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48 posts categorized "Youth Development"

Generation Indigenous: Why Native American Youth Can't Wait

August 16, 2016

Gen_i-primary_logoOver the past decade, philanthropy has become increasingly responsive to the needs of young boys and men of color. The philanthropic community has mobilized to coordinate and partner on efforts like the Obama administration's My Brother's Keeper initiative. More recently, the field has turned its attention to addressing the needs of girls and young women of color. While I applaud these efforts, I'm reminded daily of the pressing and unmet needs of Native communities. And that invariably causes me to think about how much more needs to be done to ensure that all youth — regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender — have equal access to quality education and health care and the opportunity to grow up in safe and thriving communities.

Like other youth of color, Native American and Alaska Natives in cities and communities across the United States face challenges. Natives Americans have endured a history of racism and colonialism that has resulted in multi-generational trauma. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Native youth between the ages of 15 and 24 — and that rate is two and a half times the national average. Native youth are five times more likely to end up in the criminal justice system than whites, where they receive disproportionately harsher sentences, and are more likely to be killed by police than any other racial group. Moreover, Native Americans are often categorized in data and reports as "statistically insignificant" or "other," erasing their very existence as a disadvantaged minority. As a result, too many programs, policies, and systems — not to mention philanthropy — ignore or overlook them.

The philanthropic community is well aware of these challenges, and yet foundation funding for Native issues and communities remains disproportionately low, consistently accounting for less than 0.5 percent of annual foundation grant dollars, even though Native Americans are 1.7 percent (5.4 million) of the U.S. population. Institutional philanthropy may blanch at the size of the problem or feel paralyzed by its lack of understanding of Native peoples and cultures, but philanthropy can make a difference. While the challenges are real, the resilience and hope in Native communities has resulted in innovative, high-impact solutions to many of these problems. And the most promising solutions have been driven by and for Native youth.

In 2014, President Obama and the First Lady visited the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Nation in North Dakota, where they met local youth who shared their struggles as well as their inspiring personal stories of hope and determination with the Obamas. Upon his return to the White House, the president told his staff to "find new avenues of opportunity for our Native youth...[because] if we do, there's no question of the great things they can achieve — not just for their own families, but for their nation and for the United States."

In December 2014, the White House launched the Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) initiative, which is focused on improving the lives of Native youth through new investments and increased engagement with Native communities. Emphasizing a comprehensive, culturally appropriate approach, Gen-l works to ensure that all young Native people have the opportunity to reach their full potential by promoting a national dialogue aimed at mobilizing and cultivating the next generation of Native leaders and supporting critical programs in the areas of education, health and nutrition, juvenile justice, housing, and youth engagement.

As vice chair of Native Americans in Philanthropy, I urge philanthropy to see the tremendous potential in our Native communities. And I extend an invitation to all grantmakers to join us at the White House on August 26, 2016, for Generation Indigenous: Raising Impact with Innovation and Proven Strategies, where we will seek to engage the philanthropic community in a dialogue about expanding support for Native youth.

At the meeting, you'll have the opportunity to listen and learn from key philanthropic leaders and organizations, including Casey Family Programs and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, as they officially launch a philanthropic partnership with Generation Indigenous. It is our deepest hope that the meeting will raise awareness of — and broad-based support for — solutions to the problems facing Native youth today and, in the process, generate new ways to empower Native youth through employment, access to a quality education, and tribal capacity building — all of it centered in Native youth leadership.

We hope you'll join us. Native youth are counting on you.

Headshot_edgar_villanuevaNote: Attendance is by invitation only. For more information, please contact Native Americans in Philanthropy at GenerationIndigenous@nativephilanthropy.org.

Edgar Villanueva is vice president of programs and advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education and a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter @VillanuevaEdgar.

An Alliance for Action — and a Safe Space for Conversations About Race

April 05, 2016

On Easter Sunday, my godson, Elijah, had his first encounter with the police. He is not yet three years old. His mother was pulled over because her Volkswagen Touareg has tinted windows. The tint is legal, and she wasn’t given a ticket. Nonetheless, in thinking about law enforcement and how to explain the situation to Elijah, we all grew anxious. We recognize that this will be one of many discussions we will need to have with him about the law, the police, and discrimination — simply because he is a black boy living in America.

