Maisha Simmons Q&A: New Opportunities for Young Men of Color Through Collaboration

Aug 20, 2012, 10:00 AM

Maisha Simmons, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Maisha Simmons, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Much attention has been paid on NewPublicHealth and elsewhere to the connection between education, health, economic opportunity, and even life expectancy. Sadly, when we consider the health and life trajectories for our young men of color in this country, it’s clear that we have a lot of work to do. Boys and young men of color are more likely to grow up in poverty, live in unsafe neighborhoods and attend schools that lack the basic resources and supports that kids need in order to thrive. In addition, actions that might be treated as youthful indiscretions by other young men often are judged more severely and result in harsher punishments that have lasting consequences. Only about half of African American, Hispanic and Native American boys graduate from high school on time with their cohort. Down the road, pathways to stable, productive employment can be limited – they commonly lack access to career and positive mentorship connections. And disparities in their access to and quality of health care services persist.

RWJF Program Officer Maisha Simmons attests that the options for our young men of color have been too limited for too long. That’s why today the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), through its Vulnerable Populations portfolio, launched the Forward Promise initiative to strengthen education opportunities, pathways to employment and health outcomes for boys and young men of color. A new Call for Proposals released by the initiative today will focus on the following areas:

  • alternative approaches to harsh school discipline that do not push students out of school;
  • solutions that focus on dropout prevention and increasing school graduation rates;
  • mental health interventions that tailor approaches to boys and young men who have experienced and/or been exposed to violence and trauma; and
  • career training programs that blend workforce and education emphases to ensure that students are college- and career-ready.

NewPublicHealth caught up with Maisha about the challenges facing young men of color and the quest for collaborative solutions.

NewPublicHealth: Paint us a picture of the health and quality of life of young men of color. What are some of the causes of the disparities that persist?

Maisha Simmons: If you look at the statistics around men of color, specifically African American men, they usually die sicker and younger than any other population in this country. There are a lot of variables, but what we’ve begun to focus on is, what are some of the non-traditional, non-medical factors that go into that?

So for us, we began to really focus on education, workforce and mental health issues and how they coincide with opportunities for health. When you look at young men and boys of color, their school outcomes are often worse. There are large number of young men not finishing school  and they often don’t finish high school with their cohorts. We know the linkages between school and employment often have a collective impact on health outcomes.

NPH:  What are some other experiences that influence the health and quality of life of young men of color?


Maisha Simmons: Another aspect of thinking about health for young men and boys of color is community violence and trauma. Young men and boys, especially those who grow up in neighborhoods that are full of poverty and neglect, often witness or experience trauma much younger in their lives than their other male counterparts. Those experiences of trauma really shape how they see the world, and behave and interact in the world.

For example, if a young man has seen some level of community violence and he goes into school that day, he is more likely to be disconnected, jittery, or on edge, and his response to adversity oftentimes tends to either be to disconnect or to lash out. Having those experiences can really shape and change how their day goes. Where we see this becoming a real problem, however, is if, say, he attends a school with zero-tolerance discipline policies or a police presence on campus.  What might start as a minor altercation in the hallway, for example—with no recognition that this incident might be rooted in his exposure to trauma—can entangle an otherwise well-meaning kid in a system of harsh discipline and even lead to criminal prosecution. All too often, this throws kids off their educational track in ways that we all know have lifelong negative consequences. We believe that it is important for the school system to recognize these behaviors require a response based in trauma-informed care practices and that the course of discipline be in balance with the infraction.

NPH: You can see how a number of those experiences would add up and accumulate over the course of a lifetime.

Maisha Simmons: Exactly. Cumulative and chronic traumas definitely play a role in how you internalize stress and begin to interact with others. When it’s not addressed or these young people don’t know that that’s what their mind and body is just physiologically reacting to, they’re assuming that this is how they should be and how they should act. It’s really socially unacceptable, but it’s the body’s response to this chronic trauma.

NPH:  What is the goal of the Forward Promise initiative?

