I have two younger brothers. One is a senior in college, majoring in business. The other is taking some time off after high school and working more than 50 hours a week at a pizza restaurant while he saves for school, weighing a degree in music (he plays a mean accordion, among many other instruments) or something more ‘stable’. They are both good, smart ‘kids’ who were taught, as I was, that if they worked hard, opportunities would be available to them. The world was their oyster. They still believe that. Mostly.
Unfortunately, they know the statistics about young men of color, young men like them, all too well. 47% will not graduate high school on time. One in three will go to prison in their lifetime. 57% are being raised without fathers. These factors are all serious barriers in terms of being gainfully employed with sufficient income and assets to thrive in America. While my brothers aren’t always viewed through these lenses, I have witnessed occasions when others’ low expectations of them have chipped away at their belief that the world was theirs for the taking. And, for many others—young men who do not have the multitude of supports and shields that my brothers have–it is less a chipping away and more a full-scale demolition.
Recently, Living Cities signed on to a philanthropic alliance dedicated to addressing problems facing boys and men of color. As the alliance gets its legs, I attended a ‘ Gathering of Leaders’– foundation staff, educators, youth, policymakers, non-profit leaders, grassroots organizers, and others focused on moving the needle on these issues. Together this diverse group of stakeholders met for three days in Detroit to share knowledge, work towards developing collective strategies, and to prepare the group to mobilize and act. For many in attendance, these issues are not just what they work on every day, but are also deeply personal. The conversation was urgent. Here are three things I heard:
1: To achieve our dreams, we must first build ‘dream infrastructure’
While there is no doubt that we need to do better in terms of physical access to quality education and quality jobs for all young people, particularly low-income people and people of color; we also have to do better in terms of helping them to believe that those things are for them in the first place. For communities who have often been excluded from many mainstream opportunities, it is not enough to invest in physical infrastructure, we must also invest in what I’m calling ‘dream infrastructure’. This might include building social capital in communities to better connect youth (physically and virtually) to support networks, fostering positive images in the media, and ensuring that there are role models who look like them in classrooms and mentoring programs.
2: If we don’t tell our own stories, we become characters in someone else’s
This idea, raised in one of the sessions I attended, generated a lot of conversation. It became increasingly clear that in order to achieve better outcomes, we must change the narrative. For example, though celebrating successes in minority communities is important, the stereotypical story of Asian-Americans as a ‘model minority’ means that this racial community is often overlooked in policy conversations around key challenges such as access to quality education and poverty alleviation—challenges that many Asian Americans struggle with. And, negative stereotypes of young African-American men manifest in the very policies that seek to address the stereotypes. Rather than removing barriers to opportunity, some of these programs are perpetuating falsehoods (e.g. that African-American men are ‘dangerous’). Boys and men of color are not one- size- fits- all characters, but rather have a richness of experience and voice that if harnessed can help individuals and organizations working towards systems change to better understand realities and design interventions.
3: Collaboration is key
The challenges facing men and boys of color are huge, and have their roots in 400 years of disenfranchisement. If we are going to move the needle on these issues, we will need a critical mass of individuals and organizations to come together to develop a shared vision, set ambitious goals, and identify outcomes that we will track and hold ourselves accountable for. With the coming together of cross-sector leaders across the country, there are signs that a vibrant movement is growing, and we must seize the moment to drive concrete action.
Every kid should grow up believing that they can be an accordion player, a business owner, or whatever else they dream of. Even more important is ensuring that every kid has the opportunity to turn those dreams into reality.