Recent events have brought the challenges facing boys and young men of color in the United States to the forefront of the national debate. Despite decades-long efforts to eliminate discrimination and promote equal opportunity, boys and young men of color continue to face significant social and economic barriers that limit their opportunities for success. Many boys and young men of color are more likely to grow up in poverty, live in economically depressed communities, and attend low-performing schools when compared with other groups. Many are less likely to have a high school diploma, less likely to attend college or technical school, and more likely to be jobless than other groups as they move into early adulthood. Boys and young men of color are often the target of negative social and cultural perceptions related to their ethnic, cultural, linguistic, or racial background which may result in discrimination or unequal treatment by individuals or societal institutions. Negative or traumatic experiences stemming from these social and economic barriers may inflict psychological or emotional damage over time in the form of low self-image, depression, limited self-efficacy, and feelings of hopelessness.
Although individual choices and behaviors influence individual outcomes, these factors exist within and are shaped by the individual’s broader environment. An ecological approach that recognizes and addresses the complex individual, family, neighborhood, community, systemic, and socio-cultural factors that limit or facilitate individual opportunity is critical to any effort that seeks to improve the outcomes of boys and young men of color. Further, the umbrella term “boys and young men of color” might imply that there is a unified, monolithic group. Policymakers and practitioners, however, must account for the different ways in which these ecological factors impact specific cultural groups and subgroups. For instance, the experiences and needs of African American boys living in rural communities are different from the experiences and needs of those living in urban environments. Similarly, the experiences and needs of Hmong American young men are different from the experiences and needs of Chinese Americans. An ecological framework recognizes that the fate of boys and young men of color is not solely in their hands. All community members must be conscious of their capacity to change the systems and intuitions of which they are a part and promote policies and practices that improve the opportunities of boys and young men of color.
Policies and programs intended to improve the futures of boys and young men of color will only be effective if they provide positive development, integration into a supportive community, and address the contexts that influence their lives. Communities must build and sustain a comprehensive system of support that spans birth to young adulthood to older adulthood if they hope to improve outcomes for boys and young men of color (and, indeed, every child). This system must facilitate healthy physical, social, psychological, and intellectual development; equip boys and young men of color with the capacities needed for future success; and provide physical and emotional security. It must ensure that boys and young men of color feel that they have a place in their community and foster a shared commitment between boys and young men of color and community institutions. The system of support must address social conditions such as poverty and racism that limit the success of boys and young men of color.
Develop pathways to employment and career. The sense of economic opportunity feeds hope for the future. The development of employment skills and understanding of career options are a foundation for future employment. The public sector and private sector can work collaboratively to increase the availability of summer jobs, after-school jobs, and paid internships that help youth explore career options and establish a work history. Further, federal programs, such as Job Corps, have an evidence-based record of increasing employment skills while lowering barriers to employment. Employers, including government, should implement “banning the box”—removing requirements to disclose past criminal records on job applications—to provide increased employment opportunity to those who have paid their debt to society. The development of employment skills, however, does little good without job opportunities that align with workers’ skills. Private sector employers can expand the number of available jobs in disadvantaged communities through the increased use of apprenticeships, on-the-job technical training, and similar opportunities. The government and philanthropy can also help expand the number of jobs by collaborating with private sector employers to subsidize entry-level workers’ wages by noting potential cost savings because of increased employee satisfaction and reduced turnover.
Promote community economic development. The government, philanthropy, and the private sector can work collaboratively to increase the self-sufficiency for low-income citizens through the planned development of sustainable business and employment opportunities. Physical infrastructure projects, for example, can increase the number of jobs available for skilled tradespersons and construction workers while also improving roads, buildings, and parks in the community. Philanthropy and government can provide small business grants and low-interest loans through government partners and community development organizations to reduce the barriers low-income entrepreneurs face in starting a business. In addition, community organizations and colleges can provide affordable training in recordkeeping, financial and personnel management, taxation, market analysis, and marketing and sales to help low-income entrepreneurs develop the skills needed to build and sustain a small business.
Change school suspension and expulsion practices. School suspension and expulsion negatively impact boys and young men of color beginning at an early age. From early childhood education through high school, educators and administrators must increase their awareness of how school suspension and expulsions disadvantage boys and young men of color relatively to their peers and can serve as a conduit into the juvenile justice system. They must be equipped with practices for effectively dealing with student behavior in unbiased ways. They must also be held accountable through policies that scrutinize school expulsion and suspension practices.
