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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.

The combination of love and fear I carry with me daily is part of what motivates my commitment to the My Brother's Keeper Alliance. Launched last May as a private-sector effort in support of President Obama's My Brother’s Keeper initiative, the MBK Alliance is working to catalyze a national effort to build ladders of opportunity for young boys and men of color. We know the world we live in can be a scary place, and we need to not only build organizations that support boys and young men of color, but to create safe spaces where we, and they, can have tough conversations about what it means to be a young black man in America. But thoughtful dialogue about race, opportunity, and equity shouldn't end when President Obama leaves the White House. At the MBK Alliance, we are focused on galvanizing the business community to put its collective resources to work for boys and young men of color, to support evidence-driven interventions, and to help communities build their infrastructure and capacity.

We are just getting started on that work, but our principles and values are a hundred percent American and our goal is to share best practices and scale exemplary organizations that already are creating positive change in their communities. To that end, we aim to be both data-driven and innovative in our approach and to collaborate closely with other organizations that demonstrate successful outcomes in this space. Indeed, forging partnerships with other organizations serving boys and young men of color may be the single most important factor in ensuring that our work is substantive, sustainable, and impactful.

By encouraging and working to foster thoughtful dialogue about, and providing access to, meaningful opportunities for boys and young men of color, we are hopeful we can change the all-too-common narrative that demonizes them. More than anything, we want to create a world where all children live, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a nation where they are not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Elijah, like all our children, deserves nothing less.

Marisa_lee_for_PhilanTopic Marisa Renee Lee is managing director of My Brother's Keeper Alliance, which works to bring leaders from the philanthropic, nonprofit, and private sectors together in a national movement to improve life outcomes for boys and young men of color. MBK Alliance is a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

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  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."

    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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