Young men of color represent a critical and growing generation of Americans. Yet they are a group at risk of falling short of their potential, living less healthy lives and failing to build and strengthen their communities. This country will be all the poorer if that happens.

Children wear hoodies and bow their heads in prayer as Marvin Ellison of Divine Ministry delivers a prayer by megaphone in Racine, Wis., during March’s “One Thousand Hoodies March for Trayvon Martin.” Martin, a Florida teenager, was wearing a hoodie when he was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer. (Scott Anderson/Racine, Wis., Journal Times via AP)

While all young people need support on the road to becoming healthy, productive adults, it’s especially true for teenage boys. Growing up often involves risk-taking and experimentation, as they define their masculinity and exert independence. The data show that for young men of color, actions that would be treated as youthful mistakes by others are punished far more severely. Black boys, for instance, are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than white boys. Helping them and other young men of color navigate the teen years successfully is key to helping them reach their potential.

Last month, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation convened more than 100 thought leaders, community activists, scholars and funders to begin a conversation on how to support young men of color and identify the most promising paths to a better future. During the conference, we heard about work being done across the country, with sometimes wrenching and frequently inspiring stories told about the young men at their center.

In the Philadelphia public schools, for example, introducing innovative “career academies” boosted graduation rates significantly. In Baltimore, school suspensions were cut by 60 percent by moving away from harsh disciplinary procedures to more effective approaches to curbing disruptive classroom behavior.

Momentum is building thanks to the aid of some influential people. I’m impressed by efforts such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s involvement in connecting young black and Latino men to educational, mentoring and employment opportunities across city agencies. California State Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez established a special committee on boys and men of color and has been holding hearings statewide to consider new or expanded programs.

For its part, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is committing $9.5­­ million over three years to Forward Promise, an initiative to promote opportunities for the health and success of young men of color in high school and even middle school. This focus reflects the foundation’s belief that improving health requires improving the social and economic factors that heavily influence how health is shaped. Where we live, learn, work and play makes a tremendous difference on our well being. But in each area, young men of color often have limited positive options. Education and jobs are a particular concern, with the unemployment rate for black youth at almost 40 percent — far higher than that of white youth, according to federal statistics.

The foundation soon is set to release a series of briefs identifying the policies and practices that can change the odds. It also plans to issue a call for proposals for Forward Promise. Grants will support community projects that can help current and future generations grow up healthy, obtain a good education and find meaningful employment.

I left the conference feeling encouraged and energized. I am inspired by the work that is already changing lives. I feel a responsibility to be part of the solution for our sons, brothers, nephews and future husbands. In fact, we all should be committed to opening new doors to health and opportunity for young men of color.

Maisha Simmons, is a program officer with the Vulnerable Populations Team at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where she is responsible for coordinating the strategy focused on improving health outcomes for young men and boys.