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Newsmaker: Shawn Dove, Campaign Manager, Campaign for Black Male Achievement, Open Society Foundations

December 17, 2012

Headshot_Shawn Dove_In October, the Open Society Foundations and the Foundation Center released a report, Where Do We Go From Here? Philanthropic Support for Black Men and Boys  (40 pages, PDF), which found, among other things, that philanthropic support for African-American men and boys has risen steadily over the past decade, from $10 million in 2003 to $29 million in 2010. At a time when nearly every major indicator of economic, social, and physical well-being shows that African-American males do not have access to the opportunities they need to thrive, the philanthropic sector is working to address this critical need on two fronts: by supporting organizations in the "black male achievement field" and by spotlighting the fact that more needs to be done to tackle racial and economic inequality in America.

In the foreward to the report, Shawn Dove, manager of the OSF-based Campaign for Black Male Achievement, noted that former Open Society board member Lani Guinier has long argued that African-American males are not unlike "canaries in the coalmine," in that their socioeconomic plight foreshadows many negative trends that eventually will affect the broader society. That explains why, for many, the well-being of African-American men and boys is not a "black issue." It is, as Dove said when we spoke to him recently, "an American issue." Moreover, he added, "[g]rantmakers should not enter th[e] field with the expectation that they can parachute in and save the day....We need to look at what's working, and to spread the word about what success looks like."

After more than twenty years working in the fields of youth development, education, and community building, including stints as a director of a Beacon School in Harlem, as creative communities director for the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts, and as vice president for MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, Dove joined OSF in 2008. PND spoke with him in November, shortly after the release of the report.

Philanthropy News Digest: We've been told that America in 2012 is a post-racial society. Is it?

Shawn Dove: I guess that depends on one's definition and interpretation of "post-racial." If one's definition is a society in which there are no racial disparities when it comes to opportunity, access, and equity, I would say, "Not so much." In 2012, America aspires to be post-racial. But judging by the wealth gap, ethnic and racial disparities in access to high-quality education, and the number of people of color in the House and Senate, I'd say we still have some work to do.

PND: Countless studies and papers have outlined the many root causes of racial inequality in America. If the causes are clear, why do large portions of the African-American community continue to be adversely affected by disparities in education, health care, and employment?

SD: You know, that is the billion-dollar question. Two of our grantee partners, the American Values Institute and the Opportunity Agenda, have done extensive research on implicit bias in America, and what their research revealed was that far too many people hold unconscious racial prejudices that affect their decision making when interacting with races other than their own. So while retail sales managers, for example, will say they don't have racist attitudes or are not prejudiced, they'll also resist putting people of color, specifically African-American males, in roles that have direct contact with customers.

Americans of all ethnicities still have an exceedingly difficult time having honest conversations about race. There are a number of organizations and leaders who are organizing people to have discussions about racial disparities in our society, but a lot of work still needs to be done to change the behaviors that perpetuate inequality in this country.

In 2013, a film called American Promise will premiere and lift up the issue of black male achievement, offering all of us an opportunity to have an honest conversation about race and education in America. The film provides a rare look into the lives of two middle class black families as they navigate the ups and downs of parenting and educating their sons. With support from Open Society, the Ford Foundation, and the Fledgling Fund, as well as other partners, a national outreach campaign is being developed to empower boys, their parents, and educators to help close the black male achievement gap and deal with racial disparities.

PND: As journalist Gary Younge noted in a Nation article last year, the economic gap between black and white has grown since President Obama took office. What advice would you give the president as he prepares for his second term?

SD: We need to be clear about what the president inherited when he was elected in 2008, and how long it will actually take to turn things around, especially when the political process for moving legislation is fraught with partisan obstacles at every turn. Back then, the American economy was in free fall, and by the time Obama took office in January 2009, the economy was in a certified crisis. The president had to take certain measures to avert a full-out depression. Yet even with those steps, the country could not avoid the layoffs and high unemployment that followed -- something that affected all ethnicities and racial groups but hit African Americans the hardest.

Now that Obama has been re-elected and the economy is slowly recovering from the collapse of the housing bubble, we need a plan to lower the poverty rate and help raise low-income families into the middle class. We need policies and solutions that are systemic and sustainable and will endure past 2016. The administration also should develop more partnerships with the private sector to ensure that young people are developing employable skills, and it needs to focus on how education can help people become first-generation members of the middle class.

