Brotherhood group stresses peer support

The Brotherhood, a youth group in South Madison, seeks to build peer networks (Franco Latona/Madison Commons).The Brotherhood, a youth group in South Madison, seeks to build peer networks (Franco Latona/Madison Commons).There are a couple new faces at the Brotherhood meeting today, so Katy Farrens, the group's volunteer leader, is ensuring everyone is on the same page.

“We don't cuss and we don't use the N-word,” she tells the newcomers.  “And if you want to go on field trips you have to be coming to group every week.”

“Oh, and I'll have to become friends with you on Facebook so I can send you updates about the group,” she says.

“Don't do it!” shouts one of the veteran members.  “I made that mistake.”

The Brotherhood group consists of African American teens mostly ages 13 through 17.  Marquis Flanagan, 19, who has been a member since the group's founding, decided to stay involved as one of two peer leaders.  The peer leaders receive a stipend to attend meetings and assist Farrens with group activities. 

“I think us being around makes it easier for Katy,” Flanagan says.  “We influence them a lot.”

Every Wednesday evening the Brotherhood group meets at Revival Ridge on Allied Drive, but since that space was not available this week, we're down the street on the second floor of the Allied Wellness Center.

The group, which was founded about four years ago, was intended to give teens in the neighborhood a safe, positive environment where they can connect with peers.  It grew from a safety and security report conducted by the Allied Dunn's Marsh Neighborhood Association (Farrens is a member).  The report identified a need for youth intervention in the neighborhood, Farrens said. 

“We needed to keep them busy and out of trouble,” she says.  “A lot of times there just isn't enough stuff for them to do.”

Farrens' son, Keishawn, who has been a member since the beginning, was 11 at the time.  Farrens said she wanted him to have a safe environment where he and other neighborhood kids could connect.  One of those neighborhood kids is Keishawn's friend Armani Warfield.  With the build of a varsity tailback, you would never know he just started high school this year.  Warfield has been with the group from the beginning, and has even spoken at a few common council meetings on behalf of the group.  Warfield says he is grateful for the support that the Brotherhood group provides.

“They try to put us on the right path to go to college and stuff like that,” he says.  “It's like a support system.” 

Because of the new members in group this evening, Farrens passes out sheets of questions intended to help the teens get to know one another.  She pairs them up, then brings everyone back to share their answers.

“If you could meet anyone in the world, who would it be and why?” reads one of the questions.

“Michael Jordan, because he's a legend,” responds one of the teens.

The conversations and activities at Brotherhood group are varied.  Farrens says sometimes the teens will come in and naturally gravitate towards a topic.  Many times it pertains to local or professional sports.

“The knowledge they know about each player’s stats is amazing,” she says.

And every so often the group takes a field trip.  Farrens says they have gone to a water park in the Wisconsin Dells, bowling, out to eat and to the UW-Madison campus to name a few.

“A lot of the boys have been on the bus and seen the buildings, but didn't realize that's the UW,” she says. “We're just trying to give them experiences that they haven't had before.”

Funding for field trips and for the meal the group gets every Wednesday (tonight it is pepperoni and suasage pizza from Pizza Extreme) comes in part from the city’s Emerging Opportunities Grant that Farrens applies for annually.  Additional funding comes from Dane County’s Neighborhood Intervention Program.  Aaron Perry is the program's representative, and he attends the Brotherhood Group every Wednesday to provide additional support for Farrens.

And while the discussions and trips often take on a lighter tone, the Brotherhood Group conducts serious projects, too.  The group is conducting collaborative research projects this spring, with groups looking at why police target African American males more often and why there are not more black teachers in the Madison Metropolitan School District. 

Farrens says the teens will be researching at local libraries as well as interviewing a variety of different people including black and white police officers, teachers and principals.  The final project will be some sort of presentation, according to Farrens, but the specific details are still being worked out.

It is about 7:30 p.m., and another Brotherhood meeting is in the books.  Most of the teens are heading over to the Boy's and Girl's Club to play basketball.  I walk down the stairs and out into the cool evening air with Farrens, who is not thrilled at how the meeting went tonight. But she says that no matter how difficult it is sometimes she wants the group’s members to know that they can rely on her.

“A lot of people give up on those boys, but we're a constant presence in their lives,” she says.  “A lot of them mess up and make mistakes, but we don't give up on them.  We just want them to know there's people in their lives that they can depend on and trust.”