As teams from 11 cities across the nation gathered in Oakland last week to share ideas on how to improve life outcomes for young black men and boys, energy and commitment levels were high. Following President Obama’s launch of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, the room buzzed with a palpable sense that the stars were finally aligning for a serious push to promote black male achievement in communities throughout America.
The participating cities have been developing local plans and building diverse coalitions during the past year under a technical assistance project sponsored by the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at the National League of Cities (NLC) with generous support from the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement and in collaboration with PolicyLink. Selected by NLC through a competitive RFP process, the cities include: Charlottesville, VA; Chicago; Fort Wayne, IN; Jacksonville, FL; Louisville, KY; Milwaukee, WI; Oakland, CA; Omaha, NE; Orlando, FL; Philadelphia; and Portland, OR.
Underneath the excitement in Oakland, however, was a recognition of the huge challenge that lies ahead and the importance, as expressed by many of the young men who were part of the city teams, of “keeping it real.” For me, that means being brutally honest – with ourselves and with others – about the changes in public policies and systems that will be needed to achieve lasting and measurable results for our young black men and boys, who face disproportionately high risks of school failure, joblessness, incarceration, and violence-related death.
I found myself thinking about how easy it is to enter a zone of wishful thinking, to put our energies into events or activities that engender good feelings but don’t yield enough of a change in the circumstances of young black men and boys to boost their future prospects. If we hope to “move the needle” in key areas such as education, safety, work, and family for this vulnerable group, we need sustained interventions that are both significant enough to create real opportunity for the individuals they touch and are implemented at sufficient scale to yield gains that are seen and felt across the community. As Eric Wilson, executive director of the Oakland Housing Authority said to me in describing the task ahead, “We’ve just got to stop doing programs for 30 kids … that’s not going to get us there.”
So what’s the alternative? I believe we need to pay greater attention to the “red flags” that already tell us when children and youth are in trouble and marshal the resources to respond more forcefully to those warning signs. In the earliest years of life, serious health problems or developmental delays can be detected through early screenings and low levels of school readiness are documented upon entry to kindergarten. For school-age children and youth, chronic absence (missing more than 10 or 15 days of school), failure to read proficiently by the end of third grade, truancy or disciplinary problems in middle school, and behavior that results in early contact with law enforcement serve as additional indicators that young black men and boys are struggling or losing their way.
Each of these “red flags” represents a potential point of intervention for cities that are seeking to boost black male achievement. They also give us a way of sharpening and narrowing our focus – to decide what we will do first, second, and third – and in the process to be clear about the results we are seeking and the indicators that will tell us whether we are moving that needle.
The resources that will ultimately be needed to make a difference will be large, and they will be won only through tough choices and inevitable battles over local, state, and national priorities. With budget outlooks in many cities improving, do new funds go for more police on the streets or more help for young black men and boys who are trying to get back on track and redirect their lives? As Ron Davis, director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) at the U.S. Department of Justice reminded the group during his keynote address in Oakland, we need to strike a balance between these competing demands while recognizing that no city is going to arrest or prosecute its way out of the problem. We desperately need more pathways to education, work, and opportunity.
I was struck by the recent news coverage of the couple with two young children who issued a distress call when their sailboat became stranded in the middle of the Pacific and their one-year-old grew seriously ill. Some criticized the parents’ judgment, but no one questioned the need to rescue them at sea. In contrast, the SOS calls that we witness every day – as reflected in the “red flags” already apparent to so many in our communities – all too often go unanswered. Those of us committed to improving life outcomes for young black men and boys must find ways to heighten the sense of urgency surrounding their plight. We have a moral obligation, as individuals and as a nation, to mount a rescue mission for them as well.