In The Faces of MAScK: Part 1, Lussier LOFT middle school staff members Howard Hayes, Arthur Morgan and Kijuan Smith laid out the process of how the Atwood Community Center Boys’ Group, which was started by Barry Davis over 30 years ago, became Men Always Seeking Change and Knowledge (MAScK). But the history of how Boys' Group transitioned to into MAScK and prioritizing inclusive conversations on identity uncovers only part of what shapes their impact on its students. One of the biggest reasons the programs have flourished over their collective three decades is the willingness of the leaders to be open about their own experiences and lives in order to pave the way for their students.
For the leaders of MAScK, personal history and identity is a dynamic tool for leading and learning. Every session includes stories as lessons. Whether it's a story of joy, hardship or growth (or a combination of all three), every moment becomes something a student can relate to, a celebration or an unspoken bond.
The following story is a connection of personal history and identity across the four current leaders of MAScK: Arthur Morgan, Kijuan Smith, Howard Hayes and Indigo Alcorta, focusing on key shapers of their individual identities. During their sessions with youth, each leader chooses to open his past up as example. This story serves as a glimpse into how that choice makes the conversations within MAScK so special.
Howard grew up in the Atlanta area. Like many kids, a lot of Howard's early identity, especially around masculinity, came from his father. A military man more dedicated to the opportunities enlisting could bring him and his family than the military environment itself. However, Howard’s dad couldn’t keep the military from influencing how he presented himself as an authority figure, especially around kids close to Howard’s immediate family.
“My cousins would come stay with us for the summer and they’d be like, ‘Yo, your dad … your dad does not play!’ And my friends would say, ‘I’m so afraid of your dad.’ He did have that presence. He was a no-frills kind of guy.”
At least when it came to kids who weren’t his own.
As Howard continued reflecting on his father’s attitudes and presence during his childhood, the softer side of his memories came forward. The military persona that struck nerves of Howard’s cousins and friends cracked open when given the opportunity to care for his son.
“Every Sunday, when I’d be asleep at like 11 o’clock, I’d hear music blasting from somewhere in the house. And all of the sudden my dad would come into the room, pull the blankets off me and dance to get me out of bed. But he also made me make my bed in perfect military style every single morning.”
Howard didn’t realize it at the time, but his earliest representation of what a man could be was wrapped in the charming duality of his dad. A man could be intimidating, strict, playful, caring and everything in between, and his identity as a man, and a person, does not have to be questioned. However, for Howard, the most treasured influence on his identity came from his brother.
“My brother was a big thinker. Miles ahead of me. He was that kind of dude where people would be like, ‘Your ... your brother's really super weird,’ but he was athletic, so they didn’t care. When I was younger, I'd be kind of ashamed of things about him. I didn’t really feel like we were close growing up. But then I got older, and I realized, ‘Oh my God, I was built by that relationship.’
“He worked at a record store, and I would go there to hang out and do homework after school. Because it was a record store, they always had all these promotional tapes. And every day my brother would say to me, ‘Go in the back, do your homework, there’s a tape ready for you.’ Now my favorite group in high school was INXS, which he knew. So, when a new album came out my brother would have a copy for me the day before the actual release. I’d walk into school with my Walkman, people asking ‘Hey what are you listening to?’ And when I’d say the new INXS album, and they’d freak out — ‘That didn’t even come out till today!’
“But he listened to everything. Everything! That was his superpower. He listened to music that I never even heard of — you’d name an artist and he both listened to them AND probably had half their records. He played a big part in me being able to recognize that I was more than the product of my environment. Just through music.”
Between his dad and brother, Howard had two role models who found ways to show up authentically. But putting that authenticity into practice didn't come automatically. In fact, the people who showed him most how to stay true to himself were the young people he was also leading: his middle schoolers.
“To see a middle school youth — who I consider to be in one of the most challenging places in their life — become themselves when everybody is trying so hard to not be themselves. To see them step out and become more social, to go completely against societal norms because it’s more important to be who they want to be than to reflect society, that to me is a true warrior.