Maisha Simmons: We really wanted to identify some of the policies that disproportionately affect young men and boys of color and impede their prospects to grow up healthy, get a good education and obtain meaningful employment. In our call for proposals released today, we’re also looking for innovations that are happening on the ground to improve these areas where there’s such disconnect for young men and boys of color, and finding out if those programs are ready for growth, scale or replication.

When we were pulling together the strategy, we noticed young men and boys of color are often talked about from a deficit frame—as if they’re problems in our community. What we wanted to make sure is that we remained asset-based in how we talk about this work. This initiative isn’t about telling folks more about the problems, but really trying to identify some innovative solutions. We’re excited to see applications from groups working in the domains of health, education, and employment and who understand that partnerships and holistic approaches are critical if we want to have sustainable impact. We look forward to bringing together folks who are working in this space to talk about collective strategies and how we build upon that space and those strategies.

NPH: In that convening role, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation brought together more than 100 thought leaders at a Gathering of Leaders conference on supporting young men of color. Who attended, and why?

Maisha Simmons: The Gathering of Leaders was really interesting because we brought experts together representing different angles to this solution. There were practitioners who work with young men and boys, some policy-makers who were responsible for shaping the policy landscape that affects these young men, foundations who were investing in this issue, researchers who were investigating the issues, and then there were young men themselves there. We really rolled up our sleeves both within and across our  sectors of interest to talk about how we could advance solutions to the problem and what needs to happen in this continuum.

NPH: What did you all learn from this process?

Maisha Simmons: One of the major pieces that came out of the conversation for me was how interconnected we all are in this ecosystem of thinking about the boys we care about. Aside from financial resources, the practitioners talked about the need for support and best practices.

The policy-makers were also calling for more research around the strongest policies—especially school and community-based policies—to help inform this conversation. The young men were really saying, “don’t talk around us, let us be a part of the solution.” How are we as a community reaching back to the young people we all want to serve and asking them, “What are your ideas? What is the support you need?”

Finally, the philanthropic organizations were asking how we can use our role and our resources to leverage the work we’re all doing. Are there collective strategies we can work on together and leverage our investments? Then, how do we fill in the gaps? We spent very little time talking about the problem and a lot of time really trying to identify the solutions.

NPH: What is the next step coming out of this meeting?

Maisha Simmons: I think for us the next step out of the Gathering of Leaders is for us to be able to say, “Okay, how can we begin to implement some of these solutions in a collective way?” For example, one of our programs, New Connections, was at the meeting and they’re actually convening the researchers who are already a part of this program to talk about their research with young men and boys and how it can inform policy-makers.

I heard after the meeting that two practitioners, one who predominantly works with Latino boys and another who works with Native American fathers, came together and realized they should be working together. An organization working on a fatherhood program and a program that works to try to keep Latino boys out of prison saw that they are working with some of the same populations and the same issues, and started to look at how they could connect. That was promising coming out of the meeting, and I think we’re working pretty hard with our team who helped us pull it together and other foundations to think about what we can do to support more of this bridge-building and more of these collective strategies.

NPH: How else are you collecting innovative ideas?

Maisha Simmons: One of the things that we’re trying to do constantly is check in with people who have reached out to us. We had a Call for Ideas last year where we asked people to send us their ideas for fundamentally strengthening the future for young men and boys of color. We heard from an incredible range of them – most were groups and individuals with which the Foundation was not connected before. We listened. It helped shape our strategy.

We have cultivated some partnerships with other folks in this field who were doing this work. So we really have been intentional in terms of maintaining our fingers on the ground, in terms of what’s happening, and using social media to check in with folks as we go.

We know this is a space that’s existed for a while with many extremely strong organizations that have shown tremendous leadership and commitment. We wanted to make sure that when we entered this space, we were really filling a gap that existed in the field, and the best way to find out where the gaps are is to ask the people who do the work every day.

>>Read more in a Washington Post article authored by Maisha Simmons.


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.