Connect children and youth to the community by developing social awareness and civic responsibility. Boys and young men of color, like all Americans, must develop an understanding of what it means to support and be a member of one’s community. Schools must increase their efforts to educate youth about the privileges and obligations of citizenship as well as the importance of tolerance and civic responsibility. Experiential learning through participation in local community projects can increase children’s and youth’s connections to the community and their understanding of the common good. Educators, families, and community leaders must teach youth about the history of their cultural group—as well as the experiences of other groups—through classroom learning and community education in order to build pride in their heritage, an understanding of our shared history, and recognition of the debt we each owe previous generations.
Improve relations between law enforcement, the justice system, and the communities they serve. The justice system, law enforcement, and community members must work together to build a relationship of trust and mutual respect instead of fear, suspicion, and intimidation. Community-oriented law enforcement practices, such as community policing, encourage law enforcement officers to establish a common ground with community members and can bridge the divide between law enforcement and community. Law enforcement officers must also be trained to de-escalate confrontations with community members and understand the effects of mental health on behavior. By drawing on such training, law enforcement officers can reduce the potential for violence and engage people with patience, empathy, and tolerance. Sentencing laws and the overuse of incarceration have a disparate impact on boys and young men of color. Law enforcement and the justice system should look to diversion programs that keep youth out of the justice system and increase the use of alternatives to formal incarceration. Youth placed in secure confinement should have educational and training opportunities that allow them to continue to progress academically and build skills for future employment.
Address institutional racism. In general, communities must also address the underlying issues of racism, prejudice, and institutional discrimination that continue to limit opportunity for boys and young men of color. The public, private, and nonprofit institutions must ensure that their informal and formal programs, policies, and practices confront and challenge racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of intolerance. Internal or external groups must be established to assess and monitor the institution’s progress in these areas and hold it accountable. Community members and leaders can engage with print, broadcast, and social media organizations as well as individual writers, publishers, editors, and producers to encourage them to promote affirming and positive narratives about boys and young men of color to negate messages that stereotype or dehumanize people of color.
It will take a community. To develop a strong system of support, communities must access the resources and abilities that can be deployed, build on community strengths, and address community problems. Concerned community stakeholders must engage other community members, leaders, and institutions to stress that the problems facing boys and young men of color in their community are community problems through community education, awareness raising, and engagement efforts such as town hall meetings; special task forces; youth-based teams; work with community-based leaders; discussions at community forums, civic organizations, churches, and schools; radio, billboard, and newspaper advertisements; and coalition building among local organizations. These efforts must garner the attention and support of everyday community members as well as government, community, and business leaders that can provide volunteer resources, financial support, and influence for policies, programs, and initiatives aimed at improving outcomes. These stakeholders must come together to collectively address the challenges facing boys and young men of color. For instance, concerned community stakeholders might identify lack of transportation as an issue that disproportionately impacts the ability of young men of color to get to school or work. These community stakeholders might engage government leaders to adjust bus routes so they better meet the needs of community members, philanthropic partners to provide bus passes, and local churches and neighborhood organizations to develop a carpooling program. Concerned community stakeholders in another community might identify affordable childcare as a barrier for boys of color and their families. Neighborhood members might develop a system for shared childcare. Local funders might agree to fund additional center-based childcare locations. Collecting data and evaluation will provide feedback on the community’s progress toward its intended outcomes as well as lay the groundwork for making later decisions on how to move forward after each round of efforts.
Across the country, communities and institutions are working to improve the opportunities of boys and young men of color. In April 2013, a group of foundations issued a joint statement that expressed their commitment to targeted investment in initiatives designed to improve the outcomes for boys and men of color. In February 2014, the President announced the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a collaborative effort involving philanthropy and the private sector that is designed to address the opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color. In September 2014, the White House announced the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge, an effort to encourage communities to implement a comprehensive approach to improving the lives of boys and young men color. These commitments by the federal government and philanthropy are promising, but change cannot happen without a comprehensive, long-term commitment. The barriers facing boys and young men of color in the United States are hundreds of years in the making. Our efforts to eliminate them must be all the greater.