Tomás Alvarez thought it would be easy to connect with students when he became a social worker at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, Calif., in 2004. After all, he was a young man of color who had grown up on urban music and culture—much like the adolescent males he would be counseling. He thought that offering them a space to talk about their problems with somebody they didn’t know well would be welcome. He soon discovered otherwise.

“For a lot of communities of color, that idea of...

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