How Should Philanthropy Respond to Obama’s Speech on Black Men and Boys?

Thursday, August 15, 2013
Campaign Manager, Campaign for Black Male Achievement
Open Society Foundations
How do we as a nation now heal from the open wound caused by the Zimmerman verdict? Words from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, offer guidance: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”
I’ve watched more than ten times now President Obama’s speech responding to America’s Trayvon Martin moment. With each viewing, I am increasingly inspired by our president’s courageous depiction of the challenges black men and boys face in a society that too often perceives them as criminals and ignores their potential to be productive contributors to this great nation. In his 20-minute speech, the president pulled off the societal scab of racial pain and fear covering America in the week after a jury deemed George Zimmerman not guilty of killing unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Scores of debates on race, gender, the criminal justice system and states’ “stand your ground” laws rattled the country in the week leading up to Obama’s speech. When the president finally spoke, the many Americans of all races who have devoted their time and resources to improving the life outcomes of black men and boys had divergent reactions. I heard stories of sighs of relief, jaw-dropping disbelief and tears of joy. But I also heard that the president’s message about how America views, values and invests in black men and boys was off-base, too late, divisive and lacked a substantial plan.
Much of what the president said resonated with me, particularly as a black man, the father of young twin black boys and the manager of Open Society Foundations Campaign for Black Male Achievement. What was perhaps most compelling was how he helped the country understand the pain black communities were experiencing by weaving explanations of the complex policies that create the disproportionate prison population of African-American men with his personal experiences of being racially profiled. What also resonated with me was the return to the question, “Where do we go from here?” which I evoked in a post last week.
I am hopeful that there will be a concerted effort across various sectors to devise a plan in response to the president. But today I am grappling with a question for my committed and courageous colleagues in philanthropy. What should philanthropy do?
I would like to offer the following ideas as points of departure as philanthropy collectively forges its next steps. Here are five things to ponder and perhaps address by the August 24th 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington.
  1. Philanthropy should understand that the president’s seminal speech on black men and boys requires an urgent response by the philanthropic community. If in the coming weeks and months philanthropy keeps with the current status quo, we will have missed the opportunity given to us by this catalytic moment in our nation’s history. A good start is for every foundation president and board of trustees to read Foundations and the Fallacy of a Post-Racial America: African American Men and Civic Engagement by Dr. Emmett Carson, president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Then the field needs to quickly put its recent pledge on this issue, made at last April’s Council of Foundations annual meeting, into investment practice.
  2. Philanthropy should understand that it cannot over-invest in law enforcement and criminal justice strategies while under-investing in family and youth development, community-building, organizing, and educational equity strategies. Philanthropy must explicitly invest on the front end of the prison pipeline to support black boys and men. Where are we if we reduce racial profiling and implicit bias of law enforcement, but still have only 10 percent of black boys reading at grade level by the end of the third grade? Philanthropy needs to collectively embrace the “power of positive deviance,” realizing that the answers to this seemingly intractable problem lies in the heads, hands and hearts of young black men in communities across the country along with the support of girls and woman — especially single moms. Let’s find ways to tap their assets.
  3. Philanthropy should ramp up and sustain investments in strengthening the field of black male achievement, which is currently grossly under-resourced. Last year, seven foundations partnered to launch the Leadership & Sustainability Institute for Black Male Achievement (LSI), a national membership network designed to ensure the growth, sustainability and impact of leaders and organizations across the public, private and nonprofit sectors committed to this work. But the LSI is just a drop in the bucket if we are truly going to catalyze change.
  4. Philanthropy should increase investments in strategic communications and messaging efforts. We need an alternative to the narrative that presents black men and boys as liabilities or threats to our society. One such effort is led by former Knight Foundation vice president Trabian Shorters. He recently spun off Black Male Engagement, which organizes and supports a network of black males who are already demonstrating that they are assets to their communities.
  5. Philanthropy should realize that what America truly needs to adequately respond to the challenge at hand is not another convening, but the creation of a Corporation for Black Male Achievement — a catalytic enterprise that could lead the implementation of a Marshall-like Plan that could finally change the paradigm for black men and boys in America. As I shared in the Foundation Center’s recent report Where Do We Go From Here? Philanthropic Support for Black Men & Boys, we need an endowed philanthropic social enterprise that can lead us over the decades it will take to address this issue. As Open Society Foundations founder George Soros states in the same report: “…this is a generational problem. It demands a long-term commitment.”

This post originally appeared on the Open Society Foundations’ Voices blog on July 21, 2013 and is reprinted with permission.

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