President Obama to launch major new effort to help young minority men

President Obama will launch a significant new effort Thursday to bolster the lives of young minority men, seeking to use the power of the presidency to help a group of Americans whose lives are disproportionately affected by poverty and prison.

The “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative will bring foundations and companies together to test a range of strategies to support such young men, taking steps to keep them in school and out of the criminal justice system, a White House official said. Obama will also announce a more vigorous program to evaluate policies and publicize results to school systems around the country.

The effort will seek “to make sure that every young man of color who is willing to work hard and lift himself up has an opportunity to get ahead and reach his full potential,” the White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement. “The initiative will be focused on implementing strategies that are proven to get results.”

Obama had promised to launch a new project focused on young minority men during his State of the Union address last month. His focus on a relatively narrow demographic group is unusual for a president who usually stresses how his policies affect large swaths of the American public. It also comes after the first African American president has faced repeated criticism from those who say he is failing to pay enough attention to blacks and other minorities.

The initiative is the latest sign that Obama plans to address such issues more directly in his second term. Last month, Obama and the first lady hosted a forum at the White House to persuade colleges to recruit more low-income Americans. And last year, the Justice Department overhauled drug-sentencing guidelines so that low-level and nonviolent offenders do not face stiff minimum sentences.

President Obama said in July that the country needs to figure out how to make African American men feel included in society. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

The new focus reached its emotional peak last summer when Obama delivered remarks about race in the United States after the non-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in the killing of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin.

Participants in Thursday’s event will include young men from a Chicago-based group called Becoming a Man, which Obama met with in two sessions last year.

An administration official said the “My Brother’s Keeper” effort will consist of two main parts. First, the official said, businesses and foundations will join together to test strategies aimed at “making sure children arrive at school ready to learn and reducing negative interactions with the criminal justice system.”

Second, Obama will launch an internal administration effort to more rigorously evaluate what programs work best at helping young minority males. The Education and Justice departments, for example, recently updated guidelines provided to school districts on the most effective disciplinary policies.

The administration official said the new measures will not cost more money and will include Republicans working on criminal justice reform, religious leaders and corporate executives.

Obama’s work in this area has been unfolding for months. Last summer, he began meeting with an eclectic group of leaders to discuss how better to aid the poor.

The meetings have included foundation leaders such as Michael Rubinger, chief executive of the Local Initiatives Support Corp.; scholars such as Robert Putnam, a Harvard University professor; business leaders such as Thomas Donohue, the chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the former basketball star and businessman.

While those meetings focused more generally on the challenges facing the poor, the discussions continued later in the fall with meetings specifically addressing young minority men. Cabinet officials such as Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez have been intimately involved.

In at least one of those meetings, in September, Obama brought up his experience with young men in the Becoming a Man program, which he visited a year ago at Hyde Park Academy High School.

The president described in that meeting with the young men how his upbringing — without a father in the picture — was in many ways similar to theirs. He added, though, that the environment he faced in Hawaii was much more forgiving than what they face on the South Side of Chicago.

“His life was easier than the kids’ lives who were at Hyde Park High School, and so he’s constantly trying to figure out what we can do to provide that opportunity for the American Dream regardless of your Zip code and circumstances,” Valerie Jarrett, an Obama senior adviser, said in an interview last fall. “We need to make sure that we don’t lose them to the criminal justice system and [that we] provide them with pathways back into the classroom — since we all know that a good education is a path to economic self-sufficiency.”

Administration officials have said the Becoming a Man program is a highly effective initiative. A study by the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab found that a year in the BAM program increased graduation rates by 10 to 23 percent and reduced violent-crime arrests by 44 percent. The program costs $1,100 per participant.

“There are so few programs out there that have been able to have an impact,” said Roseanna Ander, executive director of the university’s Crime Lab. “To see it was such a light-touch intervention and the impacts were so huge was incredible.”

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.
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