Tuesday, March 4, 2014

President Obama wants to be My Brother's Keeper

By Charles Brooks

                                  (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Sandwiched in between the applause and cheers during the 2014 State of the Union address delivered just over a month ago, was the stoic silence from the audience when President Obama said,”…and I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.” Although at the time, you could hear a feather drop, a month later we now know that President Obama was referring to his My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, announced February 27th to widespread enthusiasm and praise. “Today, I'm pleased to announce that some of the most forward-looking foundations in America are looking to invest at least $200 million over the next five years, on top of the $150 million that they have already invested, to test which strategies are working for our kids and expand them in cities across the country,” said the President. He went on to talk about why he’s embarking on this new initiative, “This is an issue of national importance. This is as important as any issue that I work on. It's an issue that goes to the very heart of why I ran for president.”

The president will sign a Presidential Memorandum establishing the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force to be chaired by Assistant to the President and Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson. Mr. Johnson will lead the Task Force to “determine what public and private efforts are working and how to expand upon them, how the Federal Government’s own policies and programs can better support these efforts, and how to better involve State and local officials, the private sector, and the philanthropic community in these efforts.” See here for an outline of the collective work the foundations intend to do. This initiative will be spearheaded by the Executives’ Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color - a coalition of twenty-eight executives representing foundations experienced in this type of work. Their statement reads: “Moving forward, we seek to invest at least an additional $200 million, alongside investments from our peers in philanthropy and the business community.”

The president’s initiative seeks feedback from the task force - in their review of the on-going work of the foundations – see what works and how can it be scaled “up”. Kenneth H. Zimmerman, Director of US Programs with Open Society Foundations states: “All over the United States, effective programs are lifting up the important contributions that young men of color make to our communities. Through efforts such as The California Endowment’s Sons & Brothers campaign, the Knight Foundation’s support of the BMe (Black Male Engagement) initiative, and the Atlantic Philanthropies’ pioneering work on school discipline reform, America’s leading foundations have committed tens of millions of dollars to efforts that directly or primarily support boys and men of color.”

It appears as though the president is looking to reverse the following disturbing trends in America – if you’re African American, there’s a 50% chance you grow up without a father in your house – 25% if you’re Latino and the subsequent impact this has on future earnings and academic success. President Obama says, “By the time you reach high school, you are far more likely to have been suspended or expelled. There's a higher chance you end up in the criminal justice system. And a far higher chance that you are the victim of a violent crime. Fewer black and Latino men participate in the labor force, compared to young white men. And all of this translates into higher unemployment rates and poverty rates as adults,” the president continues, “...And the worst part is, we've become numb to these statistics. We're not surprised by them. We take them as the norm. We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is. That's how we think about it.”

Although the initiative has largely been well-received, there are still valid concerns around this issue of helping young men of color. See Part II for a broader discussion about some of these legitimate concerns around My Brother's Keeper - that will be posted here soon.

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