Elijah_marisa_lee_for_PhilanTopicThe lessons we intended to teach Elijah on Easter — how to properly crack an Easter egg, why the Easter bunny brings baskets only to good little boys, and how Peeps expand dramatically in the microwave — were all interrupted by the lessons we felt compelled to start teaching him about what it means to be a black man in America. My cousin, Elijah's mother, is a critical care nurse, her husband a doctor. They live in an affluent neighborhood in Maryland. Yet I can't help but dread the day Elijah stops being seen as "adorable" and begins to be perceived as a "threat." What will we need to tell him then about how to behave in public? Will we stop him from wearing hooded sweatshirts so that others don't automatically think he's a "thug"? Will we tell him he can't run through his own neighborhood with his friends out of fear the police might see them and assume the worst?

Even if we teach him all the "right" things, and even if he actually listens (which, if he's anything like his godmother, he won't), we still won't be able to guarantee his safety. That's the concern that comes with being responsible for a young black man in America. I would never wish for Elijah to be white, but I do wish he didn't have to bear the burden of being a black boy. And the lack of control over the situation I feel surely is only a fraction of the anxiety that must haunt his parents — a shared anxiety that, despite their advanced degrees, fancy jobs, and above-average paychecks, will continue to fester as they, and I, work to guide Elijah safely into adulthood.

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No Cavalry Will Come to Save Our Cities: We’re the Leaders We’ve Been Waiting For

December 11, 2015

More than forty years after Dr. King asked, “Where do we go from here?” American society is still grappling with the question.

From Chicago to Minneapolis to Baltimore, our nation is in the midst of a defining moment of racial, social, and economic change. For communities of color, this moment is particularly stark and has been magnified by the courageous #BlackLivesMatter movement, which emerged in response to a long history of police violence and criminal injustice against black men and women.

CBMA_report_The_Promise_of_Place_for_PhilanTopicSocial justice, racial equity, and systems change are critical for today's black men and boys, particularly given the barriers that prevent them from realizing their full human potential. For America to prosper, we must recognize that black men and boys are assets to their families and communities and work to expand opportunities for them and improve their life outcomes.

As we have all come to realize, black men and boys face unique challenges on the path to success in education, work, and life. Statistics about these disparities are widely cited, including those from our Black Male Achievement Life Outcomes Dashboard. For example, 12 percent of black boys score at or above proficiency in eighth-grade reading, compared with 31 percent of all boys, while the black male unemployment rate of 15 percent is nearly double the 8 percent rate for all males.

With these challenging realities as a backdrop, the Campaign for Black Male Achievement (CBMA) — along with its partner organizations and networks, including the Obama administration’s recently established My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) Alliance — has long been engaged in actions to improve life outcomes and expand opportunities for black males and other young men of color.

Cities — where most of our nation’s black men and boys live — represent a critical focus of that work. We must ensure that all cities in America are equipped with the tools and resources they need to help black men and boys succeed and reach their full potential. That’s why CBMA commissioned a first-of-its-kind report titled The Promise of Place: Cities Advancing Black Male Achievement to assess how America’s cities are doing in providing support to black men and boys.

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In Post-Katrina New Orleans, Do Black Lives Really Matter?

August 28, 2015

Katrina_steps_guardianHurricane Katrina laid bare the lack of value attached to black lives in the U.S., a reality that New Orleans residents and the nation are still wrestling with a decade later. Recent events suggest that Americans are at a crossroads in terms of how they think, talk about, and deal with race and racism — but are still a long way from agreeing that black lives do indeed matter.

Ten years after Katrina brought New Orleans to its knees, the outlook for the city's African-American community is as grim as it was before the storm hit. According to the Cowen Institute at Tulane University, an estimated 26,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 in the city are disconnected from education and employment. Meanwhile, in Louisiana, which jails nearly 40,000 people per year (66 percent of whom are African American), as many as one in seven black men in some New Orleans neighborhoods are either in prison, on probation, or on parole. What's more, fully half of all African-American children in New Orleans live in poverty — more than in 2005.

As we mark another anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a fateful turning point in the city's and nation’s history, a critical question remains: How has so much racial and economic inequity been allowed to not only persist but worsen?

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (April 2015)

May 02, 2015

PhilanTopic hosted lots of great content in April, including opinion pieces by Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation in Detroit; and Peter Sloane, chairman and CEO of the New York City-based Heckscher Foundation for Children; Q&As with Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org; Karen McNeil-Miller, president of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust in North Carolina; and Judith Shapiro, president of the New York City-based Teagle Foundation; a terrific book review from the formidable Joanne Barkan; thought-provoking posts from regular contributors Mark Rosenman and Derrick Feldmann; and a great Storify assembled by our own Lauren Brathwaite. But don't take our word for it...

