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'Under Construction': DENIM – Developing & Empowering New Images of Men

February 27, 2015

UC_logoUnder Construction is a multimedia online exhibit showcasing some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For more profiles, click here.

It doesn't necessarily look like a place where someone would find freedom. It is indeed a sanctuary, but not in a mystical, ethereal way. Instead, freedom exists in a small commercial suite in northwest Washington, D.C., its largest room hugged by three cornsilk-colored walls and a fourth that is such a brilliant shade of red it shocks the system to attention. Navy Berber carpet sprawls underfoot and an assembly of IKEA-inspired furniture, mostly folding chairs and tables, make up the functional decor. This is the community space at DENIM, where young black gay, bi- and same-gender-loving men are affirmed, understood and validated, celebrated, informed, and encouraged.

DENIM_Terrance PaytonDENIM stands for "developing and empowering new images of men." In practice, it is a place where young men between the ages of 18 and 29 find unconditional acceptance and connect to programming that addresses their unique needs. "We wanted to provide a center that accommodated the many subcultures of black gay life: college-educated, people affiliated with Greek-letter organizations, gamers, the ballroom community, people who don't identify as gay, people who are openly gay, people who are transgendered, and create this organic experience for all of them," says Terrance Payton, one of DENIM's founders.

Launched in 2012, the organization is relatively new, particularly compared to others in the city that have been serving the gay community for decades. Every group has another group inside of it, and when dissected along the lines of race, age, and socioeconomics, the black gay experience looks a lot different than others. DENIM lifts up a population that is sometimes underrepresented — or not represented at all — in broader conversations about gay issues in the metropolitan area.

"We are a lot different from our white and Latino counterparts in the larger LGBT community, so it's important that we have a space where we feel safe and can have camaraderie and brotherhood," says Devin Barrington-Ward, a member of DENIM's community advisory board. "There's no other space that exists like this solely for black gay men, by black gay men, in Washington, D.C., and really takes into consideration the needs of this community." In here, they are not an alternative lifestyle or a cause to be championed. The men who come to DENIM are simply whoever, whatever, however they want to be. That is the freedom that exists inside this understated space.

First responders to an epidemic need

The community center is the brainchild of Us Helping Us, an organization that has been meeting the needs and challenges of black gay men in Washington, D.C., since 1985. It was established in an era when information around HIV was still exploratory and medical research contended with fantastic rumors, when the city had yet to mobilize against the far-reaching effects of the virus but faced a growing number of diagnoses that had significant impact on the gay community. With limited health and financial resources, the city's black community was hit hard — and the black gay community was hit even harder.

As the HIV epidemic was significantly checked in the white gay population, it ran through the city's black enclaves with ferocity. The dual stigma around being both gay and HIV positive — one born from a culture that has traditionally shamed homosexuality, the other the result of fear that overshadowed facts — caused many gay black men to operate covertly, refusing to seek testing and certainly never seeking treatment. Sexual contact did not decline, however, and the formula for an epidemic was fueled in part by secrecy and unsafe behavior. It was a silent crisis, and there was no one to address it.

DENIM_Ernest Walker"There was nothing in the community: no culturally sensitive support groups, no hospitals, no clinics, no funds, no places that black gay men could go and feel comfortable. At first, it was really just about five HIV-positive gentlemen who didn't want to go on meds because AZT was the only option and it was killing off black people," recalls Ernest Walker, director of programs for Us Helping Us. "The climate was really hostile because there was nowhere for black gay men to go and seek services — of any kind. So some community leaders started a support group."

Out of that absence grew a plethora of services, as Us Helping Us developed a range of programming focused on mental and physical health, personal safety, STI prevention, condom distribution, and community outreach. DENIM was born as an extension of that work, and together the two organizations have committed to taking the apprehension out of HIV testing with teams that meet their target demographic on the streets. In their brief but poignant interactions, they remind young men to make wise, precautionary sexual health choices and urge them to take advantage of the services available at both DENIM and Us Helping Us. DENIM pushes its on-the-ground activism further by taking its safe-sex evangelism to nightclubs.

