After Trayvon, 10 Reasons for Hope

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

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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.

Standing in the crowd at Union Square, I was concerned that the important work of supporting and encouraging young men just like Trayvon would get lost in the polarizing debate over the verdict. Then he caught my eye. A teenage boy, maybe 16 years old, standing alone wearing jean shorts and a white tank top. He had a towel over his head to protect himself from the blazing heat. In his hands were a bag of Skittles and an iced tea—symbols that represented the youthful innocence of Trayvon Martin. I don’t know this young man’s story. But like me and so many others assembled in Union Square that night, something compelled him to be there in peace and unity. Not just to express anger and frustration, but also to seek comfort, a call to action, and solutions.

I immediately said to myself, “He is Forward Promise!” This young man deserves to look forward to the promise of the American dream. To get a good education and find a job that will provide him with a living wage. To have the opportunity to experience both mental and physical wellness. And to be valued as a contributor and asset to his community.

Without question, the past several days have been a mix of sadness and hope for me. I can already sense, though, that hope is turning the corner and will win out in the end as the force for change that is so urgently needed. I believe that, despite this tragedy, we can actually offer solutions. Through Forward Promise, we are investing in innovative efforts across the country to expand the pathways for young men to succeed in education, employment, and their lifelong pursuit of health. The grantees represent the beautiful diaspora of perspectives and diversity of approaches to this work. They are making a clear impact in the lives of the young people they serve.

The 10 organizations that we have chosen represent some of the best reasons to believe a better future is within reach. They are doing some of the most effective work in the nation on one or more of the following areas: 1) school discipline strategies that keep young men in school; 2) early interventions that prevent dropouts and increase middle school retention and high school graduation rates; 3) mental health solutions tailored to young men who have been exposed to violence and trauma; and 4) education and employment programs that ensure youth are college- and career-ready.

I am pleased to introduce the Forward Promise community of innovation grantees, and I hope you are as excited as I am to follow their progress as they strengthen their models and increase their impact:

  1. Alaskan Native Heritage Center, Anchorage, Alaska
  2. Alternatives, Inc., Chicago, Ill.
  3. The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, New York, N.Y.
  4. Clayton County Juvenile Court, Jonesboro, Ga.
  5. Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment, Los Angeles, Calif.
  6. East Baltimore Development, Inc., Baltimore, Md.
  7. East Bay Asian Youth Center, Oakland, Calif.
  8. The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Wash.
  9. National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, New York, N.Y.
  10. Native American Community Academy, Albuquerque, N.M.

I look forward to sharing more about Forward Promise as the work moves ahead. Ultimately, we hope that by growing the reach and impact of these grantees, and working with other funders and partners who are driving unprecedented momentum for change, we can fundamentally shift the narrative around boys and young men of color. Expanding and strengthening education and employment opportunities will help our young men to live healthy, fulfilling lives and support them as builders and leaders of vibrant, healthy communities nationwide.