As many prepare to recognize the five-year anniversary of the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative (MBK) at MBK Rising!, which takes place this week on Feb. 19th and 20th, there is also a deeply reflective sentiment in the community. Now out of its infancy, there is consensus that the boys and men of color (BMoC) field has reached a critical development point. There is certainly much to celebrate. But as with any pivotal moment, we would be remiss to not assess the opportunities for growth and greater impact. This first requires a clear understanding of the environment that set the scene for MBK, and then a review of the current landscape in order to carve out a path forward with intention.
It is clear that the field existed in advance of MBK, but the initiative elevated the constellation of programs and initiatives that existed before the launch. For years, several foundations invested in a disparate set of initiatives that tackled some portion of the challenges that face BMoC. Thanks to a host of entrepreneurial program officers within these institutions, there was gradual momentum. These program officers pushed work from behind the scenes, to meaningfully expand programs into portfolios, and expand those portfolios into the set of initiatives and institutions that created the field. So when the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative was launched, above all, it should be said that it elevated the field. And if done well, MBK was to elevate the work already happening to build into meaningful changes in the lives of boys and men of color.
Make no mistake, there was a groundswell of excitement at the creation of MBK. From the onset, there was tremendous hope rooted in assumptions about the resources that MBK would be able to provide to the already committed organizations on the ground. And at the federal level, the initiative carried out its role and did the work of convening, building the policy framework, and creating the economic justification for expanded and sustained investment. The MBK Task Force assessed the policy landscape at key points in the first two years after the launch. Additionally, a critical report, "Economic Costs of Youth Disadvantage and High-Return Opportunities for Change," provided the economic basis for the work and focused on the inclusion of boys and men of color as a significant portion of the population, and their economic contribution and potential in the labor force to increase GDP.
With this convening power and policy acumen, MBK took the helm not as the primary implementer of the field, but instead as a super-structure to encompass the work. Although the executive-convening authority was leveraged to galvanize investments at the city level (e.g., New Orleans), there were not a lot of direct resources that would come. On the ground, there was an expectation of major surge of resources from MBK and partner foundations, with a hope that MBK would shift into a centralizing forum.
The initiative used milestones as the major policy indicator of engagement and improvement of circumstances for BMoC. Milestones were largely education-focused (grade-level reading, graduation rates, college completion, job preparedness), and many cities were being pushed to make commitments. At the same time, there was interest and momentum from the grassroots and community-based organizations (who were generally providing individual interventions), but they were still left hungry for resources. The expectation was that the path to resources would come through the city pledges, which relied on decision-making on the local level. This became the first test of the field’s ability to address the misalignment of hope between the community-level and federal momentum.
Communities and cities that were already resourced and partially mobilized did well, while those that did not have existing investment floundered. However, much of that investment came from the frame of a deficit, which the MBK framework was positioned to challenge. The traditional focus on Black men and boys through the lens of violence prevention has long been worth exploring and upending, and MBK offered that chance. From my perspective, this lone contribution could be the seismic shift needed to reorient the objectives (and accompanying investment) to impact the lives of boys and men of color.
One of the visions is to refine the opportunity space as it pertains to boys and men of color, determining the economic (individual and societal) benefit when they are able to redefine the way they enter the world. There are a few guiding questions that I would posit in order to rebuild a vision in accordance with the frame, and this is the opportunity space that many are hungry to see MBK step into.
In order to reset our approach away from a deficit narrative, the MBK Alliance could serve as a forum to lay out a clear image for a foundation for boys and men of color upon which they can build, instead of a cobbled set of circumstances through which they can stitch a life. The questions reflect the need to build a common vision for that foundation, which MBK is well-suited to accomplish:
- Who paints the vision for what society looks like when boys and men of color are thriving?
- Does that vision create a clearer picture of success or desired outcomes?
- What does it looks like for BMoC to tap into their kinetic potential?
- What structures facilitate that?
This is a challenge the field must tackle in order to propel it forward. Make no mistake, this is hard work that requires upending current paradigms and norms. We often speak so much about the problems, deficits, and statistics, that our ability to envision and believe is muddled. This question, or challenge, is not without a response and needs to be grappled with. If that becomes our point of departure and centers the strategy, it calls into question the metrics and measures of progress in alignment to the ultimate goal.
Many have benefited from what MBK has done in the last five years. But in order for this moment in history to be sustained into a true movement to shift the lives of boys and men of color, we have to build a vision beyond the perspective of lacking and into a lens of unbridled abundance.