More than 1,000 women of color have signed a letter calling for gender equality in President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program, putting the White House on the defensive about its initiative aimed at improving the lives of at-risk boys and young men.

The letter, along with one signed by 200 black men last month arguing for the inclusion of women and girls in the program, is a public airing of what had been a private debate during the planning stages of the initiative. It is the first major criticism and scrutiny by some of Obama’s top supporters over a program that has also been heralded as a much needed effort to address the particular problems faced by young men and boys of color.

In an open letter, publicized by the African American Policy Forum and signed by writer Alice Walker, lawyers Anita Hill and Mary Frances Berry and actress Rosario Dawson, among other leading academics and activists, the coalition of women asks that Obama “re-align this important initiative to reflect the values of inclusion, equal opportunity and shared fate that have propelled our historic struggle for racial justice forward.”

While we applaud the efforts on the part of the White House, private philanthropy, social justice organizations and others to move beyond colorblind approaches to race-specific problems, we are profoundly troubled about the exclusion of women and girls of color from this critical undertaking. The need to acknowledge the crisis facing boys should not come at the expense of addressing the stunted opportunities for girls who live in the same households, suffer in the same schools, and struggle to overcome a common history of limited opportunities caused by various forms of discrimination.
We simply cannot agree that the effects of these conditions on women and girls should pale to the point of invisibility, and are of such little significance that they warrant zero attention in the messaging, research and resourcing of this unprecedented Initiative.

The White House mobilized Cabinet agencies and released a 60-page report that detailed the various problems young men and boys of color face as well as potential solutions for creating a cradle-to-college-and-career pipeline among that population, that disproportionately faces a prison pipeline. Last month, the White House announced that MBK had attracted $200 million in private funding for the effort.

Obama and civil rights advocates point to statistics that show that relative to their white counterparts, African American,  Latino and Native American boys are more likely to live in low-income communities with high rates of crime, be raised by single mothers, and to attend poor-performing schools.

Administration officials insist that the initiative and data gathered will benefit both boys and girls, even as they stress that black and brown boys face particular obstacles that merit a targeted approach. Officials also have noted that the White House the Council on Women and Girls (CWG) encompasses women and girls of color.

Valerie Jarrett, head of the council sent this statement to She The People:

Since day one of his Administration, President Obama has focused on increasing opportunity for women and girls, as part of his larger focus on expanding opportunity for each and every American. It’s why — during his first days in office — he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extends critical protections for all workers who may face pay discrimination, and it’s why — during his first three months in office — he created the first-ever White House Council on Women and Girls, which for years has tackled issues that disproportionately affect women and girls of color, including equal pay and violence against women. It’s also why his administration has built a long track record of taking actions that will help both girls and boys succeed, from improving early learning to creating a fair criminal justice system.

By every measure — health, education, jobs — black and brown girls and women lag behind their white counterparts. The women’s letter points out that Latinas have the lowest graduation rate among all young women. Black women are three times as likely to go to prison as white women, and black girls are the fastest growing population of incarcerated youth.  As well, black girls are suspended at much higher rates than girls of any other race and at a rate that is higher than most boys.

On twitter, critics of MBK have started the hashtag #WhyWeCantWait:

The letter writing and twitter campaign faults the White House for failing to require the MBK task force to report data on women and girls of color and suggests that the council on women and girls has neither the prominence, infrastructure nor financial backing to put it on the same footing as MBK.

“This erasure simply adds to the crisis that girls of color face, forcing them to suffer in relative silence,” the letter argues. “In short, women and girls of color are not doing fine, and until they are, men and boys will not be doing fine either.”

Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, who is a law professor at UCLA and Columbia University and one of the organizers of the letter-writing campaign, said that some of the academics and activists who signed the letter registered their concerns with the White House and the nonprofit groups and private organizations involved in the initiative during the planning and fact finding stages.

The White House more recently reached out to the coalition of men who signed the first letter to set up an informational session on MBK. No date has been set for that meeting.

In a kind of dueling letter-writing campaign, the White House has also had some high-profile advocates express support for MBK. In a letter called “My Brother’s Keeper Is a Great Fathers’ Day Gift for Our Children,” posted on the Huffington Post Web site last Friday and signed by 40  black women, the head of a black women’s policy group expressed surprise that “that there are some who believe that President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative is too narrow because it does not focus on women and girls of color.”

“While we fully agree that much work is needed to improve the lives of Black women and girls, we also know it is vitally important that the “My Brother’s Keeper” Initiative stays focused on men and boys of color. Our Black men and boys are dying out of season on the streets of our nation every day,” wrote Melanie L. Campbell, chief executive of The Black Women’s Roundtable wrote. “There is a ‘fierce urgency of now’ that calls for decisive, targeted action to address this crisis in our community.”

In March, Campbell’s group released a report that outlined the progress and the remaining hurdles that black women face, and they called for “urgent action.”

In a phone interview, Campbell said that she has asked that the White House specifically address and target girls and young women of color under the rubric of CWG.

“We need to have that conversation, we all want to have it better for our kids,” she said.

Critics of MBK’s male-only focus see it as opportunity to address the gender and racial inequities that trap black and brown girls and young women at the lower rungs. They see Obama as the right president to address this issue and a more overtly inclusive MBK as the right vehicle.

“Our youth do need help, they need to be shown that they matter and all of them need a targeted initiative, and that doesn’t mean reducing it to boys of color.  That is the move we are asking them not to make,” said Kristie Dotson, a philosophy professor at Michigan State University, who also signed the 1,000 women’s letter.  “We applaud the initiative, now let’s talk about who needs to be included in it and targeted. Black boys can’t afford to have black girls not be a central part of this discussion.”