Summer/Fall 2014

My Brother’s Keeper: Update from the White House featuring Broderick Johnson, Assistant to the President and Cabinet Secretary, and Chair of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force

An Interview with Representative Mike Shelton (OK), Chair, NBCSL Youth Policy Committee is a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.  He was first elected to the chamber in 2004 and serves as the Assistant Minority Floor Leader.  Shelton earned his B.S. in Economics from Langston University.  His professional experience includes working as District Executive Director for the Boy Scouts of America, Director of Community Relations for Langston University, and Director of Community Relations for Oklahoma County.
My Brother’s Keeper: Update from the White House featuring Broderick Johnson, Assistant to the President and Cabinet Secretary, and Chair of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force
About My Brother’s Keeper

On February 27, President Barack Obama officially launched My Brother’s Keeper (MBK), an initiative dedicated to improving outcomes for boys and young men of color in the United States. The President’s announcement coincided with an official Presidential Memorandum establishing the creation of a My Brother’s Keeper Task Force. On May 28, the task force released an initial report of finding and recommendations, and has since been working with national partners to identify new areas and methods to carry on the President’s priorities under My Brother’s Keeper.

Q: How did My Brother’s Keeper come about and what is its ultimate goal?

A: The President looked at a number of situations over time, including the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and its aftermath, as well as statistical disparities and severe life outcomes for many boys and young men of color.

For the President, it was a matter of using both the bully pulpit and his power as President while in office to systematically address important milestones affecting all children. Second, what can we do to improve fortunes with respect to boys and young men of color, not just now but into the future?

Q: What did President Obama draw from his experience as a member of the Illinois State Legislature as he developed My Brother’s Keeper?

A: Throughout President Obama’s life, and going back to when he was a community organizer in Chicago, he has certainly been concerned about what happens in communities across the country, especially urban communities. As a state legislator, Senator Obama worked on numerous initiatives related to the goals of My Brother’s Keeper (before such an entity had been envisioned).  For example, strengthening early stages of life, supporting education, and even addressing issues related to racial profiling. The President’s experiences in the Illinois State Legislature enabled him to appreciate the impact public policy can have.

Q: What role can state legislators play in advancing the priorities of My Brother’s Keeper?

A: The recommendations can be implemented through public policy, not just at the federal level, but also at state and local levels. For example, ending preschool suspensions is not a matter of federal policy, so to speak. But, we are urging and providing technical assistance to help state legislators, city councils, and local boards of education implement the changes that we recommend in the report. In fact, the District of Columbia City Council took steps this summer to ban pre-K suspensions.

We also go across the country and host local meetings—we’ve done some already in about a dozen places, and will do more. But it is important to learn from state legislators and NBCSL about what really works effectively in your communities, and which organizations and leaders are most engaged in turning things around.

Q: In the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force 90-Day Report, you outlined six (6) “focus areas” in a child’s life the initiative will target for action. Can you discuss what these areas are and their significance to the overall initiative?

My Brother’s Keeper Focus Areas
  1. Entering School Ready to Learn
  2. Grade Level Reading by Third Grade
  3. Graduating from High School Ready for College and Career
  4. Completing Post-Secondary Education
  5. Training & Workforce Preparation
  6. Reducing Violence and Providing a Second Chance

A: These six focus areas help us to address the most critical phases in a child’s or young man’s life, as well as other factors important to improving life outcomes. Each area is also supported by evidence and databases upon which the collective MBK initiative and its partners can build. Let’s talk about some of these focus areas:

Entering School Ready to Learn: The first has to do with getting a healthy start at life and entering school ready to learn. That’s really from cradle to age three or four. Our recommendations here all are focused on making sure children have a healthy start and that they enter school ready to learn—cognitively, physically, socially, and emotionally. For example, children who grow up in poverty, between the ages of 0 and 3, typically suffer a 30 million-word gap compared to children who grow up in affluent households. In terms of the vocabulary exposure and skills of a poor child, it’s an astounding number, and of course, disproportionally those poor children are children of color.

Another example we focus on is preschool suspensions. In the 2011-2012 school year there were 4,000 preschoolers suspended for a variety of reasons. It’s just hard to imagine that there is any reason that is justified. The impact, which is not just on the preschooler but also that child’s family, is enormous. We say in our report, “Let’s address this word gap—that can be done. Let's end these suspensions of these preschoolers.”

Grade Level Reading by Third Grade: This focus area has to do with reading at grade level by third grade. This is an area where there is some more astounding data that indicates if a child is not reading proficiently by the third grade, this child, especially a boy of color, is much more likely to end up on  a path that leads from away from school and into to juvenile detention facilities, and later prison. We know that based on a lot of statistics and studies.

Graduating from High School Ready for College and Career: We want to make sure that all children graduate from high school ready for college and career. Every American child should have the option to attend postsecondary education and receive the education and training needed for quality jobs of both today and tomorrow. We target things like availability of and accessibility to programs like Advanced Placement and STEM programs for young male students of color. Many of these children can thrive in these programs if they get that exposure; but all too often, they do not.