Partnering with Ignite DMV, DENIM has made testing an empowerment of personal health and a cool thing to do. "You can come to our events, and if you get tested, you can skip the long line, get in free, and get a free drink. People are very persuaded by that," says Eric Frasier, a DJ and party promoter who works with both DENIM and Ignite DMV. For Frasier, it's an opportunity to offer the kind of support to other young gay men he wishes he had gotten himself.

"I’m from southern Virginia and homosexuality wasn't discussed. I knew who I was, but I wasn't able to convey it or portray it or live it," he says now. "I moved up here [to D.C.] in 2006, and I remember seeing gay men and women proud to be walking around with their boyfriends and girlfriends. They didn't mind showing their affection. That was big for me." The personal liberty to outwardly express who you inwardly are is defining, he adds. "Sometimes I wonder if I had these types of outlets when I was younger, would I be a different man today? Would I be a different gay man today? Would I be a different black man today?"

The 'who are you?' question

The work to discover one's identity can be complex for anyone, and for gay black men is complicated even more by the matrix of expectations, society's standards, personal histories, and traditions that intersect with gender, race, culture and sexuality. The spectrum based on the Kinsey Scale of sexual attraction created by researchers in 1948, is one way of defining self, says Payton, who is the medical case manager for Us Helping Us. "The spectrum exists from 'I am questioning my attraction to persons of the same sex and may never do anything with it but think about it for the rest of my life', all the way to 'I think I've been born in the wrong body and I want to change to one that is more comfortable.'

"There is even a spectrum for how people choose to label themselves, which is important," Payton adds. "You'll have people who'll say, 'I'm gay'. You'll have people who'll just say, 'I'll do what I'm doing'. You'll have people who'll say 'I'm same-gender-loving'. The positive is that people get to define what they do. That negative is that they forget that they're still having a black gay experience. So what does that mean and what is the impact of having a black gay experience first?"

DENIM_Toni LloydThose are the conversations being forged at DENIM, those deep moments of discourse in a safe, judgment-free space that generate greater understanding of self and others. Some whose preferences are too fluid to be neatly and conveniently defined by anyone, including themselves, avoid being boxed in. Toni Lloyd is, by other people's label, transgender. She is the only woman who comes to DENIM, but she doesn't come in search of herself. She's already confident about that.

During an exercise in the community room, volunteer AJ King kicks off a conversation by reading a series of statements.

"Move to the right if you identify as gay," he says. Most of the group steps across the strip of white tape that serves as a divider. Toni stays put.

"Move to the left if you identify as African-American," King says. Everyone steps back across — except Toni.

"Personally, I don't like identifiers," she admits later that evening. "I don't even like labels. On one spectrum I would be considered androgynous, but on another, even though most people can't even tell, I'm a trans woman. I just say I'm human." She smiles. "Let's leave it at that."

No one at DENIM can answer the "who are you?" question for anyone else. That's something the young men — and woman — who regularly attend discover during the course of the conversations and activities there. Open for drop-ins from four to nine, Tuesday through Friday, it's part confessional, part hangout space, part health ward, part community center, and, on Friday evenings, part nightclub.

If a young man has had an argument with someone in his family, he can talk about it at Brother 2 Brother, a monthly support group that uplifts young, same-gender-loving men of color. If another is weighed down by relationship problems, he can vent about it at illuMENation on the first Friday of every month, where the discussion revolves around dating, identity, and sex. DENIM also partners with other organizations in the area — among them, Temple Hill Skate Palace for a weekly roller skating night — to enhance the socialization and bonding in comfortable, familiar settings.

Finding a space to just be

In addition to providing a place that is comfortable and familiar, DENIM is a hub of resources for its constituents. Increasingly, the paramount need is housing. In Washington, D.C., which is consistently ranked among the country's ten most expensive cities, the number of apartments one can rent for less than $800 a month has been halved in just over five years. The high cost of living plus the limited availability of spaces has created a competitive market for developers but real challenges for people in need.

