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How My Brother’s Keeper Puts Youth at the Forefront of Community Change

“Ensuring that our young people can go as far as their dreams and hard work will take them is the single most important task that we have as a nation. It is the single most important thing we can do for our country’s future.” 

These words, from former President Barack Obama’s speech at the 2014 My Brother’s Keeper Summit, continue to drive the work of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. Launched by the White House in 2014 (and now under the auspices of the Obama Foundation), the initiative seeks to address persistent opportunity gaps that exist for young men of color in America. 

At an online Town Hall meeting earlier this week with around 1100 attendees––the inaugural event in a forthcoming webinar series––key members of the My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) community shared experiences, explored values, and discussed core strategies of the initiative. Youth board members, program directors, and Grammy-winning rapper and advocate Common explained where the initiative started and where it’s headed. 

Throughout the Town Hall, speakers emphasized three fundamental themes that motivate MBK’s work in communities across the country. 

Let Youth Show the Way

“We do nothing about youth without youth… You can’t be about helping young men of color if they aren’t at the center, driving the work,” said MBK Executive Director Michael D. Smith.

The structure of the Town Hall itself showcased this commitment; MBK youth leader Senegal Mabry emceed the event, and fellow youth leader Malachai Hernandez led a discussion with Common on topics ranging from music to role models to criminal justice reform.

Two leaders of MBK’s New York initiatives, Dr. Anael Alston and Dr. Lester Young, explained how they put young people at the center of their work. They began each strategy and planning session by asking young people to come in and share their experiences inside and out of school. They repeatedly heard the same message again and again: young men of color wished that they’d had teachers who looked like them. These conversations inspired New York to launch the Teacher Opportunity Corps, intended to increase representation of teachers of color in schools across New York State. 

Raise Up and Share Out What’s Working

When we discover something that works, said Senegal Mabry, “we as an Alliance need to be thinking about how we can do something similar, about the best way to engage young men locally.”

For instance, when MBK New York saw how the Boston Basics program works to ensure that children from birth to age three get a great start in life, they began working to implement that model in communities across their state. 

“We’re an outcome-focused, state-wide movement… Just being busy doesn't count. We’re constantly asking the question, is [any given] policy, strategy, or practice going to change the condition or current reality? Is it moving the needle on youth outcomes?” said Dr. Young.

Strengthen Communities

“My Brother's Keeper is about reaching out to those who may not have, who may be looked down upon, who may be out in the streets when we know they can do better," said Common. 

Reaching out to build a sense of community––between individuals, families, and larger organizations––is a core piece of MBK’s strategy across the country. 

"We are going to work with individuals, corporations and foundations to support the work of MBK communities on the ground, and also to figure out the things that anybody in the community can do to make a difference for our boys and young men of color,” said Smith. 

That’s why mentorship has been such a significant focus for MBK. For instance, they’ve both created mentorship guides and offered funding opportunities for mentorship programs. These relationships are fundamental to building strong, healthy communal ties and “helping our young men navigate the treacherous, systemic barriers that they face every day,” Smith explained.

Dr. Young, who has worked on MBK initiatives at both local and state levels, shared a hopeful message about the power of communal action.

“If we can move from rhetoric to action with a sense of urgency and focus, if we can wrap our arms around our young men and boys of color and provide them with appropriate support structures and opportunities, we can change the prevailing narrative.”

Watch the full Town Hall here.