A Stronger Future for Young Men of Color

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

Two young men play chess at a non-profit restaurant.

 “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.

It so easy to get lost in conversations about evidence-based approaches, implicit bias, policy analysis, and all of the important factors that make a strong and comprehensive philanthropic strategy. But at the core, we have to remember the young people themselves. Young people like Jay Jay. Malachy. Frank. These are just a few of the young men whose stories I’ve thought about over the last three months. They are just a handful of the hundreds of young men I’ve met or whose stories I have heard during my travels for Forward Promise. They and so many others are the reason I do this work.

I’ve learned so much over the past three months, and am excited that we are ready to start sharing our findings broadly. Here are just a few highlights:

Students take part in a team building exercise with their mentor.

1. We need to promote and elevate the leadership of young men of color. Young men are actively leading change across the country but we can do even more to support these efforts. While the actions of organizations and adult allies are important, it is the voices of young men advocating for themselves that truly make change.  When I visited New Orleans to meet with our Community Partnership grantee NOLA FOR LIFE, I met Jay Jay—a 17-year-old young man who had some challenges in his life and had not always made the best decisions. Now, he finally has the right supports at CeaseFire New Orleans and opportunity to  turn his life around. Through the network he gained through NOLA FOR LIFE, Jay Jay started to understand how to use his gifts and talents to a more positive end—becoming a young leader for change and helping make his neighborhood safer and healthier.

2. There is still a lot of work to do to change the dominant narratives about young men of color. At RWJF, we believe in actively promoting the journeys of young men who are beating the odds and telling their own stories. Under Construction is one way to share new stories that help support and amplify the changing narrative. In the latest installation of the series, we meet the young men of SEARAC, the Southeast Asian Youth Center, including Malachy, a teenager whose mother survived unspeakable atrocities in Cambodia to escape to Long Beach, Calif.  He found his voice by joining the organization’s Young Men’s Empowerment Project. He credits the program for teaching him to become his own role model and resist the pull of gangs and drugs. The stories of young Asian men like Malachy are too often missing from conversations about young men of color. But through initiatives such as Under Construction we can raise these stories up and let young men speak for themselves to help educate the public about their experiences.

3. Place-based efforts work. Some of the most powerful models for change are taking place right in the neighborhoods where youth live, learn, work and play. For example, Forward Promise Innovation grantee Brotherhood Sister Sol (BHSS) is a safe haven for 8- to 22-year-olds who live in Harlem, NYC. Whenever I visit, I’m struck by BHSS’s steadfast commitment to improving the lives of young people in the neighborhood. Harlem isn’t just where BHSS happens to be located; it is the heart and soul of the organizational culture. By being rooted in place, BHSS makes generational change in lives of youth as well as their families. Kids who have grown up at BHSS often return to the neighborhood after college as volunteers, mentors and staff. Frank is one of those alumni. After participating in the BHSS literary arts program and traveling with the organization to South Africa, Frank gained a sense of pride, an understanding of the world and a stronger identity as an Afro-Latino. After attending college he became a filmmaker and poet and returned to BSS years later to help current youth participants create micro-documentaries about their lives. His story is just one example of the potential for placed-based programs to create lasting, intergenerational change in neighborhoods across the country.

4. Even more data and research is needed. As a collective, our Foundations want to build a pipeline for research to improve the outcomes for boys and young men of color and advocate for more disaggregated racial and ethnic data in federal and state research projects. We recognized that a lack of access to disaggregated data is problematic for us as funders, but also affects the programs we support. For example, the East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC) in Oakland, Calif., supports young men to heal from trauma so they can succeed in school and life. However, without disaggregated data, it is challenging for a group like EBAYC to identify the most compelling data that demonstrates the unique needs for the many Asian ethnic groups they serve. The experience of Cambodian refugee youth is different than first-generation Chinese young people, yet without the right data it can be hard to demonstrate the specific needs and to better serve each of these micropopulations.

With these findings, the opportunities for partnership and growth between our foundations and across the philanthropic sector are endless. Before My Brother’s Keeper and our related private-sector effort, we forged progress as individual entities. Now we will build together. This is a moment when there’s an unprecedented spotlight on the opportunities to secure a stronger and healthier future for all of our boys and young men, and powerful momentum for change. I’m so thrilled that RWJF will be a part of this movement.

It’s indeed essential to building a strong, vibrant Culture of Health. Wherein communities across the nation support people to be socially, emotionally, and physically healthy, regardless of where they live or how wealthy they are. Wherein no one is excluded or marginalized, and everyone has their greatest chance to live a long, healthy life.

In the coming months we will continue to share our research and recommendations, including the release of our full My Brother’s Keeper report at the upcoming Gathering of Leaders. I look forward to continuing this conversation as together we ensure the health and well-being of Jay Jay, Malachy and Frank, not to mention all the sons and brothers of our communities.