According to a survey by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, 40 percent of youth in temporary homeless shelters in the district are LGBT. Most have an unfortunate backstory. "Many of my clients have been kicked out not just because they're gay, but because they're HIV positive," says Guy Anthony, treatment adherence counselor at Us Helping Us. His job is to make sure the young men who are diagnosed with HIV aren't derailed from getting and staying on a course of treatment.

DENIM_Guy Anthony"I assess the barriers and sometimes HIV is the least of their worries. It's where am I going to live? What am I going to eat tomorrow? What am I going to wear? I have to say, 'Let’s attack all these other things, these socioeconomic disparities, that are happening in your life first before we can even attack this HIV'."

That challenge is exacerbated by waiting lists to get an apartment through a public agency as long as six years, so even after a client begins treatment the housing challenge can make it difficult for the client to stay adherent. "A lot of people are saying, 'I'm in treatment and I'm going to see my doctors and my viral load is down and my CD4 count is up but I'm bunking on someone's couch and I'm sleeping on someone's floor'," Anthony says. "That's a problem, and until we are able to reconcile it, we'll continue to see non-adherence here in D.C."

The ability to relate runs deep, and Anthony, who was diagnosed with HIV when he was 21, uses his own life experiences to connect with clients and give them hope. It can get better, he promises. "Seven years ago, I was him. I was sleeping on someone's couch in L.A. I was on cocaine three, four times a day, just trying to make it, trying to drown out the fact that I have this disease that won't go away," he says. "I was supposed to die when I tried to commit suicide after I took pills and chased them with vodka. But God saw that I was worthy of helping other people. I never take that lightly."

The liberty to be their own kind of man

It's Friday night, just barely past dusk, and DENIM's multifunctional office space is alive with festive energy. It's not a calendar holiday, but the weekly Vogue Night ball is a do-not-miss celebration for the young men who frequent the center. Bass-heavy music vibrates the floor, converting it into a catwalk strut simply by the attitude shift that courses through the room. The pressures of the week have been a burden and they fall away when the DENIM participants gather here to dance and cheer each other on.

The DJ takes to the mic to coax them forward, and the need to strut becomes contagious. Some may have been insulted, even flat-out rejected, by others, some may be fully supported by loved ones, some may be going it solo and are completely independent of and unconcerned about other people's opinions. They gather here to celebrate each other and who they individually are. The monolithic perception of manhood is challenged as they assume what, by mainstream standards, would be considered feminine postures in their dance routines. In doing so, and proclaiming their manhood at the same time, they're remixing the neat and tidy conventions of masculinity.

"Vogue Night is an outlet. A lot of people aren't familiar with the ballroom community," says Travis Wise, manager of youth services for DENIM. "Back in the '80s, a lot of [gay] kids were displaced because their families didn't want to have anything to do with them. More mature adults, who had their own places, said, 'Okay, come stay with me and I'll teach you how to apply for a job, I'll teach you how to get into college'. That's actually where the ballroom started, and unfortunately it's a message that's kind of missed." He smiles as the music amps up in the next room and he has to raise his voice to make himself heard. "Tonight is just about having fun and expressing yourself. And some friendly competition."

Several participants get up and take to the center of the room, becoming voluntary contenders in the judging that will happen at the end of the night. A tall, lean young man with flawless caramel skin and curly hair cut into precision-edged sharpness steps forward. Without so much as a smile, he intensely sashays across the floor, then spins and dramatically tosses a red scarf around his neck. The crowd circling him goes crazy with applause and snaps and verbal affirmations, cheering him through a series of twirls and poses. Then, as if he's attached to a string of invisible elastic, he falls to his back in the most acrobatic of half-splits and bounces back up with effortless agility, only to repeat the move seconds later.

Freedom is a song in one's soul. It's an absence of controls, a certitude in self-assurance, a confidence that bubbles up from within and spills outward. The young man in the center of the dance floor has found his and is showing it off for the world to see.

