black youth. Throughout the book, Ginwright builds a nuanced case for a dialogic relationship between healing and activism. In the first chapter, he takes readers on a bus trip from West Oakland to East Oakland, setting the geographic and historical context. By the end of this trip, Ginwright has argued that we are currently in a new era of Black activism that requires processes for healing from oppressive systems and from the trauma produced by violence and loss that come with societal disinvestment in particular communities.
The gem of this book is the second chapter, “Fostering Caring Relationships for Social Justice.” Ginwright is particularly effective when making the argument that caring, in the face of oppressive systems and trauma, is a political act in and of itself. Caring in this context, like all caring, reflects “trust, dependence, and mutual expectations” but is political because it “builds hope, political consciousness, and the willingness to act on behalf of the common good” (p. 56). One of the most important contributions Ginwright offers is the sense that “because I care about black people, I care about you” (p. 56). The emphasis on collective struggle could be interpreted as not valuing the individual, but through Kevin’s and Mikayla’s stories, readers come to understand that collective healing requires each individual to heal. Ginwright argues that adults provide a form of care when they offer opportunities for young people to engage in activism as legitimate political actors. The care these opportunities show is reciprocated by the youth, who begin to see political engagement as their responsibility.
In chapters 3 through 5, Ginwright outlines his understanding of community, critical consciousness, and culture as it pertains to radical healing. Using Marcus’s and Vince’s stories, Ginwright highlights how a critical consciousness of their views on Black masculinity can lead to political action. In addition, Ginwright argues that a positive recasting of Blackness is integral to the radical healing process. In perhaps the most poignant youth quote, Tre explains the meaning he ascribed to a trip Leadership Excellence took to Ghana: “I got Mexican friends, they got they own little culture; my Asian friends, they got they language; and I’m like, I’m just black with no language so I ain’t got shit. So I went to Africa, it made me feel like I got a culture” (p. 141).
While Ginwright is careful to warn that the book is not meant to be a recipe for radical healing, the final chapter does provide policy and practice implications, and in doing so Ginwright invites this kind of application. Subheadings like “Build a Purpose Through Identity and Culture” imply that the book provides the ingredients for a program of radical healing. Ginwright argues for an “ecologically responsive approach to working with black youth” (p. 147), which renders applying strategies that worked well in Oakland to another context questionable.
Ginwright might be criticized for his emphasis on the newness of the current era. Readers will likely be convinced of the merits of radical healing through the theoretical argumentation and stories and may disagree with Ginwright’s assertion that it is needed today more than, say, in the period following the abolishment of slavery in the United States. In fact, as described in the first chapter, some of the contributions of the Black Panther Party are quite similar to the components of Ginwright’s modern-day Leadership Excellence program.
Ginwright has laid an important foundation on which more work can be built. The second chapter is particularly strong, and its contribution to understanding caring relationships might be useful in youth organizations, teacher education courses, afterschool programs, or any institution working with urban youth. The remainder of the book provides important lessons and adds the voices of those most affected by the trauma of oppression to a conversation too often happening without them.