A student at Urban Prep Academy for Young Men in Englewood, Illinois.
Carlos Javier Ortiz/Redux

Obama kicks off outreach to young men of color

Updated

President Obama launched his boldest efforts yet to remedy the dismal plight of young minority men and boys on Thursday, delivering a very personal message in which he urged Americans of all races and political affiliations to help create stronger pathways to success for this historically marginalized group.

“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 opportunity that have spanned generations,” Obama said during an event to launch his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative. “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 men of color.”

“We’ve become numb to the statistics. We’re not surprised by them, we take them as the norm. We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life instead of the outrage that it is,” he said, reciting a litany of disparities in academic success and incarceration for young minority men.

Obama’s remarks on Thursday were at once personal, relating his own experiences as a young man of color being raised by a single mother, who didn’t know his father, didn’t always take school seriously and experimented with drugs.

“I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short,” Obama said.

“I repeat my story now because I firmly believe every child deserves the same chances that I had and that’s why we’re here today to do what we can in this year of action to give more young Americans the support they need ot make good choices, overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams.”

While the president has been chided in the past for his avoidance of taking racial issues head on, he proved again to be his most resonate when speaking openly and honestly about his own life experience. His remarks were at once personal and pointed, weaving in the kind of bootstrap responsibility that he often uses when addressing young black men and their lot in life (and been criticized for). 

He urged young minority men to drop the excuses and not allow naysayers to dash their confidence. And parents to turn off the television and spend more time helping their kids with their homework.

Among the young men standing with the president were members of a group called “Becoming a Man,” whom Obama met during a trip to a Chicago high school last year. During that trip Obama opened up about his own struggles growing up, saying that his experience differed only in that he grew up in a more forgiving community. 

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In the months after his meeting with the young men of “Becoming a Man,” the president set out to take action. He used his power to convene to pull together philanthropists, business leaders and community groups to pledge their support in resources to help knock down key barriers in between young men of color and greater successes.

A slew of major philanthropic foundations—including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Atlantic Philanthropies, The California Endowment, The Ford Foundation, The John and James L. Knight Foundation, The Open Society Foundations, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The W.K. Kellogg Foundation and The Kapor Center for Social Impact— have already invested $150 million in support of the initiative. Over the next five years, these foundations will seek to invest another $200 million along with additional investments the group hopes to secure from other philanthropists and businesses.

“None of this is going to be easy. It’s not a one-year proposition. It’s not a two year-proposition. It’s going to take time,” Obama said. “We’re dealing with complicated issue that run deep in our history, run deep in our society and are entrenched in our mines.”

Related: Reporter Trymaine Lee takes your questions

Over the next three months, the foundations will work with the administration to coordinate these investments.

Shawn Dove, manager of The Open Society Foundation’s Campaign for Black Male Achievement, said Thursday’s launch was significant and historic.

“I think it’s a significant day in the history of America, that a standing president would make a stand and manifest his mantra, opportunity for all, specifically in lifting up black men and boys. When we look at the history of this country and the history specifically of black men and boys in America, it certainly is a historic day,” Dove said.

The funding, Dove admits, will not undo or reverse immediately a dismal state that has been centuries of institutional racism and oppression in the making, but continues to sew the seeds of sustainability for such efforts.

“This is a significant leap in getting unlikely partners involved on this issue, and the ability of the president from his platform to say, this is a national domestic priority. What it also does is take this issue out of the blocks of this being a black American problem, and puts it in the framing of, we can’t succeed as a country if a large portion of our population is marginalized and doesn’t have access to opportunities,” he said.

The 10 initial funders of the initiative, in an open letter signed by the group, said “It is in the nation’s best interest to remove the hurdles that prevent so many of our promising young people from becoming productive members of society.”

“Our country cannot afford for them to fail,” the letter continued.

Many of the initial 10 funders— billionaire former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group, Bloomberg Philanthropies joined this week— have for years been working with young minority men in various capacities. But “My Brother’s Keeper” has galvanized these philanthropic organizations, some of most powerful and in the nation, around a common cause.

The groups have committed to each other and the administration to share financial resources, best practices and social capital, as well as their vast networks of thought leaders, researchers and community leaders on the ground.

“The easy path is to say in your silo,” said Dr. Robert Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, one of the funders. “What we’ve done is recognize the problem and we said, let’s get more intentional about learning and sharing, particularly about what works and what doesn’t work and lets get intentional about lifting that up.”

White House adviser Valarie Jarrett said an effort to reach young men and boys of color is one that is deeply personal to the president and first lady Michelle Obama, one that the president will likely carry once his presidency is over.

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“This initiative is one that the president has been closely involved in with every step along the way,” Jarrett said during a conference call on Wednesday evening. 

Jarrett said the plight of young men of color is one that is particularly important to the president.

“The president personally identifies with many of the challenges these young men face as a man of color himself, whose life was not always on the right track,” Jarrett said.

The shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 and the acquittal last summer of his killer, George Zimmerman, who claimed he shot the teen in self-defense, played a pivotal role in shaping Obama’s approach to race in his second-term.

Amid national protests and anger following Zimmerman’s acquittal, Obama spoke openly and eloquently of the travails of being young and black in America, asking if more could be done to give black boys a sense that “their country cares about them and values them.”

Among the guests at Thursday’s launch event were Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s parents. Also in attendance were Ron Davis and Lucia McBath, the parents of Jordan Davis, a black teenager shot to death by a white gunmen after a dispute over loud music at a Florida gas station.

The launch of “My Brother’s Keeper” comes a day after the second anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death. 

“In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin verdict, I spoke about the need to bolster and reinforce our young men and give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them,” Obama said. ”I’m grateful to that Trayvon’s parents are here with us today and Jordan Davis’ parents, Lucy and Ron.”

Before stepping from the lectern, Obama said that while it’s everyone’s responsibility to help young men of color succeed, the ultimate responsibility falls on their own shoulders.

“Addressing these issues will have to be a two-way bargain. Because no matter how much the community pitches in, it’s gonna be up to these young men standing on stage and all those out there watching to seize responsibility for their lives,” Obama said.

“Part of my message is no excuses. Government and the private sector and the faith community, we all have a responsibility to provide tools - you got to get beyond the barriers, you’ve got responsibilities too,” he said. “Everybody has to work hard, but i know you guys can succeed.”

(Join Trymaine Lee for a Q&A on this topic . He’ll be accepting questions through Saturday, March 1 at 12 p.m. EST. Get started here. )

Obama kicks off outreach to young men of color

Updated