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

Creating a Culture of Mentorship Among Young Professionals — It Starts With Senior Management

May 01, 2015

Headshot_peter_sloaneWe know that young professional mentors who work in the for-profit world can play a crucial role in changing the life trajectories of underserved youth. Despite the trumpeting of mentorship programs by a large number of companies, however, too few know how to create a culture of mentorship. I'm not talking about encouraging employees to build camaraderie or esteem by spending a day cleaning up a roadside, or volunteering at a soup kitchen or pantry, or taking a poor kid to a ballgame (with company T-shirt and hat included). I'm not even talking about creating a culture of corporate "internship programs," which seldom lead to long-term employment for underserved youth but which often do feature prominent, well-intentioned CEOs on their boards (and on their billboards). If you think you don't need a more effective way to promote a culture of mentoring for less fortunate kids among your own workforce of young professionals, do it yourself and lead by example.

Before I began promoting that idea, I tried it with our own organization. I agreed to be a mentor to a young person attending a Catholic high school through Student Sponsor Partners. I wanted all to see that mentorship was rewarding for both the mentee and for me. Soon I was hearing stories from our staff and even my own kids about "their" mentees. 

So, when an invitation to speak to a firm's young employees at one of its regular professional development lunches came, I jumped at it — albeit with the ulterior motive to spread the word about the importance of senior management's commitment to mentorship. In anticipation of the presentation, I was furnished with an agenda, complete with time segments blocked out and a short period for Q&A. The agenda was fine, but predictable — tell them about your foundation's history and what you do kind of stuff, and then entertain questions for a few minutes at the end. The day before the lunch I even received a call assuring me that one of the partners would be happy to assist by prompting me with questions. I, in turn, assured the caller I was comfortable speaking to young professionals and did not need an agenda or prompting. I've done this often, I said, and with good results — that is, if you ignore my speech at my daughter's wedding, which I had decided to wing, only to find myself, when the time came, so overcome by emotion that the wedding planner had to prompt me to welcome the guests (the only part of the speech that rated more than a failing grade with my family).

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Black Male Achievement: Seizing the Moment in Detroit

April 20, 2015

Headshot_tonya_allenAt a March meeting in Detroit, a number of stakeholders committed to improving outcomes for young men of color sat around a table, sharing the words that best captured how they are experiencing the beginning of citywide work on the My Brother's Keeper initiative.

They shared words such as powerful, encouraged, and committed. All good things to hear.

When it came time for the one youth participant, a senior from Detroit's East Village Preparatory High School, to share, he paused and said quietly, "I just feel loved."

That's one of the best things I've heard in a long time. I want all young men of color in Detroit and across the nation to know, without a doubt, that they are important to our future, worthy of our investment, and indeed loved.

As president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, chair of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, and co-chair (with Bob Ross of the California Endowment) of the nationally focused Executive Alliance, I have the honor of being in a position to drive what's happening locally in my city of Detroit, as well as across the country.

And what I see – and work to encourage – is a growing momentum. In Detroit, stakeholders are meeting on an urgent schedule to create a citywide plan to improve outcomes for young men of color. That plan includes four platforms for action – education, health, workforce development, and safety. I'm encouraged to see who is at the table; they include not just longtime partners who have devoted decades to this work and know it well, but also new partners, including representatives from the city's business sector, bringing unique ideas, energy, and resources.

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'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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Nonprofits Are Not Doing Enough to Help Young Men of Color

January 27, 2015

Headshot_lowell_perryWith the recent grand-jury decisions not to indict the police officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, protests over the racial profiling of youth of color and the excessive use of force by individual members of police forces across the country have made the national news. Many of the demonstrations have been led by young people, of every color and stripe.

Meanwhile, the White House, which last year launched the My Brother's Keeper initiative to address the fact that too many young men of color are failing to reach their full potential, continues to work with concerned leaders to develop a comprehensive solution to the problem.

More can and must be done.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration's decision to provide funding for fifty thousand body cameras as well as additional training for police officers, at an estimated cost of more than $250 million, is not the kind of "solution" we need. In a world in which public-sector money to address social problems is scarce, do we really want to spend tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars on equipment to record interactions — the vast majority of them uneventful — between police officers and the public they are hired to serve and protect? Wouldn't that money be better spent on interventions designed to help boys and young men of color long before they come to the attention of local law enforcement?

