by Dr. Anael Alston
What is an acceptable rate of failure: homicide, high school dropout, underachievement and imprisonment for boys and young men of color in your community? If all lives matter, the answer is none. While the public rhetoric has been one of equality, meritocracy and hard work all equals success, boys and young men of color (BYMOC) have not been able to realize this ideal. Summarizing The Economic Costs of Youth Disadvantage and High Return Opportunities for Change from the Executive Office of the President of the United States in a recent article Dr. Lester Young, a member of the New York State Board of Regents, noted that boys of color graduate at lower rates, drop out at higher rates, tend to have less access to, and as a consequence participate less in accelerated and Advanced Placement courses. These young men also tend to be suspended from school at considerably higher rates than their white counterparts; are less likely to be able to read and solve math problems at grade level; and are more likely to encounter the criminal justice system as either a perpetrator or a victim. Additionally, Dr. Young points out in the “Black Lives Matter: The Schott 50-State Report on Public Education and Black Males” reports and numerous studies indicate that schools serving this population tend to have the following inequities: inadequate funding that negatively impacts resources, limited access to quality early education, lack of teacher and leader diversity, less experienced teachers, less Advanced Placement course offerings and ineffective governance structures.
With the exception of a few voices, this data, by and large, has not been a part of any significant policy changes and no commitment of resources to proven strategies aimed at ameliorating the inequities and outcomes for this population some might say that after so many past efforts, the problem is not solvable. In the absence of uproar and outcry, one could reasonably surmise that failure and underachievement for males of color are normalized and, while not verbalized, seemingly acceptable. In the absence of a plan, action and resources, the unspoken response may well be Que Sera Sera and there’s nothing strategic or intentional about whatever will be, will be. Unless, of course, it is intentional.
School, district, civic and community leaders, since it is likely that you responded “none” to the opening question, my follow-up question is this: “Does your current programming include the identified strategies that we know support outcomes for boys and young men of color to achieve at higher levels and graduate at higher rates?”
A Moment in Time
Prompted, in part, after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot to death by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida and his subsequent acquittal of criminal charges in 2014, President Barack Obama began to plan a multipronged public-private initiative aimed at closing the opportunity gaps and life achievement gaps for boys and young men of color. Through the actions of the 44th President of the United States, and because of a tragic moment in time, the “My Brother’s Keeper” movement began.
I was inspired because I saw hundreds of influential adults in attendance from informal community leaders like Sabrina Fulton, the mother of slain teen Trayvon Martin, education officials like New York State Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia (my current boss), elected officials like Congresswoman Lucy McBath, informal leaders and influencers like award-winning actor Michael B. Jordan, award-winning filmmaker Ryan Coogler, NFL All-Pro and Stanford graduate Richard Sherman, former Essence magazine Editor-in-Chief Susan Taylor, NFL Super Bowl champion Victor Cruz and perhaps one of the biggest influencers and role models of our time, President Barack Obama.
To illustrate some of the energy and passion evoked from MBK Rising, I thought sharing quotes from attendees would help you draw your own conclusions:
“The experience has been electrifying…because there has been so much energy that has been going around since I stepped in this building.” Lendrell M, student and MBK Rising! Participant
“Everything I’ve learned, I plan on not only taking back to apply to myself, but to the work that I do.” Elliot K, student and MBK Rising! Participant
What separates MBK Rising from being part of a larger movement as opposed to a singular event? Sacrifice. There is tremendous buy-in and the willingness for people to sacrifice their time, effort, resources and share their platforms to change the conversation, influence policy, programs and practices because the plight of young men of color is equivalent to the village being on fire. Fortunately, there is a collective, cross-generational effort to extinguish the fire. For we know that in a global community, if one village is on fire, it impacts everyone.
Where will you, your community, your state and this nation be when future generations look back on this moment in time? Will you be one of the ones who took action or someone who sat silently on the sidelines as our country took a long, slow, yet comfortable slide toward mediocrity and irrelevance?
Today is a great day to choose the side of history that you will be on. With over 250 “My Brother’s Keeper” Communities in America, today can be the day that you volunteer to work with an established “My Brother’s Keeper” Community or contact the Obama Foundation at www.obama.org and find out how YOU can do the work to create an MBK community. If your personal politics don’t align politically, you can still make a difference by becoming a mentor with the National Cares Mentoring Movement at www.caresmentoring.org. The future of this country will be greatly affected by what happens to boys and young men of color today. You get to decide how we will move forward.
Dr. Anael Alston is an award-winning educator and an Assistant Commissioner at the New York State Education Department.