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The flip side to violence in Buffalo: My Brother's Keeper

The 86 boys stepped through the doors into the courtyard and waded between the two rows of men – mentors – who greeted them with cheers, pats on the back and high fives.

“Young men,” said one of the mentors, “who are you?”

“I am my brother’s keeper,” the boys replied in unison.

The ceremony welcomed a new crop of seventh- and eighth-graders into the My Brother’s Keeper All Male Academy, a two-week summer program and small piece of a larger effort to intervene in the lives of Buffalo’s young men and boys of color.

It’s a renewed emphasis on these young males – mostly black and Hispanic, but other minorities, as well – thanks in large part to the My Brother’s Keeper initiative launched in 2014 by then-President Barack Obama and the millions of dollars in state funding that followed.

The aim: Hit them from all angles, whether it’s readying them for preschool or lending a hand to their parents or providing mentors or arranging paid internships or recruiting more minority teachers or preparing them as community leaders.

Call it the flip side to some of the violence playing out this summer on city streets.

Buffalo has reached out to these boys with similar, individual efforts in the past, but not in a way that provides this consistent barrage of support from childhood into manhood, said Mayor Byron W. Brown.

“This is different in that it’s an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Brown said. “It is an approach that breaks down the silos and the individual things that people are doing. Now, we’re bringing it all together as one to have a continuum of programming, services and support for young men and boys of color.”

They need it.

“Just look at all the statistics across the board – everything from education to the amount of deaths taking place in the community,” said Tommy McClam, director of Boys and Men of Color at the nonprofit Say Yes Buffalo. “That’s why the extra effort is going in.”

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Data clearly shows boys and young men of color are more likely than their white peers to grow up in poverty, less likely to graduate high school, less likely to enroll in college and more likely to be jobless, research from the Urban Institute points out.

“That is true for the girls, as well, but the manifestations seem starker for boys,” said Margaret Simms, who has studied the issue as a nonresident fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “They’re not accessing the kind of education that would enable them to move up economically.”

Volunteer mentor Duncan Kirkwood speaks to a group of teenagers at the My Brother's Keeper kickoff. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

It’s left many struggling to cope with issues such as gang activity, homelessness and racial profiling, said Malik Patterson, a teenager who lives on the city’s East Side.

“And when it comes to gun violence, that is completely out of control,” said Patterson, 19. “You’re scared for your life.”

“A lot of people are losing hope,” said Dwayne Sawyer, 17. “They see the same things every day in Buffalo. It’s rough up here. Not many people know that, but it’s rough and it gets depressing.

"There’s nothing else out here besides the street life.”

Mentors and more

Brown traveled to the White House in 2014 to meet with members of the Obama administration and commit to Buffalo’s involvement in My Brother’s Keeper, which relies heavily on mentors to keep more young men and boys of color on the path toward a better future.

So far, Buffalo counts more than 120 of them.

New York also was the first state to fund an expansion of the Obama program by including a total of $20 million in funding for local school districts, like Buffalo, which has benefited from more than $1.2 million of that.

The city, school district and Say Yes have been meeting monthly to ensure they’re not duplicating efforts and that they are spreading the funding to get the broadest reach.

Initiatives are both directly and indirectly geared toward helping young men and boys of color.

A few examples:

A partnership with Medgar Evers College: The predominately black college in Brooklyn began sending education majors to Buffalo classrooms last spring and fall to fulfill college coursework, said Darren Brown, chief of staff for the Buffalo Public Schools. The goal is to recruit more minority teachers to Buffalo to better reflect the diversity in the classrooms.

Parent engagement: Funds support centers and workshops for parents in the district, so they can better help their kids succeed in school, said Eric Rosser, the district’s associate superintendent for student support services. One recent example: a parent tour of the University at Buffalo to help make them aware of the college opportunities available for their kids.

Cradle to career: The school district collaborates with many of the community-based organizations on issues ranging from prenatal care to preschool readiness to job internships, Rosser said.

This includes the academy that started last Monday at McKinley High School for the 86 middle school students.

School 76 student James McNeil, 12, listens to his mentor during an information session at the kickoff of My Brother's Keeper. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Teaching life lessons

The kids in the academy will hear more about their heritage and life lessons from their mentors, said Fatima Morrell, an assistant superintendent of curriculum in the district. Rap music will be used as a tool to focus on writing and literacy.

The program will continue through the school year, but the kids got a preview Monday as they moved from table to table meeting with their new mentors.

Rick Fleming talked to the kids sitting at Table No. 5 about being dependable.

“Tell me what you know about dependability,” he asked the boys. “What does it mean to you?”

At Table No. 8, Miguel Santos raised the topic of integrity.

"The most important thing is being determined. Write that down," Santos told the kids. "What does that mean? Be focused. I was not the best student, but I knew I was not going to be a failure. I was not going to be a dropout."

After the kids left, Santos was asked whether his mentorship can make a difference.

“I realize all we’re doing is planting seeds,” Santos said, “but I know seeds flourish – they start to take root. I’m proof of that.”

Meanwhile, at Table No. 14, McClam talked to the boys about respect for women.

Building leaders

Some of the youngsters in the academy will end up graduating into McClam’s Breaking Barriers Youth Leadership Council.

It plucks young men and boys of color, ages 12 to 24, from the community and works with them to help them become advocates for racial equity, social justice and policy change. It started in January.

“We’re learning a little bit of everything – how to have confidence in yourself, how to go out there in your community and not be afraid to talk to people about change. We’re learning a lot about policy and government,” said Patterson, who will start at Erie Community College in the fall. “I really enjoy it a lot. It’s helping us form our voice.”

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“It steered me in a whole different direction,” said Sawyer, who will be a senior at Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts. “I can’t tell you what path I was probably going to take. This has just opened so many doors.”

Next year, the council – a core of some three dozen young men and boys of color – will recruit new members and serve as their mentors, McClam said.

Four to five years down the road, who knows what can happen?

“You’ll have maybe 200 to 300 young men who have gone through this leadership training,” McClam said. “So they have a different mindset for the community; they have a different care for the community.”

The mayor is hopeful, too.

He told the boys in the academy they’re in for a great year.

“We are confident that over time, this focus on our men and young boys of color will have a positive impact on the city of Buffalo,” Brown said. “Some of the cycles of crime and violence and poverty that we’re seeing in this community, we’re confident will be broken through programs like these.”

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