— Janelle Harris

Shifting the Discourse Around Black Men and Boys

February 24, 2015

"It is my hope that this report will motivate other philanthropists and foundations to invest in efforts to improve achievement by African-American boys and men and reverse the serious damage inflicted over many years of systemic injustice. This is a generational problem. It demands a long-term commitment."

— George Soros, Where Do We Go From Here: Philanthropic Support for Black Men and Boys

CBMA_homepageIn February 2015, the Open Society Foundations officially spun off the Campaign for Black Male Achievement (CBMA) with a five-year seed grant aimed at making real the vision Soros described above a long-term commitment to addressing a multi-generational problem. Soros and his foundation's commitment to black men and boys is similar to many of his legacy efforts, including his investment in empowering the Roma of Europe.

While at OSF, I traveled to Budapest and visited with colleagues working to improve the conditions of Roma youth. After the trip, I wrote that "[f]or Roma and black male youth, changing negative perceptions and stereotypes could be one great leap forward to ensure their ultimate success and inclusion into the broader society."

In many ways, the Campaign for Black Male Achievement's success emerged from the power of projects and programs committed to telling compelling stories and narratives that build a sense of empathy for black men and boys and in turn challenge negative perceptions. Since its launch in 2008, the story of CBMA has been one of evolution: in just seven years it has grown from a three-year campaign to the largest effort in the history of philanthropy focused on improving life outcomes for black men and boys.

The road to this game-changing moment involved many years of toil. In the mid- to late 1990s, efforts like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's African American Boys and Men Initiative, led by Dr. Bobby Austin, established the groundwork for what would become the Campaign for Black Male Achievement. Like CBMA, the power of using stories to build empathy for black men and boys was — and remains — at the heart of Dr. Austin's effort.

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Seven Lessons About Childhood Poverty

February 07, 2015

Instead of posting an infographic, as we usually do on Saturdays, we decided to mix things up this week and share a compelling presentation put together by journalist and author Jeff Madrick (Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World; Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present), Clio Chang, and their colleagues at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank here in New York City.

Built with an online tool called Creatavist, Seven Lessons About Childhood Poverty opens with a reminder that the official child poverty rate in the United States today stands at 20 percent, the second-highest among the world's developed countries. The presentation then segues into an articulation of  seven "lessons" about childhood poverty in the U.S. — lessons formulated at the Century Foundation's Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative conference last June. They are:

  1. The Stress of Childhood Poverty Is Costly for the Brain and Bank Accounts
  2. Child Poverty Is Not Distributed Equally
  3. The Power of Parental Education
  4. Higher Minimum Wage Is a Minimum Requirement
  5. Workplaces Need to Recognize Parenthood
  6. Government Works 
  7. Cash Allowances Are Effective

The length of a substantial blog post, each lesson includes downloadable tables and charts, a short video, and links to related materials.

So grab a mug of your favorite warm beverage, pull up a seat, and start reading. We're pretty sure that by the end of the last lesson, you'll agree with Madrick, et al. that "investment in early childhood is the best way to create a better economic life for all Americans." 

'Under Construction': Alaska Native Heritage Center Anchorage

January 29, 2015

Logo-under_constructionUnder Construction is a multimedia online exhibit showcasing some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For more profiles, click here.

Anchorage, Alaska, is surrounded by natural splendor. Snow-topped mountains soar into clinquant skies, a majestic backdrop for the meeting of two worlds — the monumental grandeur of Alaska's ancient natural environment and the contemporary bustle of the state's largest city.

Straddling both are Alaska's Native people — in particular the tween and teen boys coming of age who are expected to contribute to their communities and provide for their families. That, by historic definition, is what makes a man.

Connected by blood to cultures as vibrant as the land itself, these boys and teens are also living the experience of American millennials. Some come from households steeped in traditional Native values and customs. Some grow up in homes where those norms aren't norms at all. For many, the bridge between their dual identities is the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

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Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 19, 2015

[Review] 'The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession'

January 07, 2015

Bookcover_The_Teacher_WarsConventional wisdom has it that America's once first-rate public education system is a shadow of its former self, today surpassed in both quality and cost-effectiveness by the educational systems of any number of European and Asian countries and with little hope of improvement.

