Obama launches ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ to help young minority men

Liz Goodwin, Yahoo News
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President Barack Obama greets Father's Day luncheon guests including members of Youth Guidance’s Becoming a Man (B.A.M.) program, in the State Dining Room of the White House, June 14, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President Barack Obama will announce a $200 million commitment from nine foundations on Thursday afternoon to bolster the lives of young men and boys of color.

The funding is part of a larger initiative from the White House to bring private businesses, nonprofits and local governments together to intervene in key moments in the lives of young black and Hispanic men to ensure they stay in school and eventually train for and get good jobs.

As Yahoo News first reported, the cause will be a major focus of Obama’s — and the first lady’s — even after he leaves office. "It’s something that's deeply personal to the president and first lady,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president and the Obamas’ closest friend from Chicago. “I’m sure their commitment to this initiative will be a lifelong commitment. This is not something they simply want to do while he’s in office — it will continue.”

The president personally ordered his senior staff to come up with this new “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative in the wake of the shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin two years ago. Obama — who was criticized by civil rights leaders for avoiding race-based initiatives and conversations while in office — was deeply moved by Martin’s death, and he tasked his staff with creating a holistic, research-based approach to helping young minority boys succeed and avoid violence.

The president will create a new interagency My Brother’s Keeper Task Force headed by Broderick Johnson, the Cabinet secretary and assistant to the president. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Attorney General Eric Holder, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and other senior officials will be personally involved in “My Brother’s Keeper,” according to Jarrett.

Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City who started and funded an initiative in the city aimed at young black men, will join the president for the 3:45 p.m. announcement of the program at the White House on Thursday, along with business leaders including former NBA star Magic Johnson. The White House initiative is in part modeled on Bloomberg’s and seeks to intervene in the lives of boys at key points: by providing prekindergarten education, lifting third-grade reading proficiency, leading schools away from “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies that kick misbehaving students out of school, and persuading businesses to train and hire young men of color.

It’s still unclear just how broad the initiative will be beyond the $200 million nonprofit investment. Jarrett told reporters on Wednesday that the White House is still signing on private businesses and does not have a final number for how much they have committed to “My Brother’s Keeper.” The White House hopes corporations will pledge to mentor and hire young minority men.

And some of the foundations that are involved in the effort were already planning on making investments in young minority men before the White House got involved. Robert Ross, the CEO of the California Endowment nonprofit, said his organization had already pledged $50 million over seven years for its “sons and brothers” program, which aims to reduce school absences and suspensions among young black children and boost their third-grade reading proficiency levels.

But Ross said that having the president involved in the issue will be “a huge injection of rocket fuel” for the cause. The president’s use of the bully pulpit could be a game changer for Ross and others who work in this space, he said.

Ross met with the president and other foundation leaders in November to talk about the plan. Obama told them that he was personally inspired by Martin’s death to improve the lives of young men of color.

“There really was something spiritual and personal for him about what is happening to young men in this country, and he really wanted to do something real about it,” Ross said. “I certainly felt energized by that.”

Young black men persistently lag behind other groups in high school graduation rates and employment, and, as White House officials point out, they are six times more likely than their white peers to be murdered.

"My Brother's Keeper" is one part of Obama's larger plan to tackle issues facing the African-American community in his second term, the president told civil rights leaders in a meeting last week. Obama will also push Congress to restore the part of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court last term and to pass a law banning racial profiling by law enforcement. The Justice Department is also pushing through criminal justice reforms without Congress' help, such as urging prosecutors not to use mandatory minimums against nonviolent drug offenders and encouraging prisoners sentenced under old, racially discriminatory crack laws to apply for a new clemency program.

“He’s committed to being more aggressive,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was in the meeting. 

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