Jason Wilson and The Yunion: Celebrating 20 Years of Empowering Youth and Families

For Jason Wilson, the two decades since the launch of The Yunion have been just what he expected…sort of.

As founder and CEO of the Detroit-based nonprofit dedicated to providing life-changing programs to youth and families, Wilson knew he could help youth, particularly Black boys and young men, heal by identifying and releasing traumatic experiences, resolving conflict and processing their emotions through The Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy (CATTA), an initiative of The Yunion.

What he didn’t anticipate was how this message would speak to men on an international level.

“A 2016 video of me helping a young boy navigate his emotions after not breaking a board (in a martial arts exercise) went viral,” says Wilson. “What I didn’t know is how that one video would resonate with millions of men across the globe. We had to shut down for two days because our staff was busy answering calls from men sharing their hearts.”

This event set off a wave of attention for Wilson, The Yunion and the CATTA initiative, with invitations from television personality Dr. Oz and podcaster Joe Rogan — even the Obama administration. A popular CATTA initiation exercise was even featured in an award-winning episode of the television series This Is Us.

By creating a safe space for boys, CATTA allows young men to drop their guard, and be transparent and human, Wilson explains. “That extreme suppression of emotions, the emotional incarceration I knew was common for Black men, is something that men all over the world also experience,” he says.

“Boys and men are raised to be hyper-masculine and we are inundated with misleading mantras, like ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ and ‘No pain, no gain.’ If a Detroit Lions player gets hurt, we don’t expect him to go back out until he heals. But when men experience trauma, loss, an unexpected career change, the first thing we say is to stay strong. The subconscious message is that you are feeling weak, that you are not a man,” Wilson explains, adding that men are encouraged by society to suppress their abilities to nurture and be compassionate in favor of fulfilling more toxic expectations — and that is mentally unhealthy because it can lead to rage and high-risk behavior.

And the work is effective. Seventy-eight percent of recruits improve their grade point average by one letter grade without tutoring and 100% of boys who join CATTA as victims of bullying are no longer bullied within the first year in the initiative. When boys are released from toxic societal expectations, says Wilson, they can focus on what is ahead of them. They have permission to heal.

“We begin with an emotional check-in and boys share about their day. Here, they gain the ability to verbally process what they are going through,” Wilson says. “If you don’t teach a boy how to verbally process, that broken boy stays inside of the man that they will become.”

CATTA currently has 800 boys on its waiting list, and with additional support, including volunteers and opportunities for work environment internships, Wilson hopes more kids can put to the test what they learn in the academy. “The gym is the test, but the final exam is life,” he says.

Other initiatives of The Yunion, which is a 2022 Flinn Foundation grantee, include Students With Awareness and Goals (SWAG), a prevention and life skills school-based program, and Keys 2 Life, an evidence-based performing arts program designed to encourage and empower youth through music’s positive impact — a nod to Wilson’s roots in Detroit Hip Hop as a DJ and member of Kaos & Mystro, during which he created a record label called The Yunion.

Learn more about The Yunion. Visit theyunion.org.