By Kimberly N. Alleyne
America’s Wire Staff
Washington, DC (BlackNews.com) — Concerned about the plight of African-American men and boys, several philanthropic organizations have launched initiatives to improve opportunities for them to succeed. Some programs address the structural bias that leaves these men more likely to be incarcerated, jobless and disproportionately affected by other social disadvantages.
One of every 15 African-American men is in a U.S. prison or jail compared with one of every 36 Hispanic men and one of every 106 white men. Moreover, scores of African-American men are affected by chronic unemployment, lack of education, poverty and poor health outcomes.
Organizations such as Open Society Foundations, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Mitchell Kapor Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and local and regional foundations are working to assist African-American males. Shawn Dove, campaign manager for the Campaign for Black Male Achievement sponsored by Open Society Foundations, recalls that media stories about the plight of black men in 2006 spurred discussion on how the foundation could engage.
“I thought, ‘How can we, a foundation that supports open society values, and believes in a democratic society, as a foundation, not be at the forefront of these issues?'” he says. “When we launched, there was not an equivalent on a national level.”
The program began in June 2008 and was to be a three-year campaign. But 18 months in, Dove says, George Soros, chairman of Open Society Foundations, and its board were impressed by the work, expanded the budget and agreed to make it ongoing. Since 2008, it has spent $29.6 million funding 94 organizations working on educational equity, strengthening family structures and increasing work opportunities. Grantees are in Chicago, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Jackson, Miss.
“We are responding to long-term systemic and structural barriers facing the African-American community, specifically black men and boys,” Dove says. “An adequate response is not a three-year or five-year commitment. An adequate response is generational commitment so that direct services and policy advocacy are bridged.”
Dove maintains that to adequately address challenges faced by African-American men, “we need an endowed social corporation that can focus on these issues for the long haul.”
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s work in this regard dates to the early 1990s when it launched a Men and Boys of Color initiative that included grants and creation of opportunities for black males. For more than 20 years, Kellogg has been in the forefront in supporting initiatives such as Community Voices, which started the nation’s first health clinic for men in Baltimore, addressed flaws in local juvenile justice systems and assisted ex-convicts in re-entering communities in numerous cities.
“Both explicit and unconscious bias affects young men and boys of color in particular, denying them equal opportunities to succeed in their communities, says Dr. Gail C. Christopher, Kellogg’s vice president for program strategy. “At the Kellogg Foundation, a critical objective for our racial healing and racial equity strategy seeks to remove structural and implicit barriers that limit their success. Achieving and sustaining racial equity requires strong systems of accountability, and as importantly, success requires uprooting a belief system of racial hierarchy.”
Last September, Kellogg sponsored “Too Important to Fail,” Tavis Smiley’s PBS report on health and education disparities among African-American boys. The foundation also funded a University of North Carolina project, the Promoting Academic Success initiative, which worked with families, schools and communities to improve academic achievement of African-American and Latino children in Lansing, Mich., and Polk County, Fla.
Under its America Healing Initiative, the foundation funds many organizations, such as the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, that engage in efforts to address the challenges faced by black males. One grantee, the Opportunity Agenda, recently released a report on perceptions of black males in the media. The report seeks to educate media makers, educators and others on how negative images of black communities perpetuate negative stereotypes.
A significant part of the challenge is improving educational opportunities for African-American men. With its College Bound Brotherhood program established five years ago, the Mitchell Kapor Foundation helps black youths and men achieve success by equipping them to pursue a college education. Based in San Francisco, the program provides grants to community-based organizations offering college preparedness programs in the Bay Area.
Justin Davis, the foundation’s program coordinator, says it has awarded more than $1 million to organizations. “We also offer an online database, which is a free directory that lists college readiness programs in the San Francisco Bay area community,” he said. “It helps students, parents and teachers.”
The program hosts an annual graduation celebration at which college-bound high school graduates are lauded for their achievements. “This year, we are celebrating 150 young black men who are enrolling in college this fall,” Davis says. “This is the only event like it in the Bay Area. Last year, it was standing room only. One of the most powerful images was seeing a stage full of young black men who are going to college. It’s a great thing to see.”
