U.S. President Barack Obama signs an executive memorandum regarding the My Brother's Keeper initiative, Feb. 27, 2014.
Win McNamee/Getty

Trymaine Lee answered your questions

Updated
By msnbc staff

National reporter for msnbc Trymaine Lee took reader questions about President Obama’s new “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative. Many of you responded on our site and across social media. You can read Trymaine’s responses below.

Reader questions were edited for typos but remain in their original format.

realanswers: I am grateful for the contributions received thus far for the “My brother’s keeper” program. Is there a list of contributors? It is important for us to know who is working towards a solution and those that are just for profit.

Trymaine LeeHey, realanswers. Good question. When the Obama administration first floated word of the president’s initiative, what was described was an ambitious yet very vague outline of a program with a shadow group of funders whose commitment, as one White House official told me, was “significant and growing.”

Word of the program was met by advocates of young men of color with tepid optimism. The major question many of them had was, would the initiative have teeth and how would it be implemented nationally?

I talked with a number of such advocates and leaders of community groups across the country, and the concern was that the resources and organization of the effort would not meet the great depth and breadth of the structural and institutional challenges facing young men of color.

Now, more is known about the initiative’s funders. And it’s a truly impressive group including some of the wealthiest philanthropists and philanthropic organizations in the country.

Here’s the list of “My Brother’s Keepers” 10 initial funders, listed by their financial assets, according to a recent report by the Foundation Center and other sources:

The Ford Foundation - $10,984,721,000
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation - $ 9,528,568,196
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation - $ 7,256,863,114
Bloomberg Philanthropies - $ 4,242,746,954
The California Endowment - $3,660,548,000
The Annie E. Casey Foundation - $2,666,068,266
The John and James L. Knight Foundation - $2,099,590,969
The Open Society Foundations - $1,007,665,737
The Atlantic Philanthropies – $2,500,000,000
The Kapor Center for Social Impact – N/A

These organizations are charitable behemoths to say the least. Sources say the California Endowment alone has pledged $50 million to the initiative. The president’s initiative has pulled these groups from their selective silos and seeded the ground for newfound cooperation in terms of funding, networks and other resources. Now, while these groups are the initial big-name funders, the White House says that efforts are also being made to get businesses and corporate leaders to also make financial and in-kind commitments to the initiative.

I hope this gets you in the right direction, realanswers!

Fred Orth (question has been condensed, full questions can be found here): I am starting to believe that work needs to be done on all sides of the race issue – white, black, brown, yellow. How do we get around to reducing the conversation to being inclusive and healing?

Can any government program generate the manpower, and will, to stay committed to working on this effort, and staying on it for beyond the forseeable future?

Trymaine LeeFred, I think this is a really important question that the nation will have to wrap its arms around if we have any hope of having any meaningful shift in the existing race and class paradigms in this country. From my vantage point as a journalist, I’m not sure I could give an objective answer for (or give proper justice to) the first part of your question. But I think the proverbial first step in this 1,000 mile journey toward equity in America would be for us to have as many open, honest conversations about the role that race and class play in the outcomes of our lives. That means, beyond just recounting America’s vile and troubling history of slavery, oppression and subjugation, we have to truly understand how the shadow of that history continues to warp our institutions, our perceptions of one another and, in so many ways, the fate of the country’s historically oppressed groups.

President Obama made reference to this idea in his speech last week during the launch event for “My Brother’s Keeper.

“The plain fact is there are some Americans who, in the aggregate, are consistently doing worse in our society – groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique ways that require unique solutions; groups who’ve seen fewer opportunities that have spanned generations. And by almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century in this country are boys and young men of color. 

“Now, to say this is not to deny the enormous strides we’ve made in closing the opportunity gaps that marred our history for so long. My presence is a testimony to that progress. Across this country, in government, in business, in our military, in communities in every state we see extraordinary examples of African American and Latino men who are standing tall and leading, and building businesses, and making our country stronger…. 

“So there are examples of extraordinary achievement. We all know that. We don’t need to stereotype and pretend that there’s only dysfunction out there. But 50 years after Dr. King talked about his dream for America’s children, the stubborn fact is that the life chances of the average black or brown child in this country lags behind by almost every measure, and is worse for boys and young men.”