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How to Help Low-Income Students Cross the Finish Line

November 07, 2014

Headshot_jessica_pliskaLast week Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a new partnership to help ambitious low-income students get into and graduate from top colleges and universities. This historic investment in college access is the latest initiative to expand opportunities for low-income students and is a big step forward.

I also know from hard experience that there is a next step.

For every hundred students from low-income families that start college, fewer than eight will graduate and secure jobs. So, if our goal is to enable these young people to take charge of their futures, we need to move the finish line: college graduation is not the final destination — launching a career is.

We need to integrate career education into our college access and success programs if we want to maximize the hundreds of millions of dollars we are investing in these students. College and career readiness cannot operate in separate, parallel dimensions, with career readiness as an implied outcome. Low-income students need interventions that are intensive, sustained, and rigorous.

My organization, The Opportunity Network, levels the playing field for high-achieving, low-income high school and college students by creating access for them to career opportunities and professional networks while they are still in school. Our curriculum builds what we call "career fluency." In addition to preparing students for college, we teach them how to build and leverage professional relationships for academic and professional success. One hundred percent of our students graduate from college, and 85 percent start career-track jobs or graduate school within six months of college completion.

I've seen firsthand that education is essential, but it isn't enough.

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‘Under Construction’: Healing With a Groove

October 29, 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.

Where there is joy, there is music. Frustration, music. Hope, music. Love found, love lost, music and more music. It expresses emotion when words alone are inadequate and provides a soundtrack for our lives.

In the Mississippi Delta, the cradle of the blues, the black experience has been chronicled by enduring and endearing songs that lament racism, relationship problems, social inequity, and the aggravation of being broke. The blues are a gift to the world, one that the Delta is best known for. The music spills out of unassuming juke joints that come alive after dark and that have produced more GRAMMY Award winners per capita than any other region of the country.

The blues is not necessarily the preferred language of the young men coming up now, though. They speak hip-hop and make personal heroes out of Southern-born rappers like Lil' Boosie and Yo Gotti, artists celebrated for their lyrical realness and rags-to-riches success. The issues that both genres address are the same, but the stories born out of them are set to a different beat.

It’s fertile ground for Healing With a Groove.

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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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Doubling Down: When a Foundation Renews or Expands a Grant

July 25, 2014

Headshot_sandy_edwardsAs a new foundation in 2006, the Jim Joseph Foundation outlined a strategy of awarding large multiyear grants. Through a careful planning process, we determined that multiyear grants would give grantees the time needed to successfully implement and evaluate bold initiatives — and that longer-term investments likely would be needed for  the foundation's grantmaking to achieve substantive goals. As of June 2014, 82 percent of the foundation's grants had at least a three-year term, and a full 67 percent were for four years or more. As a result, only in the last few years have we begun to consider the renewal or expansion of grants to key grantees.

There are many factors in this process. At its core, an opportunity for renewal or expansion of a grant initiative is a result both of positive outcomes demonstrated by a grant evaluation and/or a deep relationship that has developed between the foundation and the grantee. Both of these critical factors — one tangible and the other more abstract — evolve over the lifetime of a grant period.

During the grant development stage, foundation staff work closely with future grantees to determine the strategy alignment of a potential grant, with a particular focus on the extent to which it addresses the core priorities of an organization's work. Once a grant is awarded, the relationship between the foundation and grantee is hopefully strengthened through open and honest dialogue. Major grant awards include an independent evaluation to determine whether project goals are being achieved (in ways that advance both the foundation's and grantee's missions), key learnings are being disseminated, and to help guide the continued efforts of the grantee. Fortunately, there are many grant renewal success stories we can highlight, each one unique and with important insights to offer.

In 2007, the Jim Joseph Foundation funded the Foundation for Jewish Camp's Specialty Camp Incubator, which resulted in the opening of five new camps (92Y Passport NYC, Adamah Adventures, Eden Village Camp, Ramah Outdoor Adventures, and URJ 6 Points Academy) in the summer of 2010. In addition to significant enrollment growth at each camp, an independent evaluation (31 pages, PDF) conducted by Informing Change reported that campers, as a result of their camp experience, had improved their specialty skills, become more self-confident, knew more about being Jewish, felt more positive and enthusiastic about being Jewish, made more decisions based on the camps' Jewish values, and felt closer to Jewish kids their age. As a foundation committed to creating more and better Jewish learning opportunities, we welcome the opportunity to build on a successful grant and, based on the successful outcomes generated by the incubator effort, we decided to fund a second incubator and the launch of four more camps in partnership with the AVI CHAI Foundation. This grant will broaden FJC's sources of funding and enable it to continue to enhance and strengthen the Jewish summer camp experience with a proven model that increases the number of exciting camp options.

