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Black women stand up for 'My Brother's Keeper'

As a legion of critics call for President Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative to include girls, a prominent group of black women has stood up in support.
A boy sits on his front steps on August 20, 2013 in the Fairview neighborhood of Camden, New Jersey.
A boy sits on his front steps on Aug. 20, 2013 in Camden, N.J. The town of Camden, once a large industrial town , has been marred with societal problems including high unemployment, and violent crime.

The public debate surrounding President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative and whether or not the bold, privately funded endeavor aimed at bolstering the lives of boys of color should include girls, has been ratcheted-up by an ongoing letter-writing campaign by opposing forces of black men and women on either side of the issue.

The latest, sent to the president over the weekend by a group of prominent black women under the umbrella of the National Women Leadership Supporting My Brother’s Keeper, supports MBK as a means to fight the “very bleak statistics” facing African-American and Hispanic boys in particular.

This beleaguered group is routed through a cycle of poverty, academic failure and incarceration at a rate higher than every other group of Americans.

“The dire statistics pertaining to boys and young men of color suggests the need for a more targeted approach,” reads the letter, signed by three-dozen notable black women from across the country, most of whom are religious leaders. 

The signers include the likes of Melanie Campbell, chief executive of The Black Women’s Roundtable; Shirley Franklin, the former mayor of Atlanta; Chanelle Hardy, executive director of the National Urban League's Washington Bureau; and the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The letter is a counter-shot to a growing wave of critics who say the administration has used a myopic approach to solving a scourge of social problems that spread far beyond young men.

Last month, a group of 200 black men wrote a letter to the president arguing that the group of philanthropic organizations that have pledged $200 million to help at-risk boys had not fairly considered the plight of black and brown girls.

Just last week, another letter challenging the focus on males was sent, this time from a group of 1,000 women, including black academics and intellectuals like the author Alice Walker and lawyer Anita Hill.

The women wrote:

“The need to acknowledge the crisis facing boys should not come at the expense of addressing the stunted opportunities for girls who live in the same households, suffer in the same schools, and struggle to overcome a common history of limited opportunities caused by various forms of discrimination.”

The administration acted swiftly to counter the criticism.

In an exclusive interview with on June 18, White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett defended MBK, dismissed the arguments raised in the letter denouncing the efforts as logically flawed.

"I think the flaw in the logic is not understanding that this is not either/or, this is both/and,” Jarrett said. “The president’s approach is to create a society where nobody gets left behind, and right now are young boys of color are falling farther and farther behind than everybody.”

Jarrett is the chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls and recently co-hosted a White House summit on working families, efforts she said exemplify the administration’s efforts to aid women.

“Many of our initiatives have been designed to make sure that that cohort doesn’t fall behind,” she said, referring to women of color. “So for them we’ll add encouraging girls of color to go into STEM fields. It’s a big priority of ours, and that means that that begins with science and math courses, so what can we do to provide mentors to those young girls so they go into those fields.” 

MBK receives no funding from the federal government but has been fueled largely by data gathered by the departments of justice, education and labor. The initiative is President Obama’s boldest efforts to highlight the struggles of a demographic that suffers disproportionately in almost every measure of success. They are more likely to be victims are perpetrators of gun violence, and are more likely to drop out or be pushed out of school and by the third grade lag far behind their non-minority counterparts, subsequently losing ground that is rarely ever made up.

In officially launching the efforts in February, Obama asserted that helping this most vulnerable group was a moral imperative for America.

“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. “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.” 

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.

The announcement of the initiative was met almost immediately with as much criticism as praise, with some saying the rhetoric was much greater than the amount allocated to the cause, with $200 million a drop in a bucket in relation to the great systemic, social and institutional barriers facing many young men of color. There has also been concern that once Obama leaves office, so goes the initiative. White House officials say that helping young men of color is of great concern to the Obamas and a cause that will be central to their post-White House lives.

Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, wrote in The Root last week that the time for writing letters and op-eds is over. And that there are more effective ways to expand the reach of philanthropy into the lives of girls and young women of color. 

"My Brother’s Keeper will disappear as soon as President Obama leaves office. So in three years we will be back in the same place, maybe with a little money spent for some programs, but with no agenda," Kimbrough said, urging readers to "get to work."

"Let’s not write any more open letters, op-eds or tweets. Instead, write grants for studies on black girls and women, or to support existing programs like Black Girls Rock or Black Girls Code," he said. "Write black mayors, whom we never challenge on anything, and ask them to fund specific initiatives. Write plans for community action. We need to develop an agenda and act on it."

The signers of the most recent letter in support of the initiative applauded Obama’s previous efforts that would've helped women, including attempts to raise the minimum wage, the White House Council on Women and Girls and the signing of The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Thanking the president for that work, the letter said the group was equally concerned with “the special needs of at-risk boys and young men of color” and pledged its continued support.

They encouraged the president to continue to engage women of color leaders in the planning and implementation of the initiative, but concluded that “We believe that a successful “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative can result in stronger families, stronger fathers, stronger employees, stronger leaders; and ultimately, a stronger America.”