Knowledge carries responsibility. When you learn something, especially if through struggle or adversity, you never unlearn it. I’m involved in the work I do today because of the growing crisis our young men and boys face.
Their challenges first became apparent to me while I was in college and saw how relatively few men of color were on campus. Looking back, I realized that smart boys I’d once competed against had already fallen behind. Many hadn’t been interested in attending college; many had already tuned out by high school.
Nationally, the same remains true. Less than half of Black men who enter high school finish in four years, and fewer still go on to college. They’re more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system than their White peers, and they’re far more likely to die younger.
I’ve also witnessed this kind of tragedy through the life of a relative I’ll call "Joshua." He remains the smartest child I’ve ever met. When he was young, teachers found his quick wit charming. But in middle school, they labeled it disrespectful. Rather than helping Joshua find a positive channel for his energy, they frequently sent him to detention.
In Joshua’s case, the punishments were counterproductive. He started to withdraw and by the 10th grade, he'd lost interest in class. I became his advocate, got him tutors and gave him more structure. He did better for a time, but with only weeks left in his sophomore year, he ran away.
My family was lucky; we got Joshua back. He’s now enrolled in a residential Job Corps program in which he can work toward his high school equivalency diploma and learn a trade. We all pray and watch, hoping this is the path by which he will make his way.
Harsher discipline and punishment is a common thread in the lives of young men of color. According to the U.S. Department of Education, African Americans comprise 18 percent of public school students but represent 35 percent of suspensions and 39 percent of expulsions. And U.S. Department of Justice data show that Black youth are arrested and incarcerated in far greater numbers than their peers.
Yet there are certainly turnaround stories to celebrate. A young man like Dexter is a prime example.
Dexter also didn’t see much of a future for himself when he was in high school. He considered himself good at only two things, football and hustling, and he concentrated on the latter. At 17, he started getting into trouble. Instead of finishing his senior year, he found himself in a California juvenile facility.
Then he met a mentor named Mike Gibson, who suggested that the teen enroll in emergency medical services classes once he left the facility. Dexter agreed and stuck with them for a while, until the pull of his old life proved too hard to resist. He soon dropped out.
Still, Gibson had seen definite promise in Dexter. So months later, he reached out to the teen as he was launching a program to train aspiring emergency medical professionals from underrepresented parts of the community. Motivated by Gibson’s belief in him, and supported by the program’s mentoring and leadership, Dexter recommitted himself to studying. He finished first in his class and now works at a community detoxification center. He is preparing to become a paramedic.
There are millions of Joshuas and Dexters, each with real potential. In my work at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we focus on the conditions in which Americans live, learn, work and play—conditions that can affect whether a young man’s potential becomes reality. I’m proud that the Foundation is helping to create a better future for boys and young men of color through its new Forward Promise initiative. The program will support innovative, community-based projects that strengthen opportunities for these youth during their middle school and high school years.
The Foundation is not alone in recognizing the need here. Forward Promise reflects growing momentum among philanthropic, policy and community leaders to fund efforts from California to New York. We all hope that more will join in.
Personally and professionally, I’ve witnessed just how much factors such as race and ethnicity, education, income and even geography can create or constrain access to resources, health and success. The fix isn’t simple, and it certainly isn’t easy, but we owe it to our young men of color—our sons, brothers and future husbands—to help give them a fair shot. We can’t just blame them for lives that are the opposite of the ideal.
And as we ensure that boys and young men of color have a real chance to succeed, we build stronger, healthier communities and a much stronger, healthier country.
Forward Promise, an initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is focused on promoting opportunities to encourage the health and success of middle and high school-aged boys of color. Learn more here.