A Push to Support Boys and Young Men of Color

With the "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, President Obama is leveraging the power and influence of his presidency to address barriers to success facing boys and young men of color. This issue has been ignored for far too long by far too many sectors of our society. It is a vital step in the continuous journey to help America heal from the legacy that limited opportunities for centuries.

In urban and rural communities, and on reservations, a disproportionate number of poor and low-income young Blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native Americans can't find jobs, don't have access to health care or mental health services, don't graduate from high school, and are trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Yet these alarming circumstances can't be viewed in isolation; the nation needs to acknowledge them as part of the deeper problem: a legacy of belief in a hierarchy of human value that is woven into the fabric of our society from its beginnings. The barriers to opportunity for young men and boys of color are compounded by repeated exposures to discrimination.

At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), we have worked on the barriers to opportunities facing boys and young men of color for more than 20 years. Beginning with analysis of the problem, followed by community-based interventions in the 1990s, through criminal justice system reform and re-entry related funding, school system reform, and workforce reconnection for disconnected youth, as well as youth empowerment strategies, we have learned much from related successes and failures.

In 2006, WKKF supported the Dellums Commission through our grantee, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Led by former congressman and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, the group of scholars, community leaders and public officials identified public policies around the country that are barriers to young men of color, and offered specific recommendations on how to address these obstacles. Eventually, we realized that funding innovations, addressing symptoms, and even changing underlying policies was not enough.

Four years ago, WKKF launched its America Healing effort, providing over $75 million to help grantees bring racial healing to their communities and dismantle structural racism that restricts opportunities for people of color. WKKF also includes a place-based effort in Mississippi, with 25 community organizations working to put young males of color on a path to success. We know that local communities in Mississippi, and around the country, ultimately hold the key to unlocking solutions to benefit these young men.

As part of America Healing, WKKF also invested in Chicago's North Lawndale Employment Network. In this community, where unemployment hovers around 27 percent, this organization created "Sweet Beginnings," a unique transitional jobs program that trains formerly incarcerated individuals to harvest honey from bees at local apiaries and make all-natural skin care products. The results are extraordinary: The recidivism rate for "Sweet Beginnings" employees is below four percent, compared to the national average of 65 percent.

Furthermore, WKKF funded a study by the Adler School of Professional Psychology that found a high number of African Americans and Hispanics were being arrested by the police in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, but never charged with any crimes. Still, these "arrest records" were preventing them from getting jobs. In part because of this study, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a guidance restricting the use of arrest records in hiring decisions.

WKKF and other philanthropic organizations are making a difference in the lives of boys and young men of color. Hopefully, the President's announcement will spark a broader understanding of the role present day and historic bias continue to play in our society. We need all sectors to work together and address this legacy that shaped our nation's past, and will cloud the future if it is not healed. It's up to all of us to work together to produce the change that our nation's future requires.