Offering Ladders of Opportunity to Young Men of Color

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The American Institutes for Research, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and College Bound sponsored a panel discussion on June 3 about the Obama administration’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which is bringing together leading foundations and organizations to design and develop “ladders of opportunity” for boys and young men of color. This work builds on many of the findings of the 2006 Dellums Commission Report, which studied the emotional, physical, and social factors that contribute to the health and well-being of boys and young men of color.

In his opening remarks, former Congressman Ronald V. Dellums told the National Press Club crowd of more than 160, “This is a moment pregnant with potential. You now have the President of the United States having embraced this issue. … Use the bully pulpit to reach into the philanthropic and corporate community. Exploit the moment. It’s ultimately in the best interest of us all.”

Panelists agreed wholeheartedly. They included Brian Smedley, Vice President and Director of the Health Policy Institute at the Joint Center, Kenneth Ward, Executive Director of College Bound, Darren Woodruff, Principal Researcher at AIR, and moderator Andrew Ujifusa, reporter for Education Week. They stressed the need to change the way we view young men of color, the expectations we set for them, and the support we offer them. Some excerpts:

Perceptions and Expectations

"For far too long, boys and young black men of color have been seen as a problem rather than a valuable resource [for our country]. The challenge is the public will. We will reconvene the Dellums Commission not to understand what is needed to do—we know what is needed— but to learn how we build the public will [to do what is needed]. We all have a stake in this." - Brian Smedley

"Our boys and young men of color are different. Sometimes they dress, talk, behave differently. Those things are not deficits. Like [different kinds of music], we need to treasure it, value and support it. Just because they’re different, it’s more on us and our schools and other agencies to see them as strength.” – Darren Woodruff

"Even some teachers see boys and young men of color as a threat. If you are afraid, how can you teach? ...I was in Dakar (Africa) with one of our College Bound students, Mike. A young man came up to him and asked, 'What kind of gun do you have?' Mike doesn’t own any guns. Mike’s ‘gun’ is a book. ...Some of our College Bound young men are 6'2" or 6'3", and people come up to them say, ‘Are you going to play basketball?’ They don’t ask, ‘Are you going to be an engineer?’ We have to help our youth see themselves differently. You can be more than a basketball player or a rapper." - Kenneth Ward

"Any child will live up to expectations. They expect these young men of color to be in entertainment and sports. They see the perp walks of these boys and young men. The public has to put pressure on Hollywood and newsrooms to change the images. Change the social media content. There’s too much talent there, too much value to our society to not allow them to flourish." - Brian Smedley

Structural Barriers

"We have to address the structural problems that go with segregation, that have allowed separate but unequal systems in our society. …We must de-concentrate poverty and invest in schools and communities, in housing, in safe places to play, in food and nutrition. We can’t do this piecemeal." - Brian Smedley

"Schools are as segregated now as they were 50 years ago, only then they had teachers who understood and believed in them.” - Kenneth Ward


We need mentors. Someone to provide authentic experiences for youth and bring resources… [At College Bound we tell our mentors,] '…as much as you think you’re changing the life of a child, you are changing your life.' "- Kenneth Ward

"We know what works… among other things, enriched Pre-K programs for all kids, but particularly for at-risk kids. We have to [give] support, but without the proper role models, without hope, we drain these young men of their talent. If we’re still sending kids to schools where a large share of students live below the poverty line, we will be repeating structural inequities." - Brian Smedley

"In our attempt to maximize the outcomes for boys and young men of color, we are focused on 'fixing them.' I’m convinced that is not the right way to go. …The bottom line now is test scores. We have to show how best practices lead to outcomes that the people are focusing on. Show how mentoring, counseling and interventions and other supports can lead to those outcomes." - Darren Woodruff

For more on the event, read Peter Cookson's blog, "My Brother's Keeper: The Urgency of Now". See Creating Opportunities for Young Men of Color for further information and resources.



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