During a two-hour summit, leaders of some of Buffalo’s most prominent government and community agencies brainstormed the issues facing young men of color in the city, using rainbow Post Its and markers to sketch out their solutions.
By the end of Monday’s session in Mount Olive Baptist Church on East Delavan Avenue, those leaders came up with a list of recommendations seemingly garnered from a dictionary of bureaucratic buzz words. They included “Merge strategic planning between the city and the school district to create interest-based schools” and “Mapping of organizations in the city.”
Meanwhile, for Buffalo Public Schools students on their way home through the East Side neighborhood, the problems – and potential solutions – need not be so complicated.
“You see it everywhere, just look around,” said a 13-year-old BUILD Academy student, gesturing at groups of men on East Delavan’s corners. “There’s drug dealers everywhere. As school lets out they’re all out here. You can’t get home without passing them. You’ve always got to watch your back.”
They also talked about what happens inside the schools.
“The teachers will spend so much time focusing on one student who is causing problems,” said a freshman at Math Science Technology Preparatory School. “They always act like it’s a behavior problem, when maybe we’re just trying to tell them something. They’re not even giving us a chance.”
Young men like these two were noticeably missing from the roundtable discussion, part of a broader national effort aimed at finding ways to help such youth be more successful. Mayor Byron W. Brown said they have other opportunities to voice their thoughts to the agencies present at the conference. After all, as young black men growing up in the inner city, they are central to an issue dogging urban areas across the country.
A litany of education data points to glaring gaps between the performance of black male students and their white peers. Nationwide, 52 percent of young black men graduate from high school, reports the Schott Foundation for Public Education, compared with 78 percent of their white, male peers.
In Buffalo, the percentage of young black men finishing high school has been as low as 25 percent, although it increased to 45 percent this past year. That still trails their white counterparts, who post a graduation rate of 61 percent.
The reasons for the gaps are many and multifaceted, with most stemming from neighborhoods plagued by crime and poverty. Once they enter school systems often ill-equipped to meet their unique needs, all too many see more of a future for themselves on the street corner than in the classroom.
Yet the cost of academic failure is high for young men of color – and their communities – with statistics showing that black and Hispanic men who do not finish high school fuel a pipeline to the unemployment office and prison. The Brookings Institute reports that there is a nearly 70 percent chance that a black man who drops out of high school will be imprisoned by his mid-30s. That is more than triple the risk for white men who don’t finish high school.
“When there is one part of our community that is not operating at 100 percent it affects all of us,” said the Rev. William Gillison, pastor of Mount Olive.
President Obama launched the My Brother’s Keeper initiative earlier this year, putting out a call to action for cities to pull together resources to support young men of color from the time they are born until they enter the workforce. Buffalo is one of about 150 cities to answer the challenge.
The city’s effort started with Monday’s summit, during which representatives from a variety of community groups identified what they believe to be the biggest challenges facing young men of color. They then brainstormed solutions, many of which related to programs that already exist in the city.
“We have the resources in our community to take young men of color to higher heights and where they can realize their dreams,” Brown said.
City leaders now plan to review the summit recommendations and pull data from a variety of sources to identify indicators that may help them better target their resources to young people.
“We have the resources here in this community,” Brown said. “We certainly want all youth in the City of Buffalo to reach their full potential, regardless of who they are, where they come from and the circumstances they were born into.”
Yet, as the students themselves say, those resources often fail to make it to those who most need them. Their stories paint a scenario far more complex than can fit on a few Post Its. Issues with gangs and violence start on neighborhood streets, but often trickle into the classroom. There, they say, they are more often met by judgment than empathy and understanding.
Their teachers don’t understand the challenges they deal with at home, and are quick to discipline them for minor offenses. One young man recalled walking past the teachers lounge and hearing staff members complain about city students, comparing them to those in the suburbs.
It can be tough, but another 13-year-old at BUILD Academy does not let these things distract him. He stays focused on his goals for the future, which include becoming president.
His community needs leaders, he says, and eventually young people can have a voice – if they choose it.
“I try to think about everything that I could do if I stay focused and get my education,” he said. “We young people can take over this city. The adults just need to give us a chance.”