Although some of this decline has been blamed on larger societal problems such as poverty and racism, the teaching profession itself has come in for a large share of criticism. In this view, "bad" teachers — those seen to be undereducated, coddled by their unions, and/or unmotivated and uncaring — are virtually untouchable, while good teachers are forced out of the profession by poor pay and lack of respect.

According to Dana Goldstein, there's nothing new about the conventional wisdom. Indeed, throughout U.S. history, she writes in The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, teachers have been unfairly blamed for the state of American public education even though a host of larger "villains" — misguided reform movements, an unhealthy obsession with standardized tests, ideological crusading, political meddling — are more rightly to blame.

Goldstein characterizes the regular attacks on public school teachers as the product of "moral panics," a term used by sociologists to identify an all-too-common feature of American society in which "policy makers and the media focus on a single class of people . . . as emblems of a large, complex social problem." She identifies at least a dozen such panics, and in each one she finds that blame for the failings of the American educational system, real or imagined, was assigned to one easily vilified group or another: intemperate male teachers, undereducated female teachers, black intellectuals, unionized teachers, unpatriotic teachers, alternative-program recruits, and teachers protected by seniority, to name a few.

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'Under Construction': Growing Kings

December 05, 2014

Under_Construction_logoUnder Construction is a multimedia online exhibit showcasing some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For more profiles, click here.

There's an old saying that goes, A boy is born, a man is trained.

In the hodge-podge of races, cultures, ethnicities, and all their companion traditions that is America, there's no formalized, hard-and-fast entrée into manhood. Sans a singular rite of passage, it just kind of happens from family to family, community to community. Getting a driver's license, losing one's virginity, graduating from high school or college and joining the workforce, turning 18 or 21 (depending on whom you ask) — all have been pointed to as touchstones in the shaping of masculinity. Fathering a child is perhaps the most significant of all, but the consensus view holds that, the mechanics of biology aside, the ability to procreate does not make a male a father — nor make him a man.

The absence of active dads in black and Latino communities has been well-documented as the by-product of systemic social factors and poor personal decisions. Whatever the reasons, the result is boys growing up without real-life role models and male figures unable or unwilling to offer their time, wisdom, and emotional maturity to boys looking for the way forward. Mentorship doesn't necessarily substitute for the absence of a biological parent, but it often does provide boys and young men with support and encouragement from older guys who can relate to them because, not too long ago, they were them.

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (November 2014)

December 01, 2014

PhilanTopic had a lot to be thankful for in November. In fact, thanks to a lot of great content, it was our busiest month, traffic wise, since we launched the blog back in 2007. Here's a recap of the posts that proved to be especially popular.

What have you read/watched/listened to lately that surprised, delighted you, or made you think? Share your finds in the comments section below, or drop us a line at

Ferguson and Foundations: Are We Doing Enough?

November 25, 2014

Blackmalestudent_301X400Like many Americans, I was glued to my television set last night as I watched the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, erupt in violence. This is not a post about the merits of a grand jury's decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Rather, it is my attempt to make sense of a very complicated situation and to ask whether philanthropy is doing enough to address the fact that there are too many Michael Browns in America, too many angry and frustrated communities like Ferguson, too much real and perceived injustice in our society, and too much polarization in the way these difficult issues are covered and discussed.

You don't need me to tell you that nearly every major indicator of social and physical well-being underscores the fact that black men and boys in the United States do not have access to the structural supports and educational and economic opportunities they need to thrive. More than a quarter of black men and boys live in poverty. Black fathers are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to live apart from their children. Young black males have the highest teen death rate, at 94 deaths per 100,000, and 40 percent of those deaths are homicides. Black males between the ages of 25 and 39 are more likely to be incarcerated than any other demographic group, leading author and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander to note that "More African American adults are under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began."

