It’s indisputable: Give young people an example to model and they’re likely to be influenced.
The problem in Buffalo, and many other places around the country, is that too many young men are surrounded by examples that can tempt them into a lifetime of trouble. The need has been to counter that influence with those of successful men – men who look like them and who offer examples of diligence, dependability, respect and focus. With that, they offer to these youths a road map to honorable manhood.
That’s the great value of My Brother’s Keeper, a program initiated in 2014 by then-President Barack Obama and supported with millions of dollars in state funds. In Buffalo, a two-week summer program, My Brother’s Keeper All Male Academy, kicked off this month. It is a smaller piece of the overall program, one that allowed its volunteers, in the words of one mentor, to begin “planting seeds” that may take root and flourish.
The need is great. Research by the Urban Institute shows that boys and young men of color are more likely than their white peers to grow up in poverty, less likely to graduate high school and less likely to enroll in college. They are more likely to be jobless. Girls face the same problems, though it seems not as severely, according to Margaret Simms, a nonresident fellow at the think tank.
My Brother’s Keeper is an intervention. It attempts to influence the lives of these young men before they are drawn onto a path that leads to the police station, the courthouse or the prison cell. Or the graveyard. It offers a fork in the road. For that, those young men, their families, neighbors and friends can be grateful.
Role models are crucial in all areas of life, of course, and especially for young people who see no alternatives for themselves. Police departments need to represent the communities they serve, for example. The sorrowful history of race in this country and this city creates barriers between white police officers and minority communities – barriers that encourage crime, hinder investigations and inflame suspicions. The presence of strong and sympathetic minority police officers can help overcome those barriers.
Those lessons were driven home in the tragic events that unfolded in Ferguson, Mo., four years ago this month. Michael Brown lived in the largely African-American suburb of St. Louis, without apparent direction or hope for the future. The 18-year-old was killed in a confrontation – one that he enflamed – with Darren Wilson, then a 28-year-old officer in the municipality’s overwhelmingly white police force. A federal investigation later concluded that the department had a history of abusing the residents it was meant to serve. In retrospect, it was a tragedy waiting to happen.
What is true for police is also true for schools, businesses, fire departments, governments and more. With minorities among their ranks and in their leadership positions, those institutions can better provide a goal for young men who might otherwise see only closed doors. Indeed, in the not-so-distant American past, those doors had been bolted shut.
It’s important to note that, even if young men are at special risk, young girls and young women also need strong role models. Their lives may also be curtailed, especially by premature motherhood that is avoidable with ready access to birth control and a belief that they have options. And it’s not just their lives: The children borne by young single mothers are more likely to remain trapped in poverty, their lives marked by unexplored opportunities.
My Brother’s Keeper offers a template. It provides young men examples of productive, focused lives and shows they can expect more from themselves than what their immediate surroundings may suggest. The entire community can be thankful for the program and the volunteers who give their time to make a difference.