PND: According to Where Do We Go From Here?, foundation funding for African-American men and boys started to pick up after 2006. To what do you attribute the increase?

SD: Fearless leadership and innovation in the philanthropic sector. Data across issues that have been disaggregated by race and gender. And any number of leaders who have pushed strategies and formed coalitions around targeted solutions designed to improve the life outcomes of African-American men and boys.

PND: Have efforts like the Campaign for Black Male Achievement and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy's Philanthropy's Promise campaign helped to raise awareness of needs in the African-American community?

SD: The answer is a resounding yes. But, you know, even before philanthropy became more organized and coordinated around the issue, we were seeing greater investment in research and communications strategies to elevate the issue. Here at Open Society, our aim with the Campaign for Black Male Achievement was to keep the issue front and center in the public discourse, because we felt that if it dropped out of the conversation and if solutions were not identified and amplified, other things would wind up distracting us from addressing it. I think the same can be said of the Promise initiative, which in June, a year after its launch, had doubled the number of its partners to a hundred and twenty-five, representing nearly $3.4 billion in giving. These campaigns help shine a light on the needs of an underserved and underrepresented population, and how we are working to meet those needs.

PND: Tell us about the Campaign for Black Male Achievement. How did it come about? And how did you become involved?

SD: I would say an impassioned conversation inside philanthropy was ignited after an article titled "Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn" appeared on the front page of the New York Times in 2006. The article highlighted the many disparities and inequities confronting African-American men: indeed, at a time when the economy was booming and the nation's top earners were gaining significant wealth, African-American men were falling further and further behind. Well, the article ignited a conversation at OSF among staff who felt that an organization that prided itself on supporting a more democratic, fair, and just society and on empowering the most marginalized individuals in society to become agents in their own empowerment should be at the forefront of this issue. As I later learned, there was debate about whether the foundation should launch a campaign specifically targeting support for African-American men and boys, with some staff making a strong case that the foundation already was engaged in the issue through its investments in reform of the criminal justice system. But it eventually became clear to everyone that this was an opportunity to more directly address the causes of the "prison pipeline."

At the same time that discussion was happening, I was publishing a community newspaper called Proud Poppa for African-American Fathers and leading a youth ministry at my church. Prior to that, I had worked with Geoffrey Canada at the Harlem Children's Zone. After the foundation decided to launch the campaign, a number of people encouraged me to apply for the position of campaign manager. Eventually, I did, and that's how I got involved.

The campaign, which launched in 2008, was originally supposed to be a three-year initiative. But about eighteen months into it, OSF founder George Soros and the foundation's board decided to get rid of the term limits and, based on our early work, increased our budget. I think that decision helped other philanthropic institutions to better understand the severity of the problem and the foundation's deep commitment to addressing it over the long haul.

PND: Has the campaign had an impact? And how do you measure that?

SD: Well, that's the other billion-dollar question. Four years ago, when the campaign was launched, there was no clearly defined field of black male achievement -- or it wasn't acknowledged in the way it is today by researchers, policy advocates, practitioners, and funders. In that way, we have been successful beyond measure. Today there is a movement and a field of black male achievement. To achieve this in four years speaks to the commitment among organizations, individuals, and communities who are seeking to find solutions to the problems plaguing black men and boys. But while there's been a breakthrough on both the national and local level in terms of awareness and activity around the issue, the verdict is still out on how and whether the field is creating impact on a national scale. There is anecdotal evidence that it is, but that's the main reason why my colleagues and I argue that philanthropy needs a sustained commitment to this work.

Through its Boys and Young Men of Color initiative, for example, the California Endowment has helped to introduce a number of bills in California around school discipline and dropout/pushout rates; four of which have passed. The endowment also is helping to reduce the number of African-American boys engaged in the juvenile justice system. Elsewhere, the Knight Foundation re-launched an effort called Black Male Engagement that supports African-American males in their communities. The unique thing about the Knight initiative is that the foundation acknowledges -- correctly, in my view -- that the problem isn't with African-American men and boys, the problem is rooted in the system and the society in which African-American men and boys grow up. And so the initiative seeks to recognize and elevate the work of "regular" guys who are already adding value and contributing to their respective communities.

