President Barack Obama gestures while speaking in the East Room of the White House in Washington, on Feb. 27, 2014, to promote his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative.
Evan Vucci/AP

Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative takes crucial next step

When President Barack Obama unveiled My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative aimed at bolstering the lives of young men and boys of color, he called on his cabinet and an impressive roster of philanthropists and community groups to begin laying the foundation for his ambitious plan.

During an emotional speech at the White House, delivered before a backdrop of young black and Latino men from Obama’s hometown of Chicago, the president implored Americans of all colors to shake their complacency over the dire outcomes of minority men and help provide them pathways to success.

Obama assembled the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force and charged them with spending the next few months combing through data and best practices in preparation for a massive scaling-up of what’s been working across the country.

This morning, the task force released its first report to the president, in which they outline a broad set of guiding principles and recommendations. The recommendations include launching a national mentor-recruiting campaign, eliminating suspensions and expulsions of preschoolers, encouraging a culture of reading at home and growing youth summer programs and pre-apprenticeships.

Like much of the initiative to date, the report is somewhat scant on hard details, particularly around how organizations across the country will increase capacity and coordinate funding. But while the report lacks specifics, it continues to push an agenda never before taken by the White House: targeting a demographic whose social and academic outcomes are generally abysmal.  

Members of the task force spent 90 days meeting with various stakeholders across the country, reviewing statistics, researching government programs and hearing from thousands of community members and leaders.

The result is a 60-page report.

“We know what works,” Valarie Jarrett, a senior advisor to the president, said during a conference call Thursday. “The questions is how do we take what works to scale.”

According to the report, Task Force members focused much of their time and energy assessing programs and policies that “have the potential to enhance positive outcomes and eliminate or reduce negative ones.”

“Some of the proposals will begin a long process toward tearing down structural barriers,” reads the report. “But this report is just the beginning. The challenges described in this report will not vanish overnight.”

The initiative calls on filling the gaps for young men of color at critical times in their lives, including early education, when these boys often fall behind in literacy and math. The task force recommends universal access to high-quality early childhood care and education, saying, “pre-school for all is a vital component to the administration’s so-called ‘opportunity agenda.’” And later, as students prepare to graduate from high school, that students are college-ready. But even further, the task force suggests helping these young people through college with stronger college counselors and, after graduation, expanded access to mentorship programs and internships. It’s what the task force describes as a “cradle-to-college-and-career approach.”

“We simply can’t afford to waste the gifts and contributions of these young men and all they have to offer,” Jarrett said.

Celia Munoz, the White House Director of Domestic Policy, said collecting and analyzing empirical data around the issues affecting young minorities is critical in identifying ways to help close the myriad social, economic and opportunity gaps they suffer.   

“What we’re trying to do is make sure we are looking at what the data shows and producing data where we don’t have it so we know what the particular problems are,” she said.

Outside of education, the task force zeroed-in on social issues that disproportionately impact young minority men, including gun violence and engagement with the criminal justice system. It called for integrating approaches to violence as public health issues, the reforming of juvenile justice systems to promote alternatives to incarceration and eliminating “unnecessary boundaries to re-entry.”

Broderick Johnson, Obama’s cabinet secretary and chair of the task force, called the 90-day report “just a first step.”

“It’s not the end of the story by any means,” Johnson said, allowing the tough work of continuing to scale up the work of many organizations simultaneously. “We’re not Pollyanna about this at all,” he said. He added that through conversations with young men and boys from across the country, is that “these boys and young men of color want to be heard.”

Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative takes crucial next step