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A Stronger Future for Young Men of Color

Jun 4, 2014, 11:12 AM, Posted by Maisha Simmons

New Orleans - Forward Promise - Tyrone Turner - 04/2013

 “All hands on deck” is the best way to describe the last three months. Over the last 90 days, many of my colleagues and I have had endless conversations with the 11 foundations working in parallel to the White House’s launch of My Brother’s Keeper. These conversations have enabled us to develop a comprehensive strategy to catalyze broader investments to improve opportunities and outcomes for boys and young men of color. Now, RWJF and our partners are excited to release the executive summary of our new report, A Time for Action: Mobilizing Philanthropic Support for Boys and Young Men of Color.

Read the news release

Together we’ve looked at some of the most promising models for unlocking opportunity for young men despite the multitude of challenges they face. We’ve asked ourselves, “What strategies will move the needle farthest? How can we move beyond adopting programs to fundamentally changing those systems that help shape the experiences and trajectory of our young men?” We’ve shared our foundations’ unique approaches to the work and long-term goals. I’ve been most struck by the underlying passion that each of our foundations has for this work. While we each take a different approach in the grants we make and priorities we’re advancing, at root there is a true and touching shared commitment to improving the lives of our country’s young men of color.

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Making a Collective Impact in the Lives of Young Men of Color

Apr 2, 2014, 9:15 AM, Posted by Maisha Simmons

Hispanic, Iraqi and African American male students

On a bone-chilling cold day in Chicago last fall, I went on a site visit for a pending grantee. The grantee's office was warm and cozy, tucked away in a neighborhood with a bustling corridor of small businesses that sold a variety of ethnic foods and baked goods. The office walls told the stories of the neighborhood through brightly colored murals depicting loving families and happy children, on a backdrop of a beautiful Chicago landscape.

During this site visit I met a young man named Jose who captivated the room with his story. Jose loved art, even though his school had no art program. Art was the one way that he could express his love, fear, joy and pain. The art poured out of him—on his notebooks and books, and eventually on the walls and fences of his community. Luckily, a relative recognized Jose’s talent and found a community art program where he could learn his craft and express himself on canvases and murals instead of on buildings and public property.

A few months later, Jose was called into his principal’s office and threatened with suspension. Teachers and staff suspected that Jose was to blame for recent vandalism on school property. Shocked and nervous, Jose tried to explain that his art program had given him an outlet and that he no longer drew on desks or walls. But he had no proof and was suspended.

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Head Start Program Uses Brain Science to Help Kids Heal

Mar 20, 2014, 3:40 PM, Posted by Jane Isaacs Lowe

In the late 1990s, a major study of adverse childhood experiences by Kaiser Permanente in California found that people who had been exposed to traumatic events such as violence or abuse during childhood were much more likely to have serious health problems as adults. Over the next decade, advances in neuroscience explained how childhood trauma can harm brain development and change the way kids feel and act in response to even normal events in their lives.

So, what to do? How do you protect or heal vulnerable children? An article on an innovative pre-school program in the Fixes column of yesterday's New York Times is an example of some solutions that are starting to emerge.

In 2010, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) partnered with local funders and Crittenton Children's Center in Kansas City, Mo. to pilot a new kind of Head Start program that would provide caring support to pre-schoolers exposed to traumatic events—homelessness, abuse, the loss of a parent, for example. The idea was to create a web of support among all of the adults who would interact with kids throughout their day, including parents, teachers, administrators, even the school bus driver. The school would also give kids specific tools to help them deal with their emotions in a healthy way and build resilience.

Head Start Trauma Smart wanted to ensure that the children would master the skills they need by the time they start kindergarten, because kids who are already falling behind in kindergarten have a much harder time succeeding in school and living a healthy life. The results of the pilot were so promising that in 2013 RWJF gave Crittenton Children's Center a $2.3 million grant to expand the Head Start Trauma Smart model throughout the state of Missouri. 

Watch a new video documenting how Head Start Trauma Smart works. Hear some of the stories of kids who have been exposed to traumatic events that are almost unimaginable and of the caring adults who are helping them heal. 

The parents and school staff are trailblazers, doing inspired and inspiring work to help bring out the best in each and every child. And while there is nothing that they are doing in Missouri’s Head Start programs that couldn’t be done in every community, it’s not easy to get systems of care to adopt this kind of change.

New York Times columnist David Bornstein explains why this program is so significant. “Trauma interventions can be highly effective but the challenge today is extending them from therapeutic settings—which are limited and expensive—into the broad systems that serve larger numbers of children.”

