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The ‘Rise’ of Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative

President Barack Obama speaks at the launch of My Brother’s Keeper Alliance at Lehman College in the Bronx on May 4. (Susan Watts/Associated Press)

For President Obama, My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) is personal. He cares about a lot of issues. But when it comes to addressing the plight of young men and boys of color in this country, when he articulates the harrowing statistics that show their stunted growth and blunted promise, Obama displays the pain of someone with intimate knowledge of the problem. Still, there is a hopefulness and determination behind what he is doing because the president knows he is uniquely positioned to command the attention needed to bolster solutions in a very just cause.

Obama’s championing of MBK, a public-private endeavor he established in 2014, got the attention of documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter. “Rise: The Promise of My Brother’s Keeper,” which will air at 7 p.m. on the Discovery Channel and simulcast OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network on Father’s Day, looks at the lives of young men and boys of color in four MBK-principled programs around the country. It will premiere at the Newseum as part of the documentary film festival of the American Film Institute on June 18. But what will give the one-hour documentary added power is the participation of the president himself. Obama granted Porter an interview during his visit to Camden, N.J., on Monday.

“While I can’t speak for him, I think the fact that he did agree to participate reflects the importance of My Brother’s Keeper for him,” Porter told me in an interview. “I think I have seen or read every speech he’s made about My Brother’s Keeper, and what I took from his past speeches and the interview he gave us is that he has a real commitment to the goals of My Brothers Keeper – the most important of which may be helping to change the negative narrative that all too often accompanies images of young men of color.”

Even though Porter has read everything there is to read about MBK, including Obama’s many remarks about it, she said she was surprised by how “movingly and personally” he spoke about what motivated him to start the initiative. “I’ve read his memoir, but it was quite a powerful experience to hear him speak about his own life, and particularly about the absence of his own father and how that inspired him to be a good husband and father.”

We know that the inspiration for the name My Brother’s Keeper comes from Genesis 4:9. And I am among the many who thought that inspiration was sparked by the killing of Trayvon Martin and so many other young black men and boys since his 2012 death. But Obama told Porter it goes back further than that. “It was a theme that he has been thinking about for a long time, from his earliest days as a State Senator and even as a community organizer,” Porter told me. “It was quite clear that this program is something he’s given a lot of thought and attention to.”

The first sign that Obama would make improving the lives and opportunities available to young men and boys of color a priority for his presidency and the rest of his life came in the fall of 2013. A close friend of mine who I didn’t know was in Washington was leaving the White House as I was entering. He had just attended a meeting where the seeds of what would become MBK were planted. Since its inception in February 2014, more than $350 million in funds from foundations and corporations have been invested in research and proven programs. And earlier this month, Obama announced that the work of MBK would continue after his presidency as the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.

Anyone surprised that Obama will continue this work after he leaves the White House has not been paying attention. From his comments on Trayvon after the 2013 acquittal of his killer George Zimmerman to his remarks on Baltimore, the president has talked passionately about race, equality and access to opportunity for young men and boys of color. Yes, as a black man, this is personal for Obama. But he also makes it clear that this is personal as an American.

“The work of every generation is to make those ideals mean something concrete in the lives of our children,” Obama said in the Bronx when he announced the MBK Alliance, “all of our children.” Porter’s film will show that Obama’s role in that vital work is well underway.

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