Flanked by NBA star Chris Paul, who introduced Obama, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and other prominent basketball players, the president recalled his own struggles growing up, saying that the only difference between him and other young men of color is that he lived in a more forgiving environment.
“I wasn’t going to end up shot,” Obama said during a town hall discussion at the Walker Jones Education Campus in Washington, D.C. “I wasn’t going to end up in jail.”
The efforts sprang from the widespread frustration expressed by many African Americans after George Zimmerman was acquitted last year in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and build on 30 years of public discourse and community programming aimed at young men of color.
Among the other efforts are $1.5 million by the College Board to ensure that students of color enroll in at least one Advanced Placement class before they graduate. The Chicago based “Becoming a Man,” program will benefit from $10 million and expand to additional cities, while the Emerson Collective will pitch in $50 million for a competition for innovative approaches to creating the next generation of high schools. And the leaders of 60 of the largest school systems, which educate 3 million young men of color, have joined a pledge to change the educational outcomes of young men of color.
Other investments include:
- Citi Foundation is making a three year, $10 million commitment to create ServiceWorks, a groundbreaking, national program that uses volunteer services to help 25,000 young people in 10 cities across the United States develop the skills they need to prepare for college and careers.
- AT&T announced an $18 million commitment this year to support mentoring and other education programs with a mentoring component as part of the company’s Aspire initiative – a $350 million commitment focused on high school success and workforce readiness for students at risk of dropping out of school.
- Discovery Communications will invest more than $1 million to create an original independent special programming event to educate the public about issues related to boys and men of color and address negative public perceptions of them.
The efforts brought praise from the head of A Better Chance, a group that focuses on getting young people of color ready for college.
“We know that our current educational system is not serving African-American and Latino boys well. They are falling behind at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels. As a result, they are failing to achieve their full potential and we, as a nation are losing a vital talent pool,” said Sandra Timmons, President of A Better Chance in an email statement. “It is encouraging to see the expansion of this effort to assist African-American and Latino boys in achieving academic success in high school and beyond”
But MBK is not without its critics, who on the one hand applaud the President and his administration for recognizing the need to develop targeted approaches for young men of color, but also argue that young women and girls of color are in similarly dire straights and could benefit from the same attention and intervention.
None of the programs Obama announced Monday specifically target girls and young women.
The White House has said that the Council on Women and Girls includes racial and ethnic diversity, yet that has neither the platform or the funding to put it on par with “My Brother’s Keeper.” Last week, top Obama aides, including Valerie Jarrett met with a group calling for more gender equity in MBK and those discussions are likely to continue.
The activists and scholars asking for the inclusion of young women of color into MBK cite statistics that show black and brown girls struggling with poverty and being suspended and incarcerated at much higher rates than their white counterparts.
Obama seemed to acknowledge the reality of teenage moms and single moms on Monday, thanking single mothers for their “heroic efforts” and saying that seeing teenage moms recently reminded him of his own mother, who had him when she was 18.
“And I just looked at them and I thought, well, you’re just children,” he recalled of his recent trip to Minnesota. “And I thought about my mother and how she ever managed that. It’s unbelievable.”
At one point, Obama did call on a young African American woman.
“It’s tempting for me to call on a young woman,” he said. “You know what….maybe she has a perspective that nobody else has.”
But by and large, the efforts, as well as Monday’s town hall, was focused on young men of color, who asked the president about his own path. Obama talked about the importance of setting goals, staying centered and not giving in to peer pressure.
“We’re social animals,” Obama said. “But I do think that as you get older part of what you have to determine is what’s important to you.”