Is philanthropy doing enough to address this appalling state of affairs? In a word, "no" — though in some ways that should not be surprising. Foundations are endowed, private institutions required to serve the public good in a way approved as "charitable" by the Internal Revenue Service and in accordance with their donors' intent. They are fiercely independent, idiosyncratic, and, at times, risk averse and short-sighted. A foundation executive once told me he and his colleagues had given up on access to safe water as a program area because "it was too complicated and we couldn't have any impact." Yet foundations have the choice to be different, not least because they represent one of the few remaining sources of un-earmarked capital in the economy. It is precisely this independence and autonomy that gives them the freedom to take risks and work on long-term solutions.

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Funding to Strengthen Democracy Is Critical to Long-Term Foundation Success

November 08, 2014

Ruth_holton_hodson_for_PhilanTopicMany in the progressive foundation community are wondering how the results of the midterm elections will affect their funding areas, be it health, education, the environment, income inequality, or civil rights. What will become of our hard work to move a progressive agenda forward? How far will that agenda be set back? Let me suggest one area that has an impact on every one of the issues progressives hold dear, an area that could sorely use some funding — the public's understanding of and participation in our democracy.

Contrary to what many have said, the midterm elections weren't determined by the vast sums spent (mostly) on negative campaign ads (though, of course, money played a role in the outcome). They were determined by people who made their way to a polling place and cast a ballot — the most sacred act in the democratic canon. It's simple. Who votes determines what government looks like, the policies it pursues, which programs are funded or are cut, which regulations are written or are dropped. Who votes is a critical factor in determining who is appointed to the Supreme Court and who heads the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services. In other words, who votes determines whether our elected officials will or won't champion a progressive agenda. What does that mean for foundations with missions focused on social justice, health and welfare, and education? It means that they are unlikely to realize their long-term goals of a better and more just society without also supporting efforts to strengthen the infrastructure of our democracy.

Take a moment and reflect on whether your foundation has ever considered supporting organizations working to ensure that young people, low-income people, people of color — people in society who are marginalized and stand to benefit the most from implementation of a progressive agenda — vote. I'd wager that more than a few foundations don't or won't because, as the saying goes, "That's not our issue." That's like a homeowner who decides to paint over serious cracks in her ceilings and walls without bothering to fix the problem in the basement that's causing the cracks. Our democratic infrastructure is in serious need of fixing, and the more it deteriorates, the harder it will be for progressive-minded foundations to achieve their agendas and the more money they will end up spending on short-term fixes.

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Knight Cities Challenge: We Want Your Best Idea to Make Gary More Successful

October 17, 2014

Knight_cities_challlengeThe City of Gary, Indiana, is ushering in a new era. The days when the city was synonymous with urban blight and crime are fading into the distance.  Once a symbol of disinvestment standing next to City Hall, the Sheraton Hotel is being demolished and will be replaced with community green space.  Marquette Park has undergone an extensive renovation, making it a hub for community and family-focused events, including Gary's first marathon. Thanks to hundreds of volunteers, a newly renovated Boys and Girls Club sits in the once vacant Tolleston School. Gary's hometown brewery is producing critically acclaimed beer and continues to grow. And, IUN and Ivy Tech have partnered to build a new Arts and Sciences building on the corner of 35th and Broadway to serve as a cornerstone for future redevelopment projects.

The city is on the upswing, and everyone from teachers to business owners is feeling it.  But what's behind Gary's revival, and what can we do to maintain, support, and build on the transformation? How do we ensure that Gary continues to become a more vibrant place to live and work?

Over the next three years, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a private, independent foundation based in Miami, will invest $15 million to answer these questions in Gary and twenty-five other communities across the United States. The foundation believes it is the city's own activists, designers, artists, planning professionals, hackers, architects, officials, educators, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and social workers who have the answers, and it wants them to take hold of their city's future. To that end, all are welcome to submit ideas to the Knight Cities Challenge in one of three areas that the foundation believes are the drivers of future success for Gary: attracting talented people, expanding economic opportunity, and creating a culture of civic engagement.

