Fighting the Good Fight With Youth in Action
By Jabali Stewart, Ph.D.
Once upon a time, I lived in Ohio and was a serious skateboarder. It was a way of life, a way of keeping me occupied, out of trouble, active, and healthy. One day a friend of mine and I were skating in a parking lot when the store manager drove up in his Mercedes convertible and told us to vacate the premises. It was something we were used to, but what followed was unusual and has stayed with me for some 25 years.
A rather nondescript woman in a van pulled up in front of us after the manager left and motioned us over. She asked us if we had been kicked out, to which we responded affirmatively. She then proceeded quite forcefully to lambast the absent manager, and the society in which we lived — her ultimate point being that youth were not given the ability and place to actively pursue their interests, which led them to feeling resentful, making bad decisions, and getting into trouble. She topped it all off by giving us $20 and driving off in a fury.
My friend and I were moved that this random woman would do something so unexpected. As we ate lunch purchased with the $20, we remarked on how rarely anyone ever championed our skating habits, especially an individual that struck us both as the offspring of June and Ward Cleaver. She had done something for us that most adults never did … she validated our existences and, beyond that, she supported us. She let us know that it was OK for us to be doing what we were doing, and gave us the means to continue.
I think unconsciously, I internalized her actions and made them my own. I began finding myself in situations where I could let a younger human being know that what they were doing was OK, and if they continued practicing what they loved, they could succeed in ways beyond their current understanding. It became a mantra of sorts, and a philosophy that fed my work as a teacher. Today this philosophy drives the work I do with ICAF (International Capoeira Angola Foundation) Seattle’s, Youth in Action program, an arts and culture program for under-served teens.
Impact beyond the ring
As I got older, I replaced skateboarding with fighting and teaching. Throughout my years of teaching, I have always told youth that it is good to fight — but it needs to be done in the right mind, place, and time. I make it very clear that fighting in an unsanctioned arena, without proper safeguards and protection is a bad idea, and can be potentially lethal; but fighting in and of itself is not a bad thing. A history lesson quickly follows, necessarily bringing up Muhammad Ali and pointing to the impact he had upon the civil rights movement and beyond.
I teach students about Manny Pacquiao, a boxer who is also currently an active congressman in the Philippines. I let them know that if they really want to fight, I will help them find a place to do so to their hearts’ content. Here in Seattle, the first place I want them to go is ICAF Seattle, especially if they are a youth of color.
I take them to ICAF for a variety of reasons, but primarily because it is a rare gem in the world of martial arts found right here in Seattle. This city is unique in that it has a connection to both Bruce Lee and Mestre Jurandir Nascimento.
Many people know Bruce Lee because of his cinematic presence, but I argue that when Mestre Jurandir brought the Afro-Brazilian martial art form of capoeira Angola to Seattle, he brought a force of change that will have a farther reaching effect because of his work with youth — a work that stretches from Brazil to Seattle to Mozambique. Mestre Jurandir has opened the eyes of youth of color to the reality of their heritage through the art of Capoeira Angola. With this particular form of martial arts, youth of African descent are shown a form of resistance against a history of slavery — and practice the form themselves.
Mestre Jurandir’s work directly influenced one of his students in Brazil named Contra Mestre Silvinho who has taken over ICAF Seattle upon Mestre Jurandir’s return to Brazil. And C.M. Silvio has continued the tradition of working with and teaching youth capoeira Angola through the Youth in Action program.
From aggression to respect and discipline
For the past few years, Youth in Action has been actively working with youth, helping them explore anger and aggression, and giving them space and time to practice how to fight. As they begin their exploration students quickly learn the values of respect and discipline; the former they learn for themselves and others, the later allows them to incrementally increase the former. The lessons they learn easily extend beyond the ICAF studio, and begin to play out in their young lives.
Older, more advanced students such as C.M. Silvio’s wife, Leika Suzumura, Criss Poteat, and myself (not so advanced but I’m working on it) partner with other community workers such as Eddie Hill, program manager at Seattle Tilith, to continue and expand Mestre Jurandir’s legacy of teaching Seattle youth that it is OK to fight.
Eddie and Leika teach Youth in Action participants that a good fighter must fuel their body well, and they foster the fight for good food by instructing youth in how to grow and cook their own food. Criss and I teach participants that a good fighter wins with their mind and foster the fight for good thinking by instructing youth in social justice and self-expression — all of us acting like the woman in the van from my past, except in this version of the tale, she gets out and skates with us. It is good to fight and there are good things worth fighting for. Youth in Action believes in fighting for the well-being of young humans.
Jabali Stewart holds bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Ohio State University, and a master’s degree and doctorate in ethnomusicology from the University of Washington. His area of focus is what he calls “combat dancing,” and he studies Capoeira Angola under the tutelage of Contra-Mestre Silvio Alexio Dos Reis at ICAF-Seattle. He has three children and a wife, Monica Rojas, with whom he plays Afro-Peruvian music. He currently works for the Lakeside Educational Enrichment Program (L.E.E.P.), and devotes the rest of his time to helping under-served youth enrich their lives through combat dancing and other forms of expression.
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