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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.

Since then, support for black men and boys has ebbed and flowed. Most investments have been episodic in nature, with resources typically committed in three-year intervals — or until the focus of grantmakers shifted to a new issue or concern. Something changed, however, in 2006, when an article by Erik Eckholm ("Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn") in the New York Times sparked a conversation within the philanthropic sector about the need to once again address the unique challenges and systemic barriers resulting in the continued disenfranchisement of black men and boys. Although many in the African-American community were well aware of the problem and had been speaking out about it for years, Eckholm's piece served to refocus America's attention on the fact that black men and boys were falling further behind on every measure of well-being and success, from employment to incarceration.

More recently, social media has served to highlight, on a regular basis, instances of injustice involving black men and women. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, and Michael Brown were stories that might have gone unnoticed by traditional media had it not been for community members and ordinary citizens' embrace of social media to tell, with power and authenticity, their own stories and explain the reality of their lives.

To keep the challenges, and opportunities, facing black men and boys at the center of the philanthropic and public policy conversation, CBMA worked from the very beginning to build the "brand" of black male achievement. We wanted to ensure that there would be more accurate and diverse depictions of black men and boys in the media as a way to change hearts and minds. Some of the organizations, people, and efforts engaged in that strategy included Color of Change, BMe Community, and Opportunity Agenda; outreach for the films American Promise and Beyond the Bricks; and Alexis McGill Johnson and the Perception Institute, which helped launch the Black Male: Re-Imagined campaign.

In  a 2013 Newsweek/Daily Beast article ("The Fight for Black Men") Joshua DuBois, CEO of Value Partnerships and former director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, again elevated the national conversation that had been sparked seven years earlier by Eckholm's piece in the Times. Rather than focusing on statistics and barriers, DuBois asked thirty leaders about their work to improve life outcomes for black men and boys. The resulting article shone a spotlight on the work of people like Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow; Geoffrey Canada, former CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone; and Joe Jones, CEO of the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore. The article also highlighted a number of key philanthropic leaders, including Robert Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, and Casey Family Programs CEO William Bell, as well as Shawn Dove, who at the time was manager of OSF's Campaign for Black Male Achievement and now serves as president of CBMA.

Over the next several years, CBMA's success will be measured in terms of goals aimed at strengthening the field of black male achievement and supporting organizations and leaders working to address the systemic, multi-generational barriers that have prevented black men and boys from full inclusion in American society. Success in this next phase of our evolution as an independent and standalone organization will only be achieved, however, if we move from simply keeping black men and boys at the center of the philanthropic and public policy discourse to actually shifting that discourse in the direction of empathy for black men and boys.

Headshot_rashid_shabazzAs DuBois put it at the conclusion of his piece, society's efforts on behalf of black men and boys must be motivated by a "'there but for the grace of God go I' mentality." Anything less will leave us as a nation and democracy harmed in our failure to demonstrate once and for all that indeed all lives matter, regardless of race, color, or gender.

Rashid Shabazz is vice president of communications at the Campaign for Black Male Achievement. He previously served as program officer for the Open Society Foundations Campaign for Black Male Achievement and is featured in the new book "Reach: 40 Black Men Speak on Living, Leading, and Succeeding." 

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