The programs are making an impact.
Jordan Johnson, 17, is heading to Morehouse College next fall largely because of his participation in the Young Scholars Program, one 15 organizations that the Kapor Foundation supports through grants from College Bound Brotherhood. Johnson says the program changed his perspective about college.
The Young Scholars Program offers college preparatory and leadership development, plus tutoring, mentoring, cultural enrichment and scholarship assistance. Over the past 10 years, its students have attended colleges and universities such as Texas Southern, Fisk, Cornell and Yale.
“I got involved in the Young Scholars Program my junior year,” Johnson says. “Before I got involved, I thought I was going to a junior college or a two-year college. I didn’t have the professional, social or academic skills to go to a four-year college.” But the program changed his aspirations. He plans to study business management. “I didn’t think I was going to Morehouse because my GPA is 2.67,” he says, “but the Young Scholars Program gave me hope. I have been accepted to 17 colleges. I have not received any rejections.”
Another organization, Foundation for the Mid South, works to address poverty in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, a region whose 30 percent poverty rate is the nation’s highest. Based in Jackson, Miss., the organization focuses on education, health and wellness, wealth building and community development. The Kellogg Foundation is among funders of its work.
Matthew Caston, a communications fellow at Foundation for the Mid South, asserts that to be successful, more African-American men require better education. For instance, the foundation’s data show that two of three boys of color cannot read at grade level by third grade and that 19.1 percent of black males are unemployed, compared with 8 percent of white males.
“We have found that education is the biggest determinant of success in the areas of incarceration, health and earning. People who are more educated are healthier and have better jobs,” Caston says, adding that reading scores are the biggest determinant for high school graduation and employment. “Males of color in our region are at the bottom in reading scores.”
The foundation is working to improve education and economic outcomes for youths of color by assisting parents and civic, community and government leaders in improving the educational system and launching a public awareness campaign about its shortfalls.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Black Male Engagement (BME) Challenge takes a different approach.
Pronounced “be me,” BME piloted programs in Detroit and Philadelphia last year, and its primary mission is to highlight actively engaged black men in those cities. BME is also funded in part by the Open Society Foundation’s Campaign for Black Male Achievement.
“There are many initiatives that show that black men are disengaged, absent or a threat to their communities, but our working assumption is there is nothing to fix about black males,” says Trabian Shorters, vice president/communities program at the Knight Foundation and BME’s spearhead. “BME is not about fixing black males. Black men are assets to their communities, and we are working to respond to the many of them who are engaged and how to get more black males engaged.”
Under the program, African-American men in Detroit and Philadelphia were asked to submit video testimony showing how they strengthen their communities. The 2,083 videos received told many stories about personal journeys that included men helping veterans returning to their community and introducing children to dance instead of street life. The storytellers were invited to apply for grants ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 to further their community work.
“So many regular guys go unsung,” Shorters says. “They don’t do this work for a pat on the back, but it is nice to affirm what they do.” BME has awarded $443,000 in grants “to 443 regular, everyday guys,” he adds.
Shorters says everyone knows “good guys” who are not part of the dreadful statistics. “I hope that BME creates a network of these kinds of guys, regular guys,” he says. “We want to make it so that if your cousin Joe is a good guy, doing something great for his community, that he can plug into the network and meet other guys like him and find resources to support his work.”
Though many foundations focus their attention on systemic and structural barriers affecting African-American males, the whole “village” carries the burden of success.
“This is our unfinished business,” Dove says. “This is not black America’s unfinished business. It is America’s unfinished business.”
America’s Wire is an independent, nonprofit news service run by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and funded by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Our stories can be republished free of charge by newspapers, websites and other media sources. For more information, visit www.americaswire.org or contact Michael K. Frisby at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Caption: College Bound Brotherhood program lauds graduates for their achievements
Photo credit: Derek Lassiter