I Am My Brother’s Keeper

By Kisha Bird and Rhonda Bryant
Cliff is a youth counselor at a local community-based organization in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s late on a Wednesday night after a long day of work, and he is off to check in with one of the young men in his program who hasn’t shown up in a couple of days.   “I don’t keep long hours because I am paid to. I do this work because I’m from the same neighborhoods as the young men I work with. I know the challenges that they face – even just to get to school or my program. And so I make calls, knock on doors, go to their hang-out spots because I want them to know someone cares and is going to hold them accountable. I want them to know that they are more than their circumstance; they can go to college, have a career, and can be anything they want to be. I also know it takes support and direction to help them to get there.”
Yesterday, the President made a groundbreaking announcement for boys and young men of color. As he relayed the numerous statistics about current outcomes for boys and young men of color, he noted that these issues should not be an acceptable part of the American story. Rather, as a society, we should be outraged and moved to act on their behalf. The President’s new “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative is a partnership between foundations, businesses, and government that will invest $200 million in private dollars over five years to test a range of strategies to support boys and young men of color to excel in school and stay out of the criminal justice system. In addition, President Obama signed a memorandum to federal agencies  requesting that they evaluate policies and efforts to effectively serve boys and young men of color. 
This marks a strong step in the right direction to achieve both programmatic and systemic solutions for a population that has long been marginalized. While this work has been occurring in communities and states for decades, acknowledgement of the unique challenges facing young men of color and the solutions we know work to help them realize their potential is both inspiring and promising. The opportunity to identify institutional barriers in youth-serving systems and propose solutions is an important element of this initiative that can have effects far beyond this Administration. It can shape the way agencies view and work with people of color for decades to come. 
A little over a year ago, CLASP released Investing in Boys and Young Men of Color: The Promise and Opportunity, a brief commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as a part of its Forward Promise Initiative. This brief provides a framework for action for funders, policymakers, practitioners, and advocates to use in advancing positive lifelong outcomes for boys and young men of color.  We identify key challenges facing young men of color, recommend eight areas in which investments and innovation should focus in order to help them realize their promise and provide a robust set of ideas that are ripe for action. 
We hear all too often about the many challenges young men of color are up against. We know the statistics almost verbatim – most likely to drop out of high school, get suspended, arrested and the least likely to be in college or have a job.   What we don’t often hear about are the advocates, mentors, teachers, case managers, counselors, mayors, superintendents, and community leaders who work tirelessly on behalf of and with young men of color to reverse these trends.  In Atlanta, advocates are pushing hard on education reforms that will engage parents and improve outcomes. In Los Angeles, young black males looking for employment opportunities have an advocate in Pete White at the Los Angeles Community Action Network and Lola Smallwood-Cuevas at the Black Worker Center. In Chicago, a group of men came together to form a new chapter of the Concerned Black Men organization in response to the poverty, violence, and low achievement of their boys. In New Orleans, youth voice is being elevated in new and positive ways to create their own solutions for their communities. In Oakland, a multi-generational group of men are taking charge of their community and their youth while the school district is engaged in strategic reforms that are yielding positive results for black boys. We are hopeful that as the President’s initiative advances, it will lift up positive images of young men of color and the great work of people like Cliff and others, as well as the research, effective practice, innovation, and policy reforms that are underway in communities across the nation.  
Investing in young people of color is not a limited engagement – a one-time infusion of funds, a single program strategy, or a time-limited initiative.  We welcome the dialogue that is sure to follow and encourage the Administration to use the new investments from business and philanthropy as a platform to look across agencies to leverage funding and initiate policy reforms towards effective interventions that support boys and young men of color in their education, social, and emotional development.