Like a lot of young men today, Jason Wilson, CEO of the Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy in Detroit, grew up without his father around. Struggling with his emotions and resentment toward his mother, Wilson turned to the martial arts.
Today he’s turned his childhood struggles and his passion for martial arts into an acclaimed academy for young boys, incorporating mentorship into martial arts training.
Wilson’s teachings and mission are well-documented through his YouTube channel and have caught the eye of people around the world. A video of Wilson’s “Son-up” ceremony, which was widely circulated online last year, landed him appearances on The Dr. Oz Show, Steve Harvey and Ellen: The Ellen Degeneres Show.
His teachings even caught the attention of Hollywood writers when NBC’s This Is Us used a training method called “the Son-up,” albeit initially without permission, in an episode titled “The Trip.”
The characters Jack and his adopted son, Randall, enroll in a similar martial arts program in order to bond and give Randall some black male role models in his life. Near the end of the episode, we see Randall on his father’s back as Jack does a series of pushups, just like those shown in Wilson’s video.
After public and legal pressure, 20th Century Fox, the production company for This Is Us, eventually acknowledged in a tweet that the idea came from one of Wilson’s viral videos. Wilson says that the producers of the show “made it right,” and he got a chance to speak with them about the significance of his program.
“[The Son-up] is symbolic to the father saying publicly that he will support his son throughout this journey. That’s what the producers of This Is Us liked so much,” Wilson says. “The fathers are really engaged, and the boys who don’t have fathers, the fathers that are here become their fathers.”
The video, which has received more than 1.5 million views on YouTube, begins with a student breaking down in tears when completing a wood-breaking exercise, following which Wilson promptly coaches him by saying, “It’s OK to cry.”
“I dropped to my knees to let him know he’s the most important thing going on right now and help him navigate through his emotions,” Wilson says. “People of other ethnicities were commenting, ‘Why don’t we see more in the media about black boys being humans instead of being violent?’ And I realized I just shattered this misperception of black boys in this one video because you don’t usually see black boys crying.”
Wilson’s work at the Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy, started in 2008, is more than a martial arts program but, rather, a rite of passage into manhood. The boys engage in a combination of mentorship and jiujitsu, combat boxing and other martial arts, taking anywhere from three to five years to finish.
One of the focuses of the program is allowing the boys to identify the roots of their anger and emotions. Wilson pulls a lot of what he teaches from emotions he experienced growing up without his father.
“Growing up, I started resenting my mother, and this happens over and over with boys,” Wilson says.
He wanted to ensure that the boys in his program had a space where they could express their emotions.
“Society as a whole tells our males to ‘be a man,’ but no one is teaching them how,” Wilson says. “At the end of the day, they sit down and look at their chart of emotions. They have to say what they’re feeling, why, and then we talk about it. We teach our kids how to critically think.”
Wilson’s 2016 book, Breaking Through Emotional Barriers: The Four F’s to Emotional Freedom, was his first step toward bringing his methods to those outside the academy. He was also recently asked to lead morning sessions for Steve Harvey’s mentoring weekend in Atlanta this summer, which will allow him to share some of what the academy does for more than 300 young boys.
Through the academy’s curriculum, 78 percent of students improve their GPA without even needing tutoring, and 56 percent see a decrease in school suspensions, according to Wilson.
“Our greatest success story: We had a kid who came in with a 2.3 GPA and in 24 weeks [he] went to a 4.0 with no academic tutoring,” Wilson says. “I just had to teach him who he really was inside and that his biggest obstacle was the distractions—not that he couldn’t learn in school.”