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James Houston at the Office of Neighborhood Safety.

Teaching young men to cry

on October 2, 2020

One evening in 1996, James Houston, then 21, attempted to break up a fight between his neighbors. Feeling threatened by one neighbor, Houston shot his gun, killing the man.

For that crime, the Richmond native spent the next 18 years of his life in prison. It was there that he began to understand the factors that had shaped who he had become, such as the “false belief” that men who showed their emotions were weak, he said.

“When you grow up with that mentality, where I have to be hyper-masculine, then it’s only going to create what we are seeing in the streets,” he said, referring to violence he has witnessed in Richmond.

Now, Houston is a change agent at the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), a program that provides mentorship and a living stipend to young men who are at risk of engaging in or being the target of violence. Houston walks through Richmond’s neighborhoods, reaching out to young men and talking about the program.

Houston says he can see himself in the young men he mentors and feels that his purpose is to interrupt gun violence by discrediting the hyper-masculine mentality that many of them grew up with.

“It’s easier as a man to say I’m angry, but how many times do you hear a young person say I’m hurting today. It’s a different energy,” said Houston. “You do have feelings and it’s okay to share that, it doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human.”

Houston credits the ONS program for allowing young men to feel comfortable being vulnerable and opening up to one another. 

“We have young men get emotional here because we created a safe place, where they know they’re not going to be judged,” said Houston. 

Despite honoring the life he took by working to help young people reach healthy adulthood, Houston said he never feels fully satisfied with what he’s accomplished. 

“I took away from this world something that I can never replace,” he said. “So, it’s always a motivation that I have to continue because it’s not just about me.”          


  1. Giovanna on October 2, 2020 at 1:16 pm

    Very true in my culture it is very natural to say that boys do not cry or that they cannot be so sensitive.

  2. John Newell III on October 2, 2020 at 3:26 pm

    Love it!

  3. Violeta on October 2, 2020 at 9:09 pm

    Inspiring story to learn that as a result of a tragedy there are still people like Mr. Houston, who has a clear purpose in his life to help others, in this case young men to break with wrong stereotypes that lead to violence and pain. What a great story!

    • Latosha H on October 3, 2020 at 4:47 am

      What an awesome story and great picture of you brother. Keep up the great work your a blessing to so many.

    • Janet on October 4, 2020 at 9:07 am

      A very inspiring story! He is an example for many people who believes that violence is the answer.

  4. Darius Houston on October 3, 2020 at 9:44 am

    Keep up the work. Don’t ever give up on young black men. We been taught far too long to hide our feeling. Great example of change and being a change agent..

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