Here at RWJF we think a lot about what it takes to build a culture of health in America. There are few better examples than the Head Start Trauma Smart pre-school, where every child has the chance to thrive, and every adult who crosses their path has an opportunity to be a positive influence. And where great ideas that improve health spread to more communities where they can help more families in need.

Coming to the Rescue of Young Men of Color

Feb 27, 2014, 4:30 PM, Posted by Maisha Simmons

The Alameda County Public Health Department's EMS Corps program is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

When he was 17, Dexter Harris was good at two things: football and hustling. Although he went to school, he spent most of his time trying to earn money. He wasn’t thinking about his future. He was thinking about surviving the here and now.

Instead of finishing his senior year, Dexter found himself in a California juvenile facility. There, he met a mentor named Mike who told Dexter about a new program, EMS Corps, that offered far more than emergency medical training (EMT) classes. EMS Corps also provided tutoring, mentoring and leadership classes, and was looking for people from the community who were willing and ready to serve in the emergency services field.

After hearing about EMS Corps, something changed for Dexter. He weighed his options and saw that with EMS Corps he could actually have the chance for a different life. Dexter threw himself into studying, and eventually graduated first in his EMS Corps class. As a certified EMT, Dexter now has a career with Paramedics Plus and returns to the juvenile facility to teach other young people about being a First Responder.

Dexter Harris Dexter Harris

In every community there are young men like Dexter who have the potential to succeed.  But like most young people, they need help and support to bring out their best.

Today, I was honored to be present at the White House as President Obama helped to add more momentum to a growing movement to expand opportunity for young men of color. I was joined by leaders from both the public and private sector committing their intellect, creativity, passion and resources to continue to identify solutions for men and boys of color.

I was inspired by the continuing and new energy to ensure that every young man has the opportunity make healthy choices and has the tools to live a healthy life. That includes skills to succeed in school and work. EMS Corps is just one bright light among the many innovative and inspiring approaches that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been proud to support as part of its effort to create a culture of health and opportunity for all young people.  This new national initiative announced at the White House brings a new chance to build upon this exciting and important work.

It’s not just EMS Corps. Look at our Forward Promise partners to see the richness of programs already lifting up young men. It’s not just the White House and our Foundation colleagues in this movement either. There are thousands of teachers, police chiefs, state and local legislators, judges, church leaders, and community based organizations from across the country that are taking steps to ensure that all young people in America, including our young men of color, have the opportunity to succeed. If our job is to build a culture of health for all young men, then those collective efforts are its vital building blocks.

As I arrived at the White House this afternoon, I couldn’t help but think of Dexter. And of all of the “Dexters” who will benefit from this unprecedented moment of commitment to hope, change, and opportunity for our sons, brothers, students and neighbors. I’m proud to be a part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and of this larger movement. Together we can bring out the best in our young men. And they—in achieving their promise—can bring out the best in all of us.

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Shielding Young Brains from the Effects of Toxic Stress

Nov 13, 2013, 3:45 PM, Posted by Kristin Schubert

Child First

Before the science on addiction was developed, we blamed smoking on bad choices. Once we understood how the brain worked, we were able to devise strategies to change behavior, and smoking plummeted. 

As David Bornstein points out in two outstanding recent New York Times columns, the science of toxic stress is setting the stage for another health revolution that is just as far-reaching. It is forcing us to rethink the way communities deliver services─health care, education, and more─to our most vulnerable.

Read the first column

Read the second column

Every day, there are young children who are abused. Who witness violence in their homes or neighborhoods. Who are malnourished. Or who have parents who struggle with drug or alcohol use. We now know that those adverse experiences change the way their young brains develop, and affect their mental and physical well-being later in life. These children are more likely to have heart disease, cancer, and hypertension as adults. They are more likely to use drugs, suffer from depression, and commit suicide. They are more likely to drop out of school, spend time in prison, and be homeless. 

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After Trayvon, 10 Reasons for Hope

Jul 17, 2013, 2:52 PM, Posted by Maisha Simmons

New Orleans - Forward Promise - Tyrone Turner - 04/2013

This past Sunday afternoon—the day after the Zimmerman verdict was announced—I stood in a crowd of people from all ethnicities and nationalities, babies and old folk, with people who looked like their address could be Park Avenue or a park bench. We all converged on Union Square in New York City in 100-degree heat to demonstrate our unity, chanting “Justice for Trayvon!”

In the midst of this peaceful protest, I could not stop thinking about a different event about to take place this week here at the Foundation and around the nation.

On Wednesday, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) announced that it will invest approximately $5 million to support 10 initiatives around the country to improve the health of young men of color and improve their chances for success. The grants are part of RWJF’s $9.5 million Forward Promise initiative, started in 2011, and my colleagues and I have been preparing for this moment for months and months. It is one of the most exciting times in my career.

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