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Our Girls Are in Trouble, Too

May 28, 2014

Headshot_cathy_weissI was thrilled recently to read about the Foundation Center's new report Building a Beloved Community: Strengthening the Field of Black Male Achievement. The report details the exciting and long overdue work in the area of black male achievement and provides recommendations for strengthening that work.

At Stoneleigh Foundation, we are familiar with the disparities that black males — particularly boys and young men — face, and we believe that, to improve life outcomes for this population, it is imperative to understand what it means to be a young black male in the context of current and past realities. We are certain that policies for serving these boys and young men can be successful only if we consider the intergenerational cycles of neglect and trauma that have been hardwired into their brains. Using a gendered and, in this case, cultural lens to approach public policy is necessary to advance a targeted and effective strategy.

We at Stoneleigh applaud the "intensified focus" on black males, and we look forward to having more partners join us in redressing the policies that have resulted in such unfortunate realities for too many.

Similarly, we would like to see the same gendered lens applied to girls when devising policies that affect young, at-risk females. Research shows a basic lack of awareness of how the challenges faced by girls differ from those of boys — and how we can and should serve girls differently. At a recent symposium hosted by Stoneleigh, we explored the unique challenges girls are facing, how coping with these challenges often leads to system involvement, and why girls are falling through the cracks of the current "one size fits all" child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Compared to previous generations, adolescent girls are getting into trouble with the law and with their peers at unprecedented rates. Girls in the child welfare system experience more teen pregnancies, bad birth outcomes, and poor health, and they are more likely to abuse their own children. And for many girls, the child welfare system leads directly to the juvenile justice system. But why? And what are we doing to support girls so that system involvement doesn't lead to these heartbreakingly too-common outcomes?

Our systems are failing girls because we have yet to seek the answers to these questions. We must explore ways to better harness the strength and resilience of girls, and that starts with understanding who they are, the challenges they face, and what they need to thrive. Let's take a cue from the powerful work being done to address the challenges faced by our at-risk boys and young men, and apply the same focus to girls. Our collective success depends on it.

Cathy Weiss is executive director of the Philadelphia-based Stoneleigh Foundation, which works to improve the life outcomes of vulnerable children and youth and also funds fellowships for individuals working to improve the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. The foundation recently convened a symposium titled "What About the Girls?" that brought together leaders in juvenile justice and child welfare to discuss the concept that girls can only be served effectively if we begin to understand the unique challenges they are facing.

It's Time to Make the American Dream Available to All

May 27, 2014

Headshot_geoff_canadaThe barriers to success that black men face have been in plain sight for decades, so it is particularly heartening to see a movement taking shape that is specifically crafted to address these challenges and change the odds for one of the most disenfranchised populations in America.

I was on the board of trustees of the Open Society Foundations when the idea of a black male achievement campaign first came up. While it was obvious that something needed to be done, we immediately found ourselves facing a philosophical dilemma: Was it right to target just one group when other groups also need help?

In a country where cultural and racial relations are as complicated as they are in the United States, people are understandably hesitant to publicly announce they are going to help one group while seemingly ignoring all others. Eventually, we concluded that tailoring our efforts to a group that has a common history and a resulting set of common challenges is absolutely the right approach. Black men in America — while individuals in their own right — are heirs to a unique historical experience. After slavery was ended by the Civil War, black men faced decades of institutional racism, Jim Crow and segregation, public lynchings, and disenfranchisement. More recently, they have been abused and demeaned by a toxic street culture and media stereotypes that glorify self-destructive behavior.

If we are going to close the achievement gap and end what the Children's Defense Fund calls the "cradle to prison pipeline" for black boys and men, we need to take into consideration the insidious context of their situation. Indeed, as the Campaign for Black Male Achievement has taken shape, gaining traction even as parallel efforts have emerged, we've seen how necessary and overdue such an effort is. While there is certainly a lot of day-to-day work still to be done, the narrative and national dialogue have begun to change. Ignorance and fear are giving way to empathy and intelligent action.

We have, in Barack Obama, a president who has given the imprimatur of the White House to the idea that racism will not be sanctioned or ignored by society.  In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting, the president's empathetic response created space for an honest, open, and clear-eyed public discussion of race relations and the stubbornness of racism in America.

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