The president and members of his administration said that the key to this new initiative goes well beyond the historical and emotional. It’s about examining empirical data on outcomes and intervening at critical moments. That goes beyond your question about creating inclusive dialogue around this issue, but it’s important. By stripping the conversation of some of the more emotionally taut historical narratives and focusing on the empirical, the administration can shape a new narrative where instead of looking at the failures of young black men as failures of their own, we see those failures as something the entire country has a stake in.

In helping these young men become “better husbands and fathers, and well-educated, hardworking, good citizens – then not only will they contribute to the growth and prosperity of this country, but they will pass on those lessons on to their children, on to their grandchildren, will start a different cycle. And this country will be richer and stronger for it for generations to come.”

Now, the second part of your question. A number of “My Brother’s Keeper” stakeholders have already formed an alliance called “The Executives’ Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color,” which members say plans on advocating for effective policy, systems changes and investing in young men as “assets of America’s future.” Alliance members told me that part of what the President has done is generate energy around a topic that they’ve been working on in various capacities for years and have more recently stepped up their efforts in. But the manpower aspect will largely be determined by this new network of funders and organizations on the ground working with young men of color. The funding organizations have a coordinated focus to evaluate what works and what doesn’t, and will lean heavily on community groups that have long had manpower, but not money. As an aside, for the first time, we’re getting a sense of what issues President Obama plans on focusing on after he leaves the White House. As top advisor Valerie Jarrett has said, the plight of young men of color is one that Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama care deeply about and plan on fighting for well after his presidency is over.

OKeithKeith: As a Black progressive I really appreciated President Obama talking about both sides of the issue in regards to the problems young Black and Latino men face in regards to his “My Brother’s Keeper” program. The President focused on both Policy AND Culture. Even though he didn’t say it in those words. Do you agree with the President’s tone and approach to this program?

Trymaine LeeHey, OKeithKeith. This is a biggie among black folks. The president has long been criticized for the manner in which he sometimes addresses black folks, be it members of the Congressional Black Caucus, church congregants or black college graduates. His oft-used, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps lines have often played as more of the kind of paternalistic rhetoric used by conservatives to deflect from the systemic and institutional inequalities that keep many people of color shackled to poverty and trapped in a cycle of academic failure and unemployment.

But when it comes to President Obama, I think he’s earnest in that the government can only do but so much to help level the playing field, and that the rest is up to individuals and their choices. That means, as he’s said time and again, that parents need to turn off the television and help their kids with their homework. Or making a conscious effort to ignore the so-called naysayers that might sow seeds of doubt.

Here’s a choice bit from Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” speech:

“We can help give every child access to quality preschool and help them start learning from an early age, but we can’t replace the power of a parent who’s reading to that child. We can reform our criminal justice system to ensure that it’s not infected with bias, but nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life.”

There’s no denying the impact that a stable family life could have on a young person’s life. Solid, accountable role models are important. Free will is a tool that could be wielded like a sword to cut through the tentacles of a society that seems more than comfortable with maintaining the status quo and keeping the less-fortunate in their place. But the boot-strap talk too often is used as a smokescreen. If we blame the victim for his or her own lot in life, that lessens the burden of anyone to have to actually do ANYTHING to remedy those circumstances. And in America, that means you don’t have to look at the disparate impact on zero-tolerance policies, aggressive policing of poor communities, or bad education policies that graduate young people of color with elementary school reading skills.

With all of that said, I do think the knee-jerk reaction to the very notion of personal responsibility does little to give anyone the hope that they actually can take charge of their own life and make positive choices with it. President Obama in this instance struck a pretty strong and balanced tone that was important politically but also for the group of young men who joined him on stage during the initiative’s launch event. These young men, part of a group from a high school on the South Side of Chicago called “Becoming A Man,” have learned how to improve their lives by making good choices. They’re learning to respect themselves, their communities and women. They’ve learned to set goals and stick with them and to work toward the kinds of futures that they want for themselves. That has nothing to do with a government program and everything to do with adults who care about them and strength that many of them never knew they had.

Joe Miller: I am thrilled with the idea of the initiative. In terms of his tone, I personally thought he was a tad soft on the importance of the culture change aspect, but it won’t be his last speech on the topic.

