Nonprofits Join Forces to Give Black Men a Brighter Future

This piece originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on December 9, 2013. 

Foundations Join Forces to Give Black Men a Brighter Future 2

Chris Casaburi, for The Chronicle

During the past decade or so, Shawn Dove has all too regularly become dismayed as foundation-led efforts aimed at young black and Hispanic males have come and gone—even as those groups have faced ever-worsening troubles.

“We’ve seen foundations duck into this issue for a few years and then duck back out,” says Mr. Dove, manager of the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement.

That situation may be changing. In the last two years, he notes, a handful of foundations have stepped up efforts to help a population increasingly beset by a slew of interconnected problems, including disproportionate rates of poor health, inadequate education, high unemployment, and incarceration.

Spurred on by pressing need and new research, several foundations have announced major programs that seek to brighten the future of young African-American and Hispanic males.

Among the highlights:

  • Sons & Brothers, a $50-million, seven-year commitment by the California Endowment, announced in October. The effort seeks to foster partnerships between schools and community organizations, identify early-warning signs that diminish education and prospects for minority boys, and advocate for policies to help keep those boys in school.
  • Forward Promise, a $9.5-million program announced last year by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to improve the health of young minority males.
  • The Young Men’s Initiative, a three-year, public-private partnership led by the City of New York to help minority males there escape a cycle of dysfunction. It works to reform the city’s juvenile-justice and parole systems, find alternatives to imprisonment, link boys to mentors, and reduce unemployment. In addition to $67.5-million in city money, the effort has drawn grants totaling $30-million each from both the Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Open Society Foundations.

And more philanthropic support may soon be directed toward the cause.

At last April’s Council on Foundations conference, 27 grant makers—including such large ones as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation—formed an alliance to improve the lives of young minority males. The alliance plans to meet again early next year to discuss its initial moves.

The cooperative effort presents a rare opportunity for change, says Robert Ross, president of the California Endowment, which is part of the as-yet-unnamed alliance.

“We’ve never seen a sustained critical mass like this before,” he says. “There’s an idea we should be matching our grant making to evidence that shows there are many ways we can help boys of color.”

Growing Need
Mr. Ross and others say that several factors are forcing foundations, governments, and school systems to search for new ways to meet the needs of minority males.

Chief among them: The problems, such as incarceration rates, are getting worse and more expensive for cities and states to handle.

“The crisis narrative is different now. We’ve seen the need increase,” says Trabian Shorters, founder of BMe, a group supported by more than $3-million in grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which announced the program two years ago.

BMe identifies young black men who are working to improve their rundown neighborhoods and attempts to create a network among them to work for change.

Increased momentum in the movement may be driven in part by the fact that several big foundations now have leaders or other key executives who are minority and willing to champion the cause of minority males. Mr. Ross is African-American. The CEOs of Kellogg and Robert Wood Johnson are black women.

“In philanthropy, it’s like the Jackie Robinson era,” says Mr. Shorters, a former Knight foundation program director. “Those people are calling for more attention to this, maybe because they are seeing these problems play out in their own families.”

New Solutions
There’s also plenty of opportunity for more grant making now to help young minority males, say those who run organizations that serve them.

For instance, from 2003 to 2010, only a sliver of all foundation support—$141-million, or 0.1 percent—went to programs explicitly designed to help black males of all ages, according to a Foundation Center survey of grant makers conducted last year.

Grant makers’ past commitment to the cause has simply been inadequate, says Mr. Dove: “You need a Marshall Plan-like response to deal with all this,” he says. “You have to work locally but have a nationwide response to make it all work.”

But along with a heightened recognition by foundations of a need for more program money is a growing body of research that points to new and promising solutions for some of the problems that plague minority males. Such data suggest that the money philanthropy spends now will have greater impact than in the past, say grant makers.

“Research tells us that there are inexpensive strategies that keep kids in school, hold them accountable, and improve the school environment,” says Mr. Ross.

Quiet Time
The findings point to what education experts have been saying for years: Intervention needs to happen early to ensure that all children can read by the third grade, because students who can are four times more likely to complete high school. (More than 80 percent of black and Hispanic boys from low-income households can’t read proficiently by the end of third grade, says a study by Casey.)

Science has also produced new evidence of the physiological impact that chronic stress has on the growing brain, Mr. Ross says. Boys raised in impoverished, violent homes or neighborhoods or who suffer sexual abuse, have a parent in jail, or live in homes with people who abuse drugs or alcohol are more likely to act out because of brain changes wrought by stress. Such children are more likely to withdraw or become bullies.

“Toxic stress, especially among boys, has led to a behavioral epidemic in schools, where they’re being suspended hand over fist,” Mr. Ross notes. Research has also pointed to some solutions, he says: Students who are encouraged to take “quiet time” at the beginning and end of school have lower suspension rates and better test scores than those who do not.

