Removing Barriers and Creating Opportunities for Young Men of Color

Jan 5, 2016, 10:00 AM, Posted by Maisha Simmons

A new toolkit is here to help us understand how to collectively build a path toward a healthy and productive adulthood for young men of color.

Trayvon Martin. Manuel Diaz. Rexdale Henry. Michael Brown. Some names may be more familiar to you than others. But all share a common fate of life lost too soon.

What happens when you hear their names? Do you think about the circumstances that prematurely ended their lives? Or do you regret losing the chance to benefit from the great contributions they could have made?

It's clear that young men of color face daunting barriers to health that directly impact their potential to succeed and thrive. Access to a series of supports and conditions specifically designed to address these barriers can dramatically change their life course trajectory. That is why the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation launched our Forward Promise initiative a few years ago.

As part of this work, the big question we are always asking ourselves is what would it look like for every young man of color to grow up in a Culture of Health? We know for example that there would need to be positive school environments, access to role models, job training, support to understand and heal from trauma in their lives, and pathways to college and career, to start.

We also need to build a culture that recognizes and acknowledges the potential that all young men have to struggle and to strive. Currently, our narratives don’t always fully and accurately illustrate this potential to positively impact the world in the same way that all young people have something to contribute.

Young leaders at the Forward Promise convening in July 2015 tell the world what they wish people knew about being a young man of color.

Listening to their voices and struggles—but in particular their vision of how the world could be for young men of color—is a powerful reminder that when we treat young people like leaders, their leadership blossoms. A culture in which young people are respected and included in decisions about their own education, employment and ultimate success will shape a healthier and equitable narrative for them as well as all of us collectively.

But the wide variety of promising programs and inspiring diversity of emerging young leaders of color will only take us so far unless we continue to shift larger narratives about young men of color in our culture. Creating this larger narrative entails educating and inspiring new audiences, who can help create the change we seek.

To that end, RWJF worked with a research team for more than a year to better understand how to expand the conversation around young men of color. Through focus groups around the country and a national survey, we’ve learned a few important and practical lessons about how to build the support we need.  Our new toolkit, Removing Barriers and Creating Opportunities: Making the Case to Help Young Men of Color Succeed shares what we learned.

Some of my key take-aways:

  • Start with what we all care about. The vast majority of Americans want all young people to have the tools to make healthy choices and the opportunity to live a healthier life. When we start the conversation there, we remind our audiences that young men of color deserve the same chance to thrive that every young person should.
  • Solutions are key. We have to continue to lift up positive stories about individual young men overcoming barriers and about the organizations making a difference in their lives and communities. In this way we can show— instead of simply tell—our neighbors and leaders that success is possible and it is worth working toward community conditions to foster that success.
  • The messenger matters. Who is doing the talking is as important as what they are saying. Young people who are striving to reach their own potential or make a difference in their community are often the most effective messengers. So too are adults who recognize and have overcome hardship in their own lives and are now trying to help other young people succeed.

Maisha Simmons, MPA, is a program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation working to strengthen vulnerable children and families and achieve health equity. Read her full bio.