By Olu Alemoru
California Black Media
California public and private stakeholders are backing an historic, national call to arms by President Obama that will invest hundreds of millions of dollars in providing opportunities for young men of color.
On Thursday at the White House, Obama and members of his cabinet will announce an initiative called My Brother’s Keeper. It is a partnership of leading organizations teaming with the administration to lay out a non-partisan, strategic plan to address the challenges faced by male African-American, Latino, Native American and Asian Pacific Islanders who live in inner city communities.
A broad spectrum of experts agree that this demographic is largely disenfranchised, a reality consistently reflected in its iron grip on the lowest levels of academic achievement and highest incarceration rates.
New data on the state of young males of color in California is nothing short of alarming: Only about half of African-American, Latino and Native American boys graduate from high school on time. The expulsion rate for African-American males is three times higher than for White males, and Latino males are 6.7 times less likely to drop out of school than their White counterparts. Southeast Asian boys from refugee families are more likely to drop out of school than any other group in the U.S.
Through greater investment, the new effort will target critical intervention points in the lives of boys and young men. Among the areas of focus: early child development and school readiness; parenting and parent engagement; third-grade literacy; educational opportunity; and school discipline reform. There will also be components dealing with interactions with the criminal justice system, ladders to jobs and economic opportunity and healthy families and communities.
Central to this effort: Reversing the often negative image of boys and young men of color, and promoting effective public policy solutions.
The White House will partner with nine sponsoring foundations, which have collectively already approved or awarded $150 million to expand opportunities and are committed to investing at least $200 million more.
The funders include some of the nation’s most recognized names in philanthropy: the Annie E. Casey Foundation; the Atlantic Philanthropies; the California Endowment; the Ford Foundation; the John and James L. Knight Foundation; Bloomberg Philanthropies; the Open Society Foundations; the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; and the Kapor Center for Social Impact.
“We in philanthropy are proud to join President Obama in this historic endeavor,” said Ford Foundation president Darren Walker. “We believe that the private sector — both philanthropy and business — has a critical role to play to complement the work of government to strengthen our communities and improve the opportunities and life outcomes of boys and young men of color.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Robert K. Ross, president and CEO of The California Endowment, which is investing $50 million over eight years in a program called Sons and Brothers.
“All our sons and brothers need support and opportunities to be successful,” he noted. “As tomorrow’s leaders, young people of color will help define America’s future. Now is the time to work together, invest in these young and provide them with what they need to be responsible and healthy adults.”
According to Charles Sidney Fields, Regional Program Manager for the California Endowment, the White House announcement has been a year in the making and he wholeheartedly welcomed the development. “We are excited about the energy and wisdom of the announcement,” he said. “It all started with the conversations foundations and public and private organizations were having about these challenges. The White House started to hear about this process and creating opportunities has always been important to this president.
“Some of the foundations met with the president about a year ago to talk about what we were doing, and the president and his staff committed to figuring out how they could support us in that work. There wasn’t a ton of new resources, but the White House will help our profile and streamline policy that connects with our work on the ground.”
In particular, Fields stressed the preventative nature of the statewide programs, highlighting the work of Endowment grantees like South Los Angeles’ Community Coalition and Oakland’s Urban Strategies Council.
“In California, reading proficiency by the end of the third grade is the number one indicator for high school graduation,” he continued. ”We know that if a kid is not reading right by then, they won’t graduate. If we can make that intervention early, we can keep kids on the track to success. Because if society does not catch it, these kids tend to end up in the criminal and juvenile justice system and it becomes a much more expensive proposition to rehabilitate them at that point.”
Community Coalition president and CEO Marqueece Harris-Dawson also praised the presidential announcement. The occasion prompted him to look back on two decades of work in these areas of concern.
“For over 20 years we’ve been working to improve the quality of life in South Los Angeles and paid special attention to the cocaine and crack epidemic and the war on drugs,” he said. “Part of what we noticed, particularly as it relates to the school-to-prison pipeline mass incarceration crisis, is that it really impacts boys and young men of color in a more disproportionate way.”
Harris-Dawson noted that a recent Community Coalition campaign, to end suspensions and expulsions for willful defiance, has helped dramatically reduce the number of African-American and Latino boys thrown out of school for non-violent offences against teachers and other students. His organization’s grant, in the neighborhood of $200,000, will enable it to hire more staff and devote more resources to this brand of advocacy.
“This is how life should work,” he said. “There’s investment from resource institutions to grassroots organizations like us. Real change happens, and the nation takes notice.”
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