Trymaine LeeHey Joe, see my response above to OKeithKeith and to Fred Orth. The president and the administration have been careful and pointed. Instead of wading too far into the minefield of cultural change, they’ve focused instead on the naked data around outcomes and evidence based results. Now, when you say “culture change,” it really depends on what you’re referring to as culture. Are you talking about the part of our culture that, as Obama said, has become numb to the dire statistics of poverty, unemployment and violence that many face? The one that takes those outcomes as the norm and “an inevitable part of American life?”

“We just assume, of course, it’s going to be like that. But these statistics should break our hearts. And they should compel us to act,” Obama said of the culture around acceptance of black and brown suffering.

Or are you talking about culture change as Fox News host Bill O’Reilly sees it? During an interview with top White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, O’Reilly said that “gangster rappers” like Jay-Z and Kanye West (O’Reilly really needs to step his pop-culture game up. Kanye and Jay are gangster rappers? Since when?) need to “knock it off.”

Knock what off, I’m not sure. But O’Reilly at least seems to think that instead of the president first focusing on keeping young minority men in school and out of jail, Obama first needs to handle the millionaire musical outliers “with the hats on backwards and the terrible rap lyrics with the drugs and all of that.”

Either way, second-term Obama has taken steps to address the thorny issue of race in a way we hadn’t seen during his first term. Perhaps he’ll take further steps down the road to elaborate on the kinds of culture change needed to right the skewed racial dynamics in this country.

@JoeHilgerman: Do we have a written matrix (site address) of benchmarks and accomplishments to be expected from President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative after 30, or 60, or 90 days, or even years from now?

Trymaine LeeHey, @JoeHilgrman. Still very early in the game. But here’s what we know now. The funders of the initiative will spend the next 90 days developing a strategy on how to best direct resources, infrastructure and coordinate investments across the country.

We should have better ideas of the nuts and bolts, benchmarks, etc. after this initial three month period. But, here are two useful links. The first is to the White House’s page on the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative. The second is to the website of the Executive Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color, a group of 29 foundations dedicated to expanding opportunities for young men. Many of the members of the alliance are also among the initial funders for the president’s initiative. This is a pretty good resource to get a sense of what the missions are for each of these groups in context of the Obama efforts.

Mzparkerwrites: If we can agree that criminal justice, and even school punishment, for boys of color is different/harsher than it is for others, what advice should we give our nephews and sons that will help them avoid being singled out in school and in the community and put in contact with law enforcement?

Trymaine LeeHey, Mzparkerwrites! Wow. Let’s talk out of school for just a bit. If I could answer this question I’d quit my job as a journalist and take to the streets of every community in America with a megaphone and a truck full of instructional DVDs.

In a former life I was a black teenager who wore baggy jeans and (gasp!) hoodies and listened to loud rap music. I got into fistfights and was suspended from school on a number of occasions. There were other risky behaviors I dare not mention on this respectable news site. And I’m thankful every single day that I avoided the most tragic circumstances that some of my brothers and sisters have faced.

I relate with President Obama when he told a group of Chicago boys that he grew up with many of the same tough experiences that they had, but that his environment “was a little bit more forgiving.”

What I personally tell young men and boys is to take your future so seriously that you’ll guard it closely. There are too many forces willing and able to snatch it from you— don’t play a role in their success. Unless you need their help or want to become one, stay as far away as possible from law enforcement. The criminal justice system is often not your friend. Once you’re in it, you’ll be marked forever. Profiling, stop-and-frisk and over-zealous policing of our communities are all out of your hand. Sadly, by virtue of the way you look, the way you talk, the clothes you wear and even the neighborhood in which you live, you can become a target.

What you can do is build up insurance for yourself— try your hardest to get the best grades you can to give yourself as many college options as possible. Knowledge is power. Know your rights. Fight for them in big and small ways. Think first. Always think first (see above about involvement in the criminal justice system and enemies ready to snatch your future).

I hope that is of some help, Mzparkerwrites.

Donta C: How old is too young or too old for this initiative? I’m a 23-year-old graduate student and I wonder, does this new initiative include me as well?

Trymaine LeeHey, Donta C. Via the initiative, funding partners will be bolstering programs across the country. After 90 days we should have a clearer picture in terms of programming. Perhaps there will be a program that you could take advantage of. Let me offer congratulations. Sounds like you’re well on track and have already crossed academic rivers so many others have not. Good luck. 

 

Melissa Harris-Perry, 3/1/14, 12:51 PM ET

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Trymaine Lee answered your questions

Updated