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.

While suspended, Jose fell behind in classwork, starting a vicious cycle that threatened his ability to earn the credits he needed. During this time of turmoil, Jose stopped making art—the joy of art reminded him of the struggles of school. His future started to look less and less bright as both his talent for art and his academic career suffered. You could see the hurt on Jose’s face even though this scar was years old.

Young men of color across the nation face similar struggles. Harsh approaches to school discipline disproportionately impact young men of color who, in turn, are more likely to drop out of school than any other group of Americans. As a result, they are more likely to end up underemployed, reliant on government assistance, and face a lifetime of health problems.

Yet, when communities come together, they can make a difference. This is the simple theory behind the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Forward Promise Community Partnership grants. Each of our six new grantees are city-based partnerships that employ a coordinated and collaborative approach to support sustainable interventions and solutions to improve outcomes for young men of color.

For example, in Chicago where I met Jose, there is the Safe Schools Consortium. Safe Schools is a coalition of nonprofit organizations, neighborhood councils, and the Chicago Teacher’s Union who work together to bring more commonsense approaches to school discipline to Chicago middle and high schools.

Jose became involved through VOYCE, one of the nonprofit partners of Safe Schools. They gave him the chance to tell his story and use his art to make a positive change in his community. He got directly involved in helping his school take steps to help more young people stay on track to graduate, and give those who make mistakes the chance to learn from them, be accountable and develop tools to be responsible adults.

Not too long ago, Jose was in danger of dropping out of school for good. Now in college, he recognizes that he can be a leader and use his talents to give himself—and young people in his community—a brighter future.

His story reflects the kind of change our Forward Promise Community Partnership grants seek to embolden. Each brings together allies across a community to make a collective impact in the lives of young men of color, thereby reducing violence and promoting health in their cities. Meet the grantees now.

As a funder we are often far removed from the people whose lives that our investments touch. When I hear the stories from the communities it makes me extremely proud to be a part of RWJF’s Forward Promise initiative. This work keeps me optimistic about a future where every young person in our nation can not only survive, but thrive.

Oh! By the way, guess who was the artist that helped create the beautiful murals in that office in Chicago... That’s right, it was Jose.