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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?

Consider: An investment of only $18 million, or $1,200 per participant, is enough for a well-known national youth-serving organization to match fifteen thousand boys of color with an experienced mentor. Without that kind of investment, many of those boys will end up in the criminal justice system, either as perpetrators or victims of crime, costing taxpayers and society far more over the long run than a modest investment in a good mentorship program. Even the most obdurate conservative in Congress should see the value in such an investment.

Given the sad fiscal reality of so many of our states and the federal government, where might the money for such an investment come from? Yes, there are the usual sources, which, in addition to government, include corporations, foundations, and individual donors. But there may be another source we are overlooking: institutions of higher education. A handful of elite colleges and universities, including my alma mater, Yale, boast multi-billion-dollar endowments. Surely there is a way for them and other wealthy institutions to invest in our kids through existing programs that achieve positive results. Imagine the good that just 1 percent of the income from a multi-billion portfolio could do to improve the prospects of low-income and at-risk kids — not to mention the broader impact such an investment would have on society.

And it's not only about money. What about nonprofit board opportunities? How many graduates of elite colleges and universities are lending their talents and skills to nonprofits working to ensure that fewer young men of color enter the prison pipeline? I would wager that if college and university administrators did more to develop strong nonprofit leadership programs on their campuses, governance at such nonprofits — at all nonprofits — would improve fairly quickly and dramatically.

What's more, if nonprofits hope to attract the resources necessary to scale their programs and effect true social change, the mindset at the board level must evolve. History teaches that major shifts in society do not happen without the participation of committed leaders. Boards and executive leadership must recognize and keep pace with the demand for change — or risk seeing their organizations become irrelevant.

At the operational level, nonprofits working to improve the life outcomes of boys and young men of color must do more to diversify their boards and C suites. Recent statistics suggest that many nonprofits are way behind in terms of embracing a true culture of diversity and inclusion, particularly when it comes to leadership positions. Striving to be culturally competent is not just the right thing to do; it also leads to a better understanding of one's constituents. What, for example, was the national youth-serving nonprofit with fifteen thousand boys of color on its waiting list thinking when it recently eliminated its entire diversity department — a department that, in addition to raising money, was the organization's primary link to the communities it served?

There is no shortage of people of color who possess the talent, passion, influence, and resources to serve on the board of either a local or national organization dedicated to serving youth. The problem is that too many nonprofits either don't know where to look for these individuals or lack the cultural competence to actively engage them.

The good news is that as communities of color are given more of a voice in the direction and operation of youth-serving agencies, change will be realized. And that change will benefit the entire country. A long-term broad-based investment in the future of disadvantaged children and families may not be politically expedient, but it's the smart thing to do — and, as all caring, clear-thinking Americans understand, the right thing to do. If current policy discussions are to have any chance of yielding solutions that actually lead to results, youth-serving nonprofits need more resources, both financial and human, and they need to be held to a higher standard of diversity and inclusiveness. Because if we don't invest in our youth now, we will pay a much higher price down the road.

Lowell Perry is the former CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee and a national youth advocate.

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