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How Obama is trying to lift up young men of color. A Q&A with Joshua Dubois.

(Pete Souza/The White House)

President Obama Thursday is unveiling a new initiative, called "A Brother's Keeper," that launches a new administration focus on young men of color. The initiative is in part an outgrowth of a series of intimate meetings Obama held with young black men from Chicago last year. I recently talked to Joshua DuBois, former director of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and an informal spiritual adviser to the president, about Obama's efforts in these areas. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Zachary Goldfarb: With the president’s remarks after the trial in the Trayvon Martin shooting and new initiatives, he seems to be focusing in his second term more on the issues facing young minorities. What do you make of this new focus?

Joshua DuBois: I think this is really a watershed moment to help a group of Americans who are an important part of our national fabric: boys and men of color. It’s a demographic that unfortunately our country hasn’t paid a tremendous amount of attention to. After the civil-rights movement, we sort of said to these men “figure it out,” without recognizing the unique challenges and barriers they face.

What I believe the president is saying with "My Brother’s Keeper" and other initiatives is that these boys and men matter just as much as any other American. And if they succeed, that’s something that will help all of us. It will help the entire country. That’s both a moral issue. It will help a group of people who many feel we have left behind, but it will also address a practical issue of, for the first time, tapping into the tremendous productive capacity of these boys.

In some ways, this is a culmination of a set of investments and interests from the president that started a long time ago. When I first started working for him in the Senate, he was a co-sponsor of a comprehensive fatherhood bill. Then when he moved into the White House, he kicked off the President’s Fatherhood and Mentoring initiative – sort of a White House-driven effort to support fatherhood and help kids who don’t have a dad in the home. I think the president has said after the Martin verdict, that that really posed some significant questions about our society’s posture toward boys and men of color. How do we treat this demographic of Americans? Do they have the tools they need to succeed? Can we do better? And the president thought we can do better, and it’s time to do something about it.

Z.G.: How are different parts of the administration responding in terms of policy to the needs of young minority men?

J.D.: I think "My Brother’s Keeper" provides an opportunity to ramp up and scale up some really powerful existing work across government. It first started with the Department of Justice. They have a significant program called the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention that kicked off in 2010. DoJ moves into cities and helps them develop training and strategies, working with law enforcement and mentoring organizations to respond to youth violence at the local level. It also kicked off a little known initiative called the Youth Law Enforcement Training Project. It helps police officers improve attitudes toward youth, and so the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention works with police departments to better engage youth.

At the Department of Education, there’s some good work going on. There’s a recent announcement that’s important on school discipline. A lot of times, unfortunately, when these young men confront behavioral challenges in schools, the knee-jerk response is to move them toward suspension or expulsion instead of really understanding what challenges they’re facing and helping them with their problems. So the Department of Education working with the Department of Justice sent out some major guidance to school districts around the country on how they can improve school discipline practices to make sure they’re fair and to make sure they’re not discriminating to boys and men of color, and to make sure schools are a safe environment, while at the same time trying to keep kids in the classroom as much as possible.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, the centerpiece program there is the Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood grant program that helps fathers get connected to employment, get trained for jobs, sometimes using subsidized employers to get them into the workforce pipeline. It also helps on the relationship side, so fathers are receiving support to figure out how to work through problems and engage with their kids.

A really important piece at HHS is the work on child support enforcement. A significant majority of young men in the population that folks are trying to address with these initiatives are connected to the child support system. They may have been separated from their partners and owe child support. In the past, the child support system was enforcement only. You have to pay up, but we’re not going to help you figure out a job so you can pay up.

The agency is working to develop a more comprehensive and holistic way to support child support, so dads are connected to job training and have employment opportunities, counseling and other resources. That’s better for moms and kids, and it’s better for these dads as well.

Z.G.: Are these initiatives organically growing by themselves or were they driven by the White House specifically?

J.D.: I would say they were definitely spurred by the White House, although agencies were doing some good work in this space already.

When the president came in and kicked off the fatherhood initiative, agencies got the strong signal that issues related to boys and young men of color are issues they should be paying attention to.

Z.G.: What are the biggest challenges in implementing programs that target a specific population - either political or substantive?

J.D.: I would say one challenge is just encouraging the idea that these are all of our kids. This is not an issue that just impacts the African-American community or just impacts the Hispanic community. When a significant group of Americans that we see in our schools, on our streets, in our after-school programs, when they're facing challenges and when they're being left behind, that's something that should concern our entire country. I think one of the real challenges and opportunities is how can we widen the circle of concern? How can we get our allies and partners at the table who are not just those who have a direct stake in the issue because it's their son or their brother or they themselves, but folks who realize that these Americans are as worthy of support and care as anyone else. That's a real challenge.

Z.G.: Some people in the African-American community have come out and criticized President Obama. They say that though there are these many disparate programs, he hasn't done enough as the first African-American president to really make it a national emphasis in a big way. How do people in the White House respond to that criticism?

J.D.: My personal view is that I think folks need to pay a little bit more attention to what the president has done. In the context of one of the most significant economic challenges of our generation, in the context of seeking to pass and implement the health-care bill, and getting us out of Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan, he still kicked off a Fatherhood Initiative. He still gave a speech at Morehouse College. He still went to the White House briefing room and spoke passionately from the heart about Trayvon Martin. And now he's kicking off probably the most significant program in a generation to address young men of color.

Candidly, as an outside observer at this point, I'm not sure what else would be expected of the president because, to me, he has created a pretty significant set of supports here and done a historic job engaging this community.

And it is not just him. Every time I look up, Attorney General Eric Holder is taking another step to advance responsible criminal justice policy. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is doing important work at the Department of Education. And so folks need to a pay a little bit more attention what the president has done and then make assessments about what he hasn't done.

Z.G.: When the president talks to young minority men, he likes to say, "If I can do, you can do it," but he also explains he didn't grow up in an urban area where the costs of a mistake are very high. He grew up in an area where he could be forgiven, and he wouldn't pay the same price if he made a mistake. How does the president think about that dynamic?

J.D.: I think in some ways that's indicative of the diversity of experiences among boys and men of color. There isn't just one experience. These stories are not simple. They're complicated. The president of the United States was on food stamps at one point, but his grandparents stepped in and supported him as much as they could. These stories of all of these kids have a lot of nuance to them. I do think the president would acknowledge that some young people are facing many more significant challenges than most of us are facing. And part of the "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, as I understand it, is to make sure those kids are not being left behind. We're really reaching into the communities and into the schools where these young people are the most challenged and trying to help them succeed.

In general, I would say that's really the story of black and brown men in America. They're not all in the school with no life and no running water and in a gang, but it's also not they're all going to Exeter with a full scholarship. A lot of them are somewhere in between, with real tough stuff while having a lot of hope and opportunity at the same time.