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'Under Construction': Phoenix Indian Center – College and Career Readiness

October 03, 2014

Under_construction_logoUnder Construction is a multimedia online exhibit showcasing some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions nd was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.For more profiles, click here.

The Hohokam Indians made their mark nearly two millennia ago. In the hot desert region that is home to Phoenix today, the Hohokam developed agriculture based on a sophisticated irrigation system. Using only hand tools, they fashioned a canal network stretching more than five hundred miles through the Gila and Salt River valleys.

This summer, Augustine Newman, 16, heard of these amazing feats of engineering for the first time. This wasn't just historical fodder; the pre-industrial technology of the Hohokam fueled a deep pride in Augustine, an aspiring scientist who is half-Apache and affiliated with the San Carlos Tribe. "We Natives had our own system," he explains. "We were able to be self-sufficient."

PIC_augustine_newmanAugustine was among sixty young men who heard about the Hohokam canal system during a tour of the offices of the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a diversion system that carries water from the Colorado River to municipalities and reservations in central Arizona. The visit was part of a summer career exploration program within a larger College and Career Readiness initiative organized by the Phoenix Indian Center. Katosha Nakai, former chair of the center's board of directors and CAP's tribal affairs and policy development manager, led the tour through the many CAP departments — accounting, legal, engineering, water operations. The tour largely served to show the young men the kinds of jobs available with the right training and education.

The trip to CAP was one of many eye-opening moments during the first phase of a program serving young American Indian men in tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades. Over two short weeks, the guys connected with each other, explored their roots, and considered different college and career options. It was a time for surveying the world beyond their home base in Phoenix or on one of the nearby Indian reservations.

It's quite possible that the Hohokam irrigation canals are not featured in local school textbooks. One of the program’s participants, Nathaniel Talamantez, who is Akimel-O'Otham and a member of the Gila River Tribal Community, says that at his school "maybe they'll do two pages [of Indian history] in the book and that's it."

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'Under Construction': Northside Achievement Zone

August 25, 2014

Under-construction-logoUnder Construction is a multimedia online exhibit showcasing some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For more profiles, click here.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

It's the classic question, probably the best way for an adult to get inside the mind of a child, who must imagine life ten, fifteen, twenty years from now.

Common sense dictates that we should outwardly deem every child's answer to that question as  airtight. Whatever you want, you can have. We'll embrace the different versions of those high-achieving future selves — whether it involves saving patients' lives, discovering a new gene, leading a Fortune 500 company. Privately, however, we may imagine less rosy futures, aware of certain realities that often impede the path to success, including income and wealth, geography, race, gender, and educational quality.

For a tightly knit group of residents in North Minneapolis, Minnesota, however, "whatever you want, you can have" is the gospel truth. For every child, no exceptions.

They have decided to aim very high for their children and to partner with mentors, teachers, tutors, and other professionals to provide the supports needed for their children to be ready for college and beyond. The mobilizing force behind this group is the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), a Promise Neighborhood collaborative that seeks to end intergenerational poverty in North Minneapolis through education.

Delajuante Moore, Josh Mendez, and Jason Spellman are among the more than 1,600 youth — many low income and youth of color — living in North Minneapolis that, with their families, are enrolled in NAZ. All three young men have thought about what they want to be when they grow up. Delajuante, a rising eighth-grader and recent graduate of Ascension Catholic School (a NAZ partner school), wants to be a lawyer. His classmate Josh is looking at different options but is really interested in being a video game director. Jason, a rising sixth-grader at KIPP Stand Academy (another NAZ partner), wants to be a doctor.

UC_Jason_SpellmanThrough the messaging of NAZ and its partners, the young men are reminded constantly that their plans rest on getting a college degree. At KIPP, a college-preparatory charter school, Jason and his classmates are proud members of the "Class of 2024," the year they expect to graduate from a four-year university. With Josh and Delajuante, Jason participates in an afterschool program called 21st Century Academy that is designed explicitly to help middle-school-age students prepare for college and careers.

