There is a story that is often told about young Black and Latino males. It is a story that is violent, ignorant, criminal and usually has a tragic ending. Last year, the launch of the Young Men’s Initiative (YMI) in an attempt to rewrite this story.
The program, which has received $127 million dollars in funding from public and private sources, seeks to improve economic, education, and public health outcomes for young Black and Latino males in New York City, a demographic group that has been over represented in the bottom ranks of every statistical indicator of health and wellness for decades.
Part of the YMI funds will go to the NYC Department of Education (DOE) to support the Expanded Success Initiative (ESI). This program will provide 40 high schools that have demonstrated success in educating and graduating Black and Latino male students with $250,000 in funding that will be disbursed to each school over the course of three years.
Selected schools were required to write proposals that provided a detailed plan to decrease the academic achievement gap by increasing the number of Black and Latino male graduates who would graduate college- and career-ready.
Proposals had to address the areas of academic achievement, social and emotional development and school culture. These select ESI schools will then be studied to identify best practices that are replicable and scalable.
Many see ESI as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to take a purposeful look at identifying the factors that lead to success in school for our young men. I believe that in order for ESI to achieve its stated goals, it will be critical for participating schools to commit to doing two very important things:
1. Look at our young men through an asset-based lens – Most of the problems that plague young men of color today have not been created by them. The negative statistics that are associated with black and Latino males are often viewed as the result of poor choices being independently made by them and their families.
But in fact what we are witnessing is a undirected and unconscious reaction to a painful historical legacy.
Although our young men and their families should be held to account for the decisions that they make, it is easy to forget that the choices that they are making exist in the context of over three centuries of legally sanctioned and codified enslavement, discrimination, subjugation, disenfranchisement, intentional emasculation and psychological assault.
When said plainly in this way, these facts can be taken by many to be a statement of hyperbole. But sadly, it is actually an understatement. This history has left deep scars on the psyche of the whole nation and the impact that this history continues to have on us today must be clearly acknowledged.
Given this historical context, it would be a grave mistake for schools to approach the ESI work from the stance that there is something inherently wrong with boys of color and that this is a chance to fix them and convince them to submit to what the boys instinctively know is a culture out to at best marginalize them and at worst destroy them.
We must instead view ESI as an opportunity to connect to and strengthen the resiliency that has allowed for success, despite the crushing weight of history and circumstances. We must help them to connect to their essential and authentic identities, which are resilient, empathetic, intellectually curious and loving.
When that connection is made, you will be shocked at how quickly they will reject the loathsome caricature of black and Latino maleness that they are constantly encouraged to adopt.
2. Develop a culturally competent school staff – Without changing the mindset and attitudes of the adults who are charged with working with the young men, we will see very little progress. Changing the way that teachers, administrators and other school-based staff view boys of color is probably the most important yet overlooked aspect of the ESI challenge.
It often goes overlooked because the implications are quite sticky. It requires having intentional honest discussions about people’s attitudes around race, class and gender. It requires the adults in a school to reflect on their own biases and beliefs and a commitment to change.
If the discussions are not skillfully facilitated, they can easily devolve into emotionally charged and contentious battlegrounds as opposed to a productive examination of institutionalized barriers to our young men’s success.
This examination of personal beliefs is not only limited to white members of a school community. All of us, no matter what our ethnic background, have been historically conditioned to view black and Latino boys through a deficient lens. As a result, our education system has never held them to the high standards that they are more than capable of achieving.
While Bloomberg’s YMI and ESI programs may not be the magic cure to undo all of the inequity that has resulted in the poor academic outcomes of Black and Latino males, they do have the potential to provide an initial roadmap toward helping us get all of our boys to reach their potential.