Almost a year ago, President Obama announced that his administration would embark on an ambitious initiative he called “My Brother’s Keeper.” The intention was to get communities involved in the lives of young men, particularly those of color, to ensure their positive guidance from “cradle to college.” It was intended to foster support networks where none existed, direct them toward places where they could gain employable skill sets, and provide second chances.
Attorney General Eric Holder gave remarks recently in Washington regarding the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge. He said that he’d been traveling the country speaking to people about what boys needs are and how the program can help. Said Holder:
I have spoken with police officers, elected officials, and young people; with faith leaders, civil rights advocates, concerned citizens, and many others. I’ve often been moved by the stories they’ve shared. And I’ve been struck not only by the commonalities that have emerged – in terms of shared values, and the common desire for safer neighborhoods and reduced violence directed at law enforcement – but also by a consistent drumbeat of concern about the future.
Of course, the topic of interaction with law enforcement came up, given the high-profile incidents that dominated the news over the past several months.
But there are other issues that are worth addressing at the initiative moves forward. Here’s five that we may not have been paying attention to over the past few years that affect minority youth in our communities, but that we’d all like to see directives on from programs like My Brother’s Keeper, because the program is an excellent venue to have these conversations.
1. Anxiety and depression counseling. Months ago, I wrote about how depression can affect African American men in a more far-reaching way than many people understand. Lots of urban youth live in situations that are literally mentally depressing. In other words, if you live in the ‘hood, you may have to step over junkies, walk past crack houses, and walk an extra few blocks to avoid places where gang bangers hang out just to get to school. No doubt this has an effect on boys and girls who have to live like this. MBK should provide support behind programs that deal with the psychological problems that come from such scenarios.
2. Health and nutrition. At a community health fair in Brownsville, Brooklyn a few years ago, it was noticeable that young black males were the primary people coming in and getting their cholesterol screened, their blood pressure checked, stress tested, and tested for HIV/AIDS. The reason is that because they were uninsured (this was before Obamacare kicked in) and the only health care they typically received, if ever, was in emergency rooms. Later, some of the vendors told me many of the guys were actually in poor health and some were just ticks away from strokes and heart attacks. This was because where they lived, there were not many health maintenance options. Healthy food choices were there, but they were relatively scarce compared to the greasy fast food choices that existed on nearly every corner.
So, in order to direct young men “from cradle to college to career” MBK should begin to address the issue of educating young men about taking care of themselves, because the high numbers in diabetes, strokes, HIV/AIDS in poor urban communities is a deterrent to these objectives, particularly when families raise children on sugary, oily foods.
3. Gun violence. Speaking of health, statistic after statistic points out the biggest health problem among black and brown young men is bullet wounds. It’s high time that government flat-out recognize gun violence for what it is: a public health emergency. Frankly it’s insulting that the federal, state and municipal governments were planning out what to do if Ebola spread, but the same kind of urgency has yet to be given to kids who get wheeled into emergency rooms with their skins broken by street medallions. Perhaps the intent of MBK is not to deal directly with gun violence and it is a much broader topic, but if you talk to the kids affected by this, they will tell you that they worry about this much more than they do mentoring opportunities or graduating high school.
4. Women and girls. It’s not for me to correlate these two things, but I think back to the Melissa Alexander case, where she faced decades in jail because she had to deal with an abuser who bragged about putting his hands on women. Then I think about R. Kelly’s latest track, “Happy Birthday,” whose video features misogyny so extreme that it’s creative. What are young boys really being taught about girls? Are they being taught that they are commodities to exploit? Are they being taught that slapping a female is the solution to an argument? And if so, who is teaching them these lessons and are there enough men out there who are countering these messages?
What if MBK put its weight behind community programs that actually dealt with how black and brown boys and girls deal with each other, that send a message saying that we’re not enemies? Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of young men out there who would never put their hands on a woman, even one that was being violent with them. But getting boys on that level intended by MBK absolutely should address domestic violence in order to prevent the familial dysfunction that causes the problems it is trying to solve.
5. Environment. It’s not just global warming. Another piece I wrote about a few months ago was about AmaRece Davis, an 18-year-old that got involved with the Student Conservation Association in Pittsburgh. He wound up doing work in Sequoia National Park in California and working to make his hometown’s urban environment better for the people who live there. One of the things I learned from him was that it really can make a difference when youth get a chance to transform their environment from weeds to greenery. But it will take getting blacks involved in conservation projects in their neighborhoods and that means putting young black men to work actually cleaning up the world around them.
I’m not saying the ‘hood needs to look like Downton Abbey, but the Grandmaster Flash lyric “Broken glass, everywhere/People pissing on the stairs like they just don’t care/I can’t take the smell, I can’t take the noise/I got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice,” speaks to the environment young men live in and eventually look at as normal. So maybe MBK should look at how the very environments that youth have to live in and monitor what obstacles are created by it.
Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. He writes for NewsOne on the subject of Black males in America. Follow him on Twitter:@madisonjgray