For our young men of color, do we have the will to make a way?

The recently announced White House initiative "My Brother's Keeper" has triggered spirited responses about the reasons why boys and young men of color are not reaching their potentials. The data continues to strongly suggest the need. The solutions offered range from individual to institutional and programmatic responsibility, to the long-referenced role of the "village." In a July 2013 blog post, I referenced an African proverb: Umtu Gumtu Gabantu ("People become people by virtue of other people"). The proverb speaks to a collective community will that works to enable children's strengths. Guest blogger Hugh Vasquez, senior associate at the National Equity Project, cuts through the cacophony of calls for change to identify a salient step for tipping the scales of justice for ALL. - Eric J. Cooper

By Hugh Vasquez

I applaud President Obama's new initiative, "My Brother's Keeper," but an important conversation is missing from the announcement and from the initiative itself. While it is necessary to encourage boys to work harder, that alone will not solve the problem. The reason so many boys and young men of color continue to fail remains unexplored.

As Obama talked about his initiative, a group of young men of color stood behind him. He spoke to them about what they as individuals have to do. He said adults must help by removing barriers to opportunity, but these obstacles eluded the spotlight in his announcement. The young men were photographed and told what they need to do, but depictions of barriers to the opportunities that could help propel their progress were escaped the glare of scrutiny.

But we know the obstacles. Boys of color are more likely than their white peers to be unemployed, involved in the criminal justice system or the victims of murder.

We also know what works to help them overcome those obstacles. We know what children need to succeed in life. We know why some are making it and others are not.

The problem is not a shortage of knowledge, but a lack of the collective will to change what is needed so these young boys can succeed.

And once we are bold enough to address these underlying causes of the obstacles rather than work around the edges of the problems, we will have to admit that the solution does not just lie with asking these boys to work harder to overcome obstacles.

Instead, we need to redesign the social structures that create pathways for success.

For example, we must make preschool more accessible so that our boys of color do not continue to start kindergarten already behind. We must additionally reform systems that place them in schools that remain in dire need of repairs and renovations, leaving our boys of color to struggle to learn in substandard conditions. And we need to overhaul the structures that track our boys of color into courses that won't prepare them for college.

How do we gain the critical mass necessary to force transformation? We know the answer to this, too. It has happened before.

We changed the will of enough people to abolish slavery and give women the right to vote. We changed the will of enough people to end "whites only" drinking fountains and the practice of "no coloreds" allowed at lunch counters. And if we are to change the life outcomes of our young men of color in this nation, it will once again take changing the will of the people.

In "Outliers," author Malcolm Gladwell argues that success is not a random act.

"It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities," he wrote.

We know that young people succeed not just because of their character, but because open doors to opportunities and productive circumstances enable them to walk boldly into their potential.

And we know how to create structures that provide these opportunities.

What will it take to galvanize enough people with the will to create these structures for young boys and men of color?

Hugh is senior associate at the National Equity Project. He tweets @HughJVasquez. The National Equity Project is @equityproject.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at He tweets @ECooper4556.