Nine local schools also partner with NAZ, along with a total of twenty-seven nonprofit anchor organizations, including afterschool and expanded learning programs, housing agencies, and early childhood centers. Together, all these actors form a tight circle of support around Northside students and families. And while these resources may be available in a majority of low-income communities, the NAZ difference is the way in which it coordinates and aligns the various partners, and in how it champions a Northside "culture of achievement," with empowered families leading the way.

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'Under Construction': Alliance for Boys and Men of Color

July 28, 2014

UC_logoUnder Construction is a multimedia online exhibit that showcases some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.For more profiles, click here.


Jesse Esparza stands tall as he squints into the afternoon sun.
He doesn't quite fill the dark suit that hangs from his shoulders, and his hands, clasped together before his waist, only half-emerge from their sleeves.

Under-construction-bmoc-jesseBehind him stretches Stockton's Southside, the most distressed section of the most violent city in California. Jesse tells the story of the white ribbon tied at the base of a small oak tree in McKinley Park. It's a tragic story — the senseless murder of a friend's cousin, a teenager caught up in a cycle of retaliation — and his telling is both somber and matter-of-fact. But where the trauma gets particular, he generalizes, describing the way news like this travels on seismic waves through his community. "You're in shock," he explains. "You're in denial, you don't want it to be true. You're hoping it's someone else." Only 18 years old, Jesse has already been through this set of emotions more times than would be fair in a full lifespan. One might say he possesses a wisdom beyond his years, though its acquisition is troubling.

In a quiet moment of reflection, Jesse's eyes search the blades of grass as if for answers. His skin is smooth, almond colored, his face open and strong. He seems to play an image in his mind for a few moments before looking up again, lifting his eyebrows. He reaches for words to fill the silence and lights on a stock phrase. "It's pretty crazy," he says. He repeats this again and again over the next hour, the only words he can find to move past each newly risen memory as a casual drive through his old neighborhood transforms without notice into an impromptu ghost tour. The points of interest form a web of violence, dozens of vague memorials to those friends who will never have a chance, as Jesse has, to break through.

Boys & Men

The day has been a long one. All morning Jesse has been talking change politics with some of the most engaged men and women in the state. It's the Fourth Annual Stockton Summit of the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, a decentralized coalition of organizations working at all levels of civic engagement for policy changes that will improve the lives of young Californians. In one report after another, data show young men of color face more systemic barriers than their white peers, making them much more likely to drop out of high school, serve time in prison (or juvenile hall), be unemployed, and ultimately die young. The situation, according to those involved, is dire.

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Philanthropy, Diversity, and Equity

July 15, 2014

Headshot_susan_battenIn May, the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE), in partnership with the Black Philanthropic Network, released the report The Exit Interview: Perceptions on Why Black Professionals Leave Grantmaking Institutions (21 pages, PDF). The report highlights the need for leadership pipelines, development programs, and effective retention strategies targeting African-American professionals in philanthropy and was prompted by the sense here at ABFE that too many African Americans were leaving the field. Indeed, data from the Council on Foundations — though not provided in a way that enabled us to analyze trends over time — seems to support our assumption.

We've received a lot of feedback on the report, ranging from approval and a sense of deep resonance, to frustration that nothing seems to be changing, to recommendations about what should be done. Clearly, there was demand for such an analysis. 

In June, two months after we released the report, the Joint Affinity Groups celebrated its twentieth anniversary by holding a Unity Summit where six identity-based organizations — ABFE, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, Native Americans in Philanthropy, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, the Women's Funding Network, and Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy — joined forces to talk about how we might work together to advance racial equity. The idea was that the field can and should do more to ensure that every individual in the United States has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. To that end, we developed a proposed definition of equity — we will have achieved equity "when one can no longer predict advantage or disadvantage based on race/ethnicity, gender and gender identity, or ability" — and further proposed that we should be able to see progress toward that goal and be able to measure reductions in disparities in well-being based on race/ethnicity, gender and gender orientation, and ability. For JAG, equity is about results, and philanthropy must play a role in shaping social and economic policy and practice to advance an equity agenda.

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    Martin Luther King, Jr.

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