The California Endowment will spread its grant money among community and health groups in 14 areas of the state where minority boys are most at risk, including the Central Valley, South Central Los Angeles, and Long Beach. Those grants will be used to help local school officials identify the early signs of trouble in their students and to rework school-dismissal policies that disproportionately affect minority males.

A Mediation Approach
Another method grant makers, including the California Endowment, are betting on to keep black and Hispanic boys in school is known as restorative justice.

The approach solves problems through mediation in which the student accused of an offense, the victim, the school, and often the alleged perpetrator’s parents participate. The goal is to punish students for misbehavior without throwing them out of school.

A 2011 study by the University of California at Berkeley found that suspensions in the West Oakland school district declined by 87 percent when restorative-justice techniques were used.

Aided by a $500,000 grant from Robert Wood Johnson, the nonprofit Alternatives Inc. teaches restorative-justice practices to Chicago’s public-school teachers.

“People bring a truckload of problems into schools,” says Carmen Curet, the youth-development director of Alternatives. “But you can’t give up. You can’t kick half the boys out of school or keep them out of the labor market without creating even bigger problems.”

Her organization shows teachers ways to resolve conflicts without calling in school police officers. The result is reduced suspensions, expulsions—and arrests. The program, called the Safe Schools Consortium, gathers classmates and school officials to discuss conflicts and encourages teachers to treat students with respect before problems start.

The Alternatives program has shown some positive early results. Yet the organization knows that it must do more than help children stay in school. Restorative justice, for instance, is more effective when combined with substance-abuse counseling or mental-health treatment, says Ms. Curet.

“No one ingredient is the savior in all this,” she says. “It helps to offer comprehensive services.”

Long-Term Commitment
And therein lies a dilemma, say leaders of other organizations that serve young minority males: The people they are trying to reach need a variety of services, but grant makers usually attack only one element of a complex problem, such as health or education.

Even though a group of foundations with different grant-making missions can collaborate to deal with all the key issues, that rarely happens, says Khary Lazarre-White, executive director of the Brotherhood/SisterSol, an organization in New York’s Harlem area that offers an array of services to disadvantaged minority youths (including girls).

His group has received plaudits from foundations, including Kellogg and Open Society, for its youth-development programs, which includes international travel and a years-long “rites of passage” curriculum for troubled teenagers.

Even with renewed interest in the plight of young males of color, support remains too thin, Mr. Lazarre-White says. The Johnson foundation received 1,200 applications for Forward Promise, he notes, ultimately selecting 10 grantees that receive $500,000 for 30 months of program work.

“We can replicate what we do around the country, but we only receive the $500,000 we get from Robert Wood Johnson for this,” says Mr. Lazarre-White. The Brotherhood/SisterSol would need a commitment several times that of the Johnson grant to turn its New York-based programs into national ones, he adds. Even though his group has also enjoyed support from the Ford, Kellogg, and the Nathan Cummings foundations, among others, he says, “there are too few foundations that see this as a partnership between them and organizations that do good work.”

Real change for minorities, he says, takes a longer commitment and broader vision than he’s seen so far from the current wave of giving.

“You won’t solve poverty or inequality within three years, yet many programs don’t last longer than that,” says Mr. Lazarre-White. “And you’re not going to solve the problems of this population by focusing on one age group,” as the Young Men’s Initiative does.

For their part, foundation leaders say they now understand the depth and complexity of the problem and are ready to hone strategies and programs to make a national impact, in part through the newly created alliance of grant makers.

“We’re starting to pick up the drumbeat,” says Maisha Simmons, a program officer at the Johnson foundation. “The resources of philanthropy alone won’t change this. But if we use our money and time wisely, we can shift the national conversation.”

Jamaica Gilmer

Foundations That Support Young Black and Hispanic Men
Open Society Foundations: $55.5-million

The Campaign for Black Male Achievement, begun in 2008, seeks to help African-American men improve their economic and educational status and encourage their full participation in politics and civic affairs.

Among its grants: $70,000 fellowship to Jen Porter and Jane Wilson to support their Reset Foundation, which helps incarcerated men focus on education and prepare for life after prison

The California Endowment: $50-million

Sons & Brothers, a seven-year campaign, seeks to bolster the health and success of young minority males. No grants have yet been announced.

Bloomberg Philanthropies: $30-million

Young Men’s Initiative, a partnership with New York City and others to increase opportunities for young black men and Latino males in the New York area. The entire $30-million goes to that program. (The Open Society Foundations contributed an equal amount.)

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: $9.5-million

Forward Promise seeks to improve the health and success of minority adolescent boys and young men.

Among its grants: $500,000 over 30 months to Alternatives Inc. to build teacher and student leadership in Chicago schools

John S. and James L. Knight Foundation: $4.3-million

Black Male Engagement is an effort to get African-American men involved in solving problems in their communities.

Among its grants: $3.6-million to BMe to connect black men who are active in community service