From the White House to Alameda

Last week, President Obama announced the launch of My Brother’s Keeper, a new White House initiative to help empower boys and young men of color.

The announcement was momentous. In addition to establishing an interagency task force to accelerate best practices from the public and private sectors, the initiative brought together the country’s leading foundations to commit at least $200 million dollars over the next five years.

When the President addresses an issue so directly, it injects a new energy into the conversation – and the world takes notice. Fenton’s own Paul Hernandez was in attendance for the announcement, and says the excitement was thick in the air, “The room was buzzing. People saw it as something to be joyful about. There was a palpable sense of optimism.”

Hernandez, along with Eric Antebi, Jennifer Hahn, and others have been at the center of Fenton’s work with the organizations tapped by the White House. We’re honored to help our clients lead the fight to open the doors of opportunity for young men of color in this country.

With the announcement now out of the way, we shift to working with some of the foundations entrusted with carrying out the mission, including Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, California Endowment, The Open Society Foundations. They and the others involved are leaders in the field, having worked on these issues for years.

For the Fenton team, the White House announcement offered an opportunity to step back and reflect on what it means to do this type of work. As Hernandez sees it, it’s about more than simply turning the corner on statistics, as grim as they may be. It’s about changing the way we as a country view young black and brown men.

“I think the president said something we all have been feeling: there’s this acceptance that it’s okay for these young men to fail. It’s part of the normal way of doing things. When in fact, it’s a tragedy.”

The President’s stirring words promised hope for a group – Black and Latino boys – that account for almost half of the country’s murder victims each year. Fulfillment of that promise will not be easy. It will require tackling oppressive forces and working with institutional leaders like judges, superintendents, and police chiefs to change policy at all levels.

It will require targeted efforts to build opportunity. Eric Antebi, a veteran of this work, has seen firsthand what this can look like.  In Alameda County, California, EMS Corps, a grantee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is working to train young people to serve as EMTs in their communities. “EMS Corps works with young men who society tends to write off. But It turns out they have the perfect kind of experience for emergency medical service. It’s a great example of the potential that exists in every community. There are contributions that every single one of these young men can make,” he said.

All across the country, programs like EMS Corps in Alameda or Brotherhood/Sister Sol in New York will see a renewed commitment under My Brother’s Keeper. These are the organizations working to turn the tide. It will. As Antebi noted, “The kind of change we are seeking takes time. But change doesn’t happen at all without moments like this.”