Changing the Narrative for Youth

“A zip code should not determine someone’s fate.” Those words echoed as Leticia James, New York City Public Advocate provided remarks at the New York City Young Men’s Initiative’s (YMI) My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) Community Convening. “It’s the power of government and education to transform, and that’s what our work is about,” she added. And that’s why President Obama launched the My Brother’s Keeper initiative last year, to help bridge gaps and expand opportunity for young people, particularly boys and young men of color – regardless of who they are, where they come from or the circumstances into which they are born.

Held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem on February 27, the convening brought together representatives from the community – as well as public and private sector leaders in the areas of philanthropy, education, mentoring, community development and others – who are all unified in their commitment to advancing life outcomes and opportunities for young men of color.

After a dynamic youth discussion between Urban Ambassador and YMI Youth Advisor Lionel Kiki and David Banks, President and CEO of the Eagle Academy Foundation,  the first panel focused on education. Among the many ideas that were shared during the education panel, three themes set the tone – including the need for every young person to have access to a mentor, whether that is a caring adult or peer mentor. And particularly for young men of color, male mentors are crucial. “A student without a mentor is like an explorer without a map,” said a participant. The second theme was about changing the narrative about young men of color. “We should start talking about assets, as opposed to deficiencies,” was a key point made by various participants. Third, was the emphasis on culturally appropriate education, including programs and staff.

Sheena Wright, President and CEO of the United Way of New York City, moderated and panelists included Deputy Mayor of New York Richard Buery, Grace Bonilla, President and CEO of the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, Inc., Paul Forbes, Director of the Expanded Success Initiative, and U.S. Department of Education Acting Assistant Secretary Johan Uvin.

Since the launch of MBK, cities, counties, and tribal nations were called on to implement “cradle to college and career” strategies for improving the outcomes for young people – known as the MBK Community Challenge. Since then, cities, businesses, and foundations are taking steps to connect young to the mentorship, networks, and the skills they need to find a good job, or go to college. During our trip to New York, we saw first-hand what several neighborhoods in New York are doing to improve the outcomes of youth and young men of color in particular. We visited three programs that are part of the Young Men’s Initiative. We had the opportunity to meet with several inspiring youth and adults participating in the Expanded Success Initiative (ESI), Jobs-Plus and Young Adult Internship Program, initiatives of YMI’s efforts to address disparities faced by young men of color. While on a tour of EPIC North High School – a part of ESI – the students shared inspiring and deeply personal testimonies about how EPIC has provided leadership and life skills while enabling them to earn their high school diploma and get ready for college.

Panelists in discussion

Acting Assistant Secretary Johan E. Uvin, Grace Bonilla, Sheena Wright, Deputy Mayor of New York Richard Buery, and Paul Forbes discuss innovative practices and tools that should be considered when planning to increase college access for Black and Latino young men.

New York City is one of the larger cities that responded to the President’s powerful call to action on February 27th last year.  Along with New York City, nearly 200 mayors, tribal leaders, and county executives across 43 states and the District of Columbia have accepted the MBK Community Challenge in partnership with more than 2,000 individual community-based allies. These “MBK Communities” are working with leading experts in youth and community development to design and implement cradle-to-college-and-career action plans. Within six months of accepting the Challenge, MBK Communities commit to review local public policy, host action summits, and start implementing their locally tailored action plans to address opportunity gaps. MBK Communities are provided with technical assistance to develop, implement and track plans of action from both federal agencies and independent organizations with related expertise.

Last week, a report was released that provided an update on three areas of focus based on the goals laid out in the MBK Presidential Memorandum: state and local engagement, private sector action – independent nonprofit, philanthropic and corporate action; and public policy review.

We encourage you to read the report and learn more about the Young Men’s Initiative in New York City. We also encourage you to get involved in your community and join efforts to improve policies and programs to improve the outcomes for all youth but particularly for young men of color.

Johan E. Uvin is the Acting Assistant Secretary for Career, Technical, and Adult Education and represents the Department on the Entering the Workforce work team of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Carmen Drummond is the Policy Advisor to the Assistant Secretary and advises on interagency issues and strategic Administration initiatives.