Open Society, in partnership with Echoing Green, also launched a Black Male Achievement Fellowship, to identify innovative social entrepreneurs who are focusing on ways to sustain black male achievement across a number of issue areas and a Leadership and Sustainability Institute for Black Male Achievement, a national membership organization that we believe will be the engine that sustains this work over the long haul. We've already seen a tremendous response to the institute after its official launch during our Innovation and Impact Forum for Black Male Achievement. To date, over four hundred organizations across the country have been identified and expressed a sincere commitment to join efforts designed to improve the life outcomes of black men and boys.

Ultimately, however, it is important that we acknowledge that this is a generational issue that will require a long-term commitment. The challenges that prevent black male achievement come out of decades and centuries of systemic injustices. So to expect that after four years of a campaign we would reverse these trends is reflective of the general state of philanthropy, which often will focus on a hot or popular issue of the moment but, after a few years, will move on to the next pressing issue. If we hope to truly measure impact and see change we must commit for the long term.

PND: Even as some of the biggest foundations are stepping up their support for African-American men and boys, the sector continues to wrestle with its own diversity challenges, including the relative lack of minority representation on foundation boards or in foundation leadership positions. Is that an issue of there not being enough qualified minority candidates for these positions? And if so, what can foundations do to help boost the size of the applicant pool?

SD: It's definitely not an issue of there not being enough qualified candidates for these positions. Anyone who states that is not looking hard enough -- there are fellowships, internships, more aggressive recruiting tactics, and even affinity groups out there that can help organizations find qualified people of color to fill open positions. I do think we are seeing an increase in the diversity of leadership, but we have a long way to go to get where we need to be, especially when we closely examine diversity data at the trustee and CEO level.

PND: Given President Obama's re-election, are you at all encouraged by general trends in society with respect to African Americans, particularly men and boys?

SD: Oh, yes, I'm an eternal optimist. As you know, our recent Innovation and Impact Forum brought together leaders from every sector who are focused on the issue, including folks from New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's Young Men's Initiative as well as Cities United, an effort led by Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter and New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu to galvanize municipal leaders to respond to the unacceptably high number of violent deaths of African-American men in cities nationwide. The issue has definitely gained traction at the municipal level, and I feel optimistic about the pace of our progress.

But as we look more closely at how we measure impact and promote what works, I am concerned about the sustainability of our efforts. There are groups doing phenomenal work, and they need continued support. What America really needs is something like a corporation for Black Male Achievement that would allow an endowed philanthropic social enterprise to really lean into this issue and create lasting change.

PND: What would you say to your colleagues in other foundations about the importance of this issue?

SD: Well, I would say that this is not a "black issue," it is an American issue that has a negative impact on all of us. I would ask them to focus on assets and not deficits. Grantmakers should not enter this field with the expectation that they can parachute in and save the day. I truly believe that the answers to the challenges African-American men and boys are facing reside in the hearts, minds, and hands of African-American men and boys. It's this whole idea of the power of positive deviance. We need to look at what's working, and to spread the word about what success looks like.

I would encourage my colleagues who ask "Why an explicit focus on African-American men and boys?" to look at the data. Once they do, I believe they will join us and the many other foundations working to build and strengthen the African-American community. I would also challenge my colleagues to think about how we can increase public-private collaboration around this issue, and about being in this for the long haul. We're not going to create lasting change with a three- or five-year campaign, or by launching another initiative. The philanthropic community needs to give this issue the time and support it requires.

Lastly, I would share a quote from one of my colleagues, John Jackson, CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. In a speech he delivered at a recent grantmakers for education conference in New York City, John said, "Programs are progress, and we need progress. But policy is power." And with that, I would like to encourage my colleagues to invest in advocacy and policy change, not just programs. We are dealing with systemic and structural barriers that I believe can only be addressed and solved through policy reform.

-- Regina Mahone

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Posted by Emily Keller  |   December 24, 2012 at 10:53 AM

Excellent interview, Regina! I’m so glad to see this conversation giving us additional background information on the issues covered in the October report and I’m looking forward to hearing more as the campaign continues. I was particularly interested in your question about measuring impact and Shawn’s response about the campaign’s success in establishing a definition of black male achievement in the research, policy, and funding communities. I think this awareness and identification goes a long way toward encouraging action on these issues by setting a baseline from which to improve upon and data to show us in 5, 10, or 20 years where progress has been achieved and what additional work is needed. Following up on Shawn’s point that this is an American issue, I wonder what implications these efforts have for African-American women and girls and where the issues and challenges faced as a result of discrimination or other barriers to success overlap or diverge. I think that would be an interesting comparison as well.

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