Completing Post-Secondary Education and Training & Workforce Preparation: The next two (2) categories are post-secondary education and successfully entering the workforce, which gets into issues around preparation, job training skills, and reducing barriers to employment. Too often, these hurdles get into the way of young men of color entering the workforce effectively.

Reducing Violence and Providing a Second Chance: The last items are keeping kids on track and giving them second chances. This gets into reentry issues, which I know NBCSL is quite familiar with—issues like “Ban the Box.”  Ban the Box is an incredible barrier for many with a criminal record who have filled out job application honestly. Regardless of whether or not the applicant has turned his life around, that applicant may not even get an opportunity for an interview to demonstrate he is ready for the position.

Q: Has My Brother’s Keeper done any breakdown on regional differences impacting boys and young men of color?

A: We have not yet broken information down regionally, but we have gone into different regions of the country to learn about the different manifestations of these issues. We’re learning that things in a community like St. Louis can be quite different than circumstances in Miami based on a range of factors, including the school system, local culture, demographics, available programs, etc. There are also differences as to type of community, from urban areas, suburbs, exurbs, rural communities, tribal lands, etc. In terms of our data, we will continue to work on these regional distinctions that make a difference. There is no cookie-cutter approach to any of this.

Q: As Black state legislators, we have the privilege of representing truly diverse communities around the nation. As such, it is always important for us to think about ways to improve lives not only in the African-American community, but other races and ethnic groups. How does My Brother’s Keeper promote effective solutions for diverse communities with distinct needs?

A: Through the very unique lens of boys and young men of color, we are able to take a hard look at the impact of these programs on all children across the country. Because the disparities are so great and because the recommendations are designed to address those disparities, the impacts of the changes and reforms that we are looking at will fall disproportionally on boys and young men of color in most instances. But, the 65 or so recommendations in our report will affect all children across the United States.

We have an obligation to the U.S. Constitution to not discriminate on the basis of gender or race, but from a positive standpoint, we are very confident that what we have proposed will improve the lives of all children in this country. Again, because these challenges disproportionately impact boys and young men of color, so will the solutions.

Q: What have been some of the philanthropic and non-governmental commitments that My Brother’s Keeper has secured so far?

A: When My Brother’s Keeper launched in February, there were 11 major foundations that announced that they would invest upwards of $200 million in programs that address the priorities of My Brother’s Keeper.  In July, those same foundations announced their progress as well as new commitments. Also in July, a number of major announcements from the private and public sector were made. Highlighting just a few examples, the NBA and the NBA Players Association announced that they were going to increase mentors by 25,000, and invest in resources and involve their players in programs to make sure that young men of color stay in school and graduate. AT&T pledged to also increase its mentorship programs, which will be felt all around this country. Superintendents from The Council of Great City Schools, 60 of the largest school districts, pledged to help, as well as financial institutions UBS America and Citi with apprentice-related programs. Leaders like Magic Johnson and CEO of Deloitte Joe Echevarria have come together to convene business, philanthropic, and community leaders to discuss cross-sector solutions that are having a positive impact on boys and men of color.

Q: Is there any effort within My Brother’s Keeper in to reconnect youth with parents, especially fathers?

A: The My Brother’s Keeper report has an overarching focus on parent-child relationships—whether they are incarcerated parents, teen parents, or especially dads—who are not as connected with their kids as they’d like to be. There are some myths about the degree to which men want to be close to their children. In many cases they just need support, assistance, or to simply know that their investment in their children really matters. We have some recommendations in the report that go into parenting and fathers specifically.

Q: On your partnerships with school districts, is there any effort to develop cultural competence for teachers?

A: Going back to suspensions of preschoolers for example, we know based on evidence, that part of the big problem there has to do with cultural and racial sensitivity. What do you do with a child whose culture you may not be familiar with or sensitive to, who has many things related to his community or upbringing that you as a preschool teacher may not know how to deal with? The easiest course in many cases seems to be to suspend or expel that child. There are assistance programs through the Department of Education for sensitivity training. We don’t say “you can’t suspend preschoolers,” but the DOE does make help available.

Q: What is the next step for My Brother’s Keeper?

A: The next step is to implement the recommendations in the federal policy areas. We have recommendations for executive agencies, including the Department of Justice, or the Department of Education, and Department of Health and Human Services to adopt, and to integrate into their programing, including their grant solicitations, etc.

With regards to public-private partnerships, we are working with those who have made commitments and continuing to build partnerships. There is a whole lot more work that remains for the balance of this Administration. My Brother’s Keeper isn’t a big new federal program; rather it is a wide-reaching, long-term commitment through the life of this administration and beyond. The President talks about this being a part of his legacy work, even after he leaves office.

SHELTON: Well Mr. Johnson, I really do appreciate your time.

JOHNSON: Thank you, we very much appreciate the President directing us to do this work. It’s so important.

Representative Mike Shelton (OK)

Chair, NBCSL Youth Policy Committee is a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.  He was first elected to the chamber in 2004 and serves as the Assistant Minority Floor Leader.  Shelton earned his B.S. in Economics from Langston University.  His professional experience includes working as District Executive Director for the Boy Scouts of America, Director of Community Relations for Langston University, and Director of Community Relations for Oklahoma County.