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September 2011
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Who’s Going to Save Our Souls?

By Reginald Richardson | Bed-Stuy Patch


By every measure, whether you are looking at statistics in graduation rates, literacy and academic achievement, unemployment, health and wellness, crime, substance abuse, college attendance or wealth, you will find that young men of color occupy the bottom ranks of our society in almost every area.

This is a problem that has reached crisis levels– a problem that not only affects Black and Latino males, but whose ramifications will impact everyone in this country.

This past August, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city would be launching a program to deal with the enormous array of problems that have been crushing the lives of the majority of young Black and Latino men here in New York City. The program is called the Young Men’s Initiative.

On Friday, September 16, the Black Male Donor Collaborative called together a panel discussion at NYU-Polytechnic in downtown Brooklyn to give New York State Education Commissioner Dr. John B. King and NYC Chancellor of Schools Dennis Walcott a candid opportunity to share their vision for the Young Men’s Initiative.

The event was attended by hundreds of Black and Latino educational leaders and the heads of community based organization from all over the city and state. All of the key participants in the discussion, including King, Walcott and Young, were black men.  The sponsors for the event, the Black Male Donor Collaborative (BMDC, supported by the Schott Foundation), and the JP Morgan Chase Foundation, are headed by black women, Nicole Sharpe and Kimberly James respectively.

Looking at the array of accomplished individuals who were on the stage and in the room, it became clear to me how rare it was to witness such an alignment of Black and Latino educators and administrators in these very key positions of influence. In fact, there may never be a better time to try to tackle the crisis surrounding young men of color than right now.

However, while there seemed to be a clear and coherent vision for why this initiative was necessary and what the outcomes of the initiative should be, what was not clear was a specific plan on how to prioritize and implement the recommendations to accomplish the stated objectives.

Based on what I have read about the initiative and what I heard that evening from the panel participants, it seems clear to me that there is one area that must be given the greatest amount of attention if we are to have any chance at succeeding with this initiative in a meaningful way. We must prioritize identifying and developing enough of the right people critical to executing the vision.

I looked around the room at NYU and kept saying to myself, we need many more of “us” — The “us” meaning highly skilled Black and Latino people who believe strongly in the merits of education and who are committed to breaking the cycle. The problem is, the overall numbers of us who can be counted in that pool of people are so woefully low.

I wondered, so who will be the people responsible for the day to day work required to successfully implement this agenda? What will be the mechanisms and resources in place to identify, train and appropriately compensate people of the highest quality to engage in this work? And who will be charged with consistently monitoring the outcomes?

Will this task once again fall back into the hands of third-party for-profit and non-profit organizations looking to bankroll their jobs off of our community’s ongoing problems?

Or how can we instead, help grow the capacity of culturally relevant (black and Latino-run), community based organizations to engage in this work on the scale required to make a difference on a broader scale?

If you really think about it, one of the primary reasons we find ourselves at such a critical juncture with respect to young Black and Latino males is that too many of our children have been forced to navigate unassisted a social landscape that has been shaped by systemic racism.

The byproduct of this is generation after generation of parents who do not have the tools to help their children to successfully navigate over the obstacles that prevent them from becoming successful.

Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury to dwell on systemic racism, nor the time to unravel all of the complexities of what it takes to “undo” racism. Therefore, these young people need to be more in touch with examples of Black and Latino men (and women) who possess the combination of knowledge, skills, commitment and credibility necessary to help them make the appropriate life choices.

This type of work cannot be outsourced. Nor can it be automated through technological advances. This work will require the efforts of tens of thousands of people — not avatars, not distance learning– I mean real people who are highly skilled and wholly committed.

We will also need people with the technical capacity to collect, interpret and monitor data, so that we will be able to determine if what we are doing is effective.

The initial steps that are taken to solve this problem will determine the ultimate success or failure of the initiative. No matter how well intentioned or what amazing systems are created, if the right people are not in the right places, we will ultimately fail.

Nothing less than the soul of our community and our country is at stake, so we have to get this right from the beginning. It begins with knowing who the critical people will be.

Is one of them you?

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