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President Obama unveils initiative to help young men of color

Valerie Jarrett | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

Valerie Jarrett | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 28, 2014 9:01AM



A persistent gripe among some black people about President Barack Obama is that he hasn’t done enough to address disparities in the black community.

Indeed, there are even those who believe had Hillary Clinton won the White House in 2008, African-Americans would have been better off because black leaders wouldn’t have thought twice about holding her heels to the fire. They seemed to have taken a hands-off approach to Obama.

On Thursday, Obama will address this issue head-on when he unveils an initiative that is certain to please one group of naysayers while rankling another.

Called “My Brother’s Keeper,” the initiative will bring together foundations, corporations and community groups in search of solutions to problems that have derailed too many young men of color in this country.

Obama first mentioned the idea publicly in his State of the Union Address, when he said he was bringing these groups together “to make sure that every young man of color who is willing to work hard and lift himself up has an opportunity to get ahead and reach his full potential.”

That language made it clear that he wasn’t proposing a hand-out, but a hand-up.

Still, this is clearly a race-based initiative and is already being slammed by critics.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president and one of his closest friends, points out that there is already a range of initiatives that target specific groups in need.

“The president’s broader point is we are all inextricably linked,” she said in a telephone interview. “We cannot ignore an entire group of Americans and pretend that they don’t exist. It is in all our collective interest that every child has the opportunity to succeed. This is intended to unify, not divide.”

Christian Champagne, an 18-year-old senior at Hyde Park Academy and a member of Chicago’s Youth Guidance program, Becoming a Man (B.A.M.), will introduce the president at Thursday’s event at the White House.

Two other B.A.M. students also will be on hand. Students in the 14-year-old anti-violence program had a 44 percent decrease in violent crime arrests, as well as a 23 percent increase in graduation rates compared to other at-risk young males, according to data collected by the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

“This is the first time that many of these students have had a safe space,” noted Tobias James, a manager at Youth Guidance.

Obama forged a bond with the young men when he visited Hyde Park Academy last year after Hadiya Pendelton’s tragic murder.

The president joined a dozen students in a B.A.M. circle session where the young men shared their stories.

“He clicked with them. At one point, one of them said the president started talking about his background and he couldn’t believe the president of the United States had gotten into trouble,” said Jarrett retelling the story.

The B.A.M. students also were invited to the White House on Father’s Day.

“They gave him a Father’s Day card, and one of the boys said, ‘I never signed a Father’s Day card.’ The president said he had never signed one either. These young men touched his heart profoundly,” Jarrett said.

Foundations, including Annie E. Casey Foundation, the John and James L. Knight Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, have vowed to invest at least $200 million over five years for this effort to help young males.

Additionally, the president will sign a “Presidential Memorandum” establishing a task force to determine what public and private efforts have been effective in breaking the negative cycle that has crippled some communities.

This bold effort suggests that despite the naysayers, Obama hasn’t forgotten his roots.

“We all have a responsibility for these children, even if they are not our children,” Jarrett said. “This has been his message since working on the South Side of Chicago.”

Email: marym@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MaryMitchellCST



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