“I’m still trying to grow in that, but it’s harder when you’re older. It’s harder being in a place with a small Black population. But then I see these kids mentally being able to find that spot at 12 years old. I go, ‘Where did you find that in you?’ And they say, ‘Howard, it’s not that hard.’ But it is! It is hard. My experience with youth has really changed how I see masculinity and expression. That idea that you can still consider yourself masculine and present feminine — or what society considers feminine — and not change anything about who you are as an individual. That's something they gave me.”
Like Howard, Arthur’s role as ‘little brother’ offered him an unexpected foundation. But where Howard’s brother introduced him to avenues of expression and identity, Arthur’s brothers offered him the gift of leadership. A gift he embraces often as a youth leader.
“My brothers are six years older than me. I didn’t have day care or summer camp. I had Randy and Kenny. Everything that I learned, I learned from my brothers. From the way that they handled me and how they talked to me. Those conversations after games or when they’d be walking me back from my football practice. Because of my brothers, I know one of the best tools that you can give to a young person is a conversation. When I’m talking with youth, I always try to share stories so they can say to themselves, ‘Arthur went through this.’ Whatever they’re feeling or going through happens, even with adults.”
Indigo Alcorta, who began facilitating with MAScK in late 2022, has a complicated relationship with identity. Growing up in a Mexican household, Indigo watched his brothers grapple with expectations of boyhood, machismo and traditional ideas of masculinity. All while discovering himself as a trans man.
“My brothers were able to accept vulnerability. Our mom was a strong feminist, she taught them how to treat women and be a good person, but I watched them struggle having conversations about positive masculinity. They struggled a lot with trying to confine themselves into these different boxes of what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a strong Latino and working through machismo — being super strong, looking a certain way. As a trans man, I have a personal understanding of what women and femme people go through. I know how bad toxic masculinity can feel from both sides.
“And trans men still have to check those masculinity boxes. A lot of trans men can embrace toxic masculinity so readily. I often struggle with trans men who still want people to fit into those stereotypically gendered boxes. When I originally came out, I was told that I wasn’t a trans man because I didn’t seem like one. I dressed more fluidly. I wasn’t stereotypically masculine, so I tried to dress more feminine. All that did was add to my wardrobe — it didn’t change my identity.”
As Indigo ventured into examples of positive masculinity, he was quick to bring up his dad and the tender way he’s helped indigo grow.
“He’s been really supportive and helpful for how to do, like, stereotypically manly things. That day-to-day stuff that I didn’t learn as a kid, like ‘Dad, how do I shave my beard?’ Basic things.”
Within MAScK, Indigo's identities offer him a unique perspective for students to learn from. And he's enjoyed seeing the progress in the kid's perspectives compare to his own childhood.
"I like to share my experiences with them, offer young boys a different perspective. I try to be a place of positivity for the kids who may be exploring gender or new kinds of expression. With masculinity especially, but with anything really. That's why I like wearing nail polish and bracelets. It lets them know it's something they can do for fun or whatever reason. I've also been seeing a lot more positive stuff that's way different from when I grew up. Talking about things like rape culture didn't happen, it was just a joke in movies. Now it's something we talk to the kids about, and I feel like this younger generation is doing an amazing job taking steps to seeing people beyond their genders."
All aspects of identity can come from the people who help raise us. Brothers and fathers are especially influential on the aspects of masculine identity talked about during MAScK sessions. But the things we do day-to-day, our priorities and our choices also change how we embrace parts of our identity. For Kijuan and Arthur, fatherhood had a massive influence on the kind of leader they choose to be in and out of the classroom.
Kijuan has been almost every kind of dad in the book. A single dad, a dad with a partner. A working dad and a stay-at-home dad. A dad of one, and a dad of many. Fatherhood has transformed Kijuan in ways he never thought possible.
“I don’t know where I’d be without my kids. I have a good life, you know? But how I am mentally — the struggles, the things I’ve learned — I don’t know if I would have experienced any of that without my kids. Recently, I just moved into my first crib by myself. To me that was my favorite accomplishment, but … my kids? They value that seven times more than I do. For Christmas I got them presents and they were like ‘Thanks, but we don’t care about this … we have the house.’ I want them to grow up and live a quiet life. I don’t think that would have been the same if I had no kids. I love my kids.”
Arthur expressed a very similar sentiment about his own daughter.
