Obama’s Racial Justice Initiative, for Boys Only

Sometimes the ripple effect is immediate, asserts Michèle Stephenson, a producer and director of the documentary American Promise, which aired on PBS earlier this year. By Stephenson's estimate, the Open Society Foundations' Campaign for Black Male Achievement — another major player in MBK — gave $450,000 in grants and in-kind support for outreach campaigns for the film, which tells the story of how Stephenson's now-20-year-old son and his friend — who grow from black kindergartners to young men over the course of the movie — navigated New York City's tony and majority-white Dalton School. In the discussions after screenings, Stephenson says, she witnessed conversations relevant to black communities as a whole. When parents and educators discuss the film, "talking about boys just becomes a platform to talk about the larger issues" — such as educators' unconscious biases and the academic underperformance resulting from students' awareness of negative stereotypes — that affect both girls and boys. "How do we expand this discussion," Stephenson asks, "as opposed to promoting a critique that may not be constructive in the long run?"

Alvin Starks is a longtime progressive racial-justice strategist who has worked with major funders of programs addressing racial inequality. He was a program officer at the Open Society Foundations (OSF) in 2006, when The New York Times published a front-page story credited with inspiring the philanthropic focus that led to MBK. The article, headlined Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn, drew attention to the increase in incarceration rates throughout the 1990s and the persistent joblessness among black men. The piece marked a turning point for his colleagues, Starks said, but the approach seemed limited in scope to him even then. "The conversation wasn't about unions, it wasn't about globalization, it wasn't about a changing economy," he recalled. "Instead, the focus was on a person who couldn't gain access because he was ill-equipped. I wanted folks to have a different frame that was around a broken democracy, not a broken individual."

Starks is among the more than 200 black men who signed the AAPF letter on the shortcomings of My Brother's Keeper. In addition to overlooking girls and women of color, he says, MBK lacks a structural analysis of racial inequity. The initiative's emphasis on personal responsibility rather than institutional barriers enables billionaire stop-and-frisk defender Michael Bloomberg and Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly to endorse the effort. On Twitter, CNN commentator and educator Marc Lamont Hill took issue with MBK's singular focus on males — "I guess I don't concede that black women are in favorable position vis a vis black men" — but also questioned whether expanding the initiative was the best solution: "I have no desire to expand My Brother's Keeper, but to scrap it altogether in favor of more humane and democratic policy."

Starks ticked off a list of pressing issues — affirmative action, minimum wage, the earned-income tax credit — that he says have been ignored by many program officers now closely aligned with MBK. Meanwhile, he added, programs that promote responsible fatherhood or facilitate rites of passage are well-supported. The question that really motivates funders, Starks said, is: "How do we teach them how to, quote-unquote, man up?"

Sometimes the message to "man up" can be subtle, as it was during a session I attended at the College Bound Brotherhood event, where Tremeal Bradford, an admissions counselor at UCLA, addressed a group of young men. A native of Compton, Bradford transferred from Santa Monica College, a two-year school, to UCLA and graduated in 2009; he now works in the UCLA admissions office. When talking to the audience about time management, Bradford turned up the swagger, telling the young men — who were listening with rapt attention — that "time is the ultimate pimp. True leaders in life, they learn how to pimp time." Was the reference a youthful misstep — or did it go to the heart of critics' misgivings about what's being communicated in some gender-specific programs for boys and men of color?

When I talked to him later, Bradford said he hadn't meant any harm. "I look at pimping as taking full advantage of the resources available to you," he said. He insisted that his word choice, much like the references he makes to rap lyrics and pop culture, helps make him relatable to young people. The suit he wears can put up a barrier, he said, and he strives to be approachable.

The Brown Boi Project is not the typical grantee receiving funds for programs intended for boys and young men. The Oakland-based project, which receives financial support from OSF's Campaign for Black Male Achievement, encourages people of all gender identities, particularly those in communities of color, to challenge traditional understandings of masculinity. The organization facilitates "leadership circles" in which participants, primarily transgender men and women who identify as "masculine of center," talk about how they can express themselves outside the confines of gender norms. Though in the minority, straight cisgender boys and men are included, field director Erica Woodland tells me. In a Brown Boi circle, the use of a loaded word like "pimp" would raise conversation around its origins and meaning, Woodland adds: "If, to be relatable, you need to use language that reinforces violence against women, then that's a problem. Young people can relate to you when you're authentic, even if you're different."

Brown Boi is introducing its boundary-pushing thinking to organizations that receive funding for boys and men of color. In meetings with funders and grantees, Brown Boi consistently calls attention to the absence of gay, bi and transgender men from the conversation, Woodland says. This past school year, the group ran a program that explored bullying, gender identity and racial justice for boys at a middle school in East Oakland. One recent recipient of a Black Male Achievement fellowship, Kalimah Priforce, tells me that Brown Boi expanded his perspective; he will now prioritize the inclusion of transmasculine people as he plans an upcoming tech hackathon.

Joanne N. Smith, executive director of the Brooklyn-based youth development organization Girls for Gender Equity and another signer of the AAPF letter, agrees that gender-specific programming can work, but argues that it needs to happen alongside inclusive programs. "We've found a way to do it collectively here," she says. "We learned from early on that we have to work with the boys." Programs can be tailored for different groups of young people, she continues, but it's critical to "then also come together to have those collective community conversations."

When Smith was invited to a Washington, DC, convening of social-justice nonprofits tasked with drafting a statement of principles for an MBK report, recommendations she supported — such as addressing the needs of LGBTQ youth and boys who experience sexual assault — were left out. Instead, the report focused on six seemingly uncontroversial goals, such as getting more boys of color to read at the appropriate grade level. "When we read the report, [our contribution] was totally missing," Smith says. She's adamant that the calls for a different approach will continue until there's a meaningful response from MBK leadership: "There's no way we can allow this initiative to go on without a gender-inclusive lens."

    • Dani McClain
    • Dani McClain is an Oakland-based journalist covering reproductive rights and sexuality.

      She reported on education while on staff at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and covered breaking news for the Miami Herald's metro desk. Her writing has appeared in outlets including The Root, Loop21, AlterNet, On the Issues, and ...

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