Here’s a challenge for people who think about organizations in 21st-century America: How do we demilitarize our notions of leadership?
In late January 2016, National Public Radio reported on Urban Warriors, a YMCA of Metro Chicago initiative. Run in cooperation with the Adler Institute of Psychology, the pilot program brings inner-city youth together with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The goal: to acknowledge the physical and psychological damage occasioned by participants’ prolonged exposure to violence and help them cope. The YMCA staffer behind the program, Eddie Bocanegra, paraphrases the kids’ logic for buying into it: they (the soldiers) have guns, we have guns; they have ranks, our gangs have ranks; they wear uniforms, we wear gang colors; they lived in a war zone, we do the same.
On the face of it, the YMCA program is an imaginative and praiseworthy response to a deeply felt need. Both military veterans struggling to reintegrate with civilian life and teenagers subject to or participating in gang violence have gravitated to the program, sharing their stories and taking comfort from the recognition that they aren’t alone in their difficulties. That said, we might ask ourselves how we have created a “homeland” where combat experience best models the lives of supposed domestic harmony that veterans were originally sworn to protect, and wish now to share.