“There’s nothing like being a father, nothing even in the same conversation. Everything changed when my daughter was born. I tell program kids all the time, and I’ll be real tight about it too: when it comes to my daughter’s life, mine doesn’t matter. All this other stuff, this is all just extra. It’s great. I love every moment, you know. But at the same time, when she was born … she took precedence over anything and everything that I do and have done since.
"She was in our program for four years. She still comes back. She knows a lot of the staff and youth here. She knows Kijuan’s whole family and is tight with them. This building has helped raise her in a way. She sees how I interact with other families, interact with other kids.”
As Arthur and Kijuan continued telling stories and discussing how fatherhood has impacted each of them, a wonderful thing happened. Their stories of their kids and working with youth started seamlessly weaving together. The things they took from fatherhood they applied to their work with youth, and their work with youth expanded their sense of family while supporting healthy boundaries for everyone involved.
Arthur's understanding his role in supporting youth and his family simultaneously is “You know … the way I look at it: I’ve been blessed. My wife and my daughter have been a huge part of my work — to the point where … even before cell phones, my [program] kids would call up my house phone. That’s the way I work with youth. If you need to talk to me outside of work, you need to talk to me outside of work!"
The leader's priorities are, first and foremost, their families, but the needs of their program kids, both current and future, remain a point of deep care and concern for the leaders. And the things they learn from their own kids become lessons for them as youth leaders.
Kijuan said, "This is my 11th year working with kids, so my own kids are intertwined with the community. I've learned that I gotta be open, and that I want to be open, about situations and experiences, bad or good, to help my kids understand. And with the kids [at Goodman] it's kind of the same.
"I've helped kids through a lot of stuff, even homelessness. My go to with hard things is usually jokes. I'm a jokester. I'm a roaster. But that doesn't always work, and I've learned I got to articulate with kids that they're having a bad day and I've got to try other methods like going for a walk or doing something I liked to do as a kid. I've got to be open to trying new things and expand my emotional capability. At first it was hard to do all that on top of my own kids, but now it's easy. This is second nature."
Every experience in life is interconnected. Where we come from will always flow into who we are, what we love and what is destined for us in the end. MAScK and its leaders are no exception. Their love for their families, the places we go, the people who raised them: each made a different impact on leading them towards working with youth.
However, the systems we try to fight out way through leave marks. The leaders of MAScK know part of their responsibility to have difficult conversations about these systems with youth in order to provide the fullest picture possible. For Howard, being honest with youth about the workings of the world will help lead them through powerful choices.
“This is the first year I’ve had to tell a group of middle school boys — nobody’s coming for you. The people here, within these walls? They care about you. They want to work with you. But there’s not a group of people lining up outside your door asking, ‘How can I help these middle schoolers?’ There are some people who think they do. Who think they want to come and help young Black men, whether in school or outside of school, but then they get in the room and the kids right away go, ‘I don’t need your help.’ So, they think, ‘well at least I asked’ and never come back. They don’t stay and really get to know the kids or the space. It’s just not as easy as coming in and announcing you’re there to help.
“I want kids of color to be able to maneuver these spaces — any space — on their own. But it’s like you gotta play this screwed up game of making people feel comfortable. And why would you want to go out of your way to do that? I’ve been able to put together a lot of resources and listen to a lot of people, but it’s part of a long game. I’m just trying to chip away at things with these conversations. For them.”
The experiences of each facilitator in this and Part 1 of MAScK’s story give a glimpse into what their students have been receiving for over three decades, thanks to the doors opened by Barry Davis’s original Boys’ Club back at the Atwood Center. At the close of these conversations, Arthur made sure to emphasize how important Barry has been to the past, present and future of the program. Barry’s vision helped shaped Arthur’s, which helped shaped Howard’s and so-on. Barry’s vision will always be MAScK’s foundation.
The story of MAScK is a reminder that middle schoolers are not only capable of big and difficult conversations, but when facilitated by caring and honest adults, those conversations can lead the youth on the path to the best version of themselves — and help the grown-ups grow as well. And when they think back on who helped shape the way they view themselves as people and as men, they will credit the men of MAScK.
As the leaders say to their program kids each day, “Goodbye y’all. I love you.”
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