Expanding Horizons for Rural Young Men of Color

Sep 8, 2014, 1:55 PM, Posted by Maisha Simmons

When we first began the Forward Promise initiative, we envisioned building the capacity and impact of organizations across the country working with boys and young men of color from every type of community and background. We wanted to identify and support a cohort of grantees that were diverse in their approach, in their geography, and in the racial, ethnic and cultural experiences of the young people that they supported. Once we began doing this work, it didn’t take long to realize we were falling short.

The simple truth is that the majority of organizations who applied for Forward Promise that had demonstrated success and were ready to expand were located in major cities. Few applicants were in the rural beltway that stretches across the Southern United States, from Alabama to Arizona. It would be easy to assume that there weren’t many young men of color there or that there was not much innovation or capacity to support young men of color in that region. But you know what they say about assumptions ...

To me, good grantmaking means asking ourselves hard questions. It means making sure we are not setting up barriers that inadvertently exclude whole categories of communities and organizations that have the potential to do amazing and transformative work. In this case, when we realized that we were leaving out a major region of our nation, we had to ask ourselves, how could we adapt Forward Promise to build a Culture of Health there? What would we need to do differently to be effective in the rural South and Southwest?

In answering those questions, three insights stood out:

Place matters in the health of young people, families and communities. Where you live, where you go to school, and where you play profoundly influences your opportunities for health and success. We would have to design an approach that reflected the rural realities of the communities we wanted to reach.

Partnership is essential. The only way we could make a difference for the young men in this region would be if we found the right regional partners to work with us. And they would need to be able to partner with local organizations, who in turn would work together with schools, social services, local government, and health providers in their own communities.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. What a young, black teenager in Mississippi experiences is different from a Native American boy living in Indian Country in rural Arizona. Because their experiences vary so much, our approach across the South and Southwest would have to vary as well.

These insights drove and shaped the design of our new Forward Promise Catalyst Grants, the third and final cohort of grantees to join the initiative. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation together with Public Interest Projects have chosen four primary grantees in the South and Southwest. These regional grantees will regrant funds to community organizations working to build a Culture of Health for young men of color. We believe this approach gives us the best opportunity to build new capacity for change across a region that traditionally has lacked the philanthropic resources. And it gives us the best chance to empower local communities to help their own young men of color live healthy and productive lives.

The four primary Catalyst grantees are:

  • Black Belt Community Foundation will focus in 12 largely rural counties of Alabama, where more than a third of the population lives below the poverty line;
  • The Foundation for the Mid South will focus on rural communities of Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas;
  • First Nations Development Institute will focus on rural Native American communities of New Mexico, Texas and Arizona; and
  • Hispanics in Philanthropy will focus on rural Hispanic communities in the Southwest.  

Over the next 18 months, as each grantee redistributes funds to promising solutions in their regions, we will also be documenting the project and using the stories and lessons we capture to boost investment more broadly in the South and in rural areas. Our investment is the largest private investment in rural young men of color to date, but we hope it will be the spark for something even bigger.

All of this is a reminder that responsive grantmaking can be game-changing for investors as much as grantees. I look forward to sharing the transformative stories to come and seeing how they help to build a Culture of Health that includes all communities.