A generation ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted inWhere Do We Go From Here, Chaos or Community?,the last book he published before he was assassinated, that "it will take...a small committed minority [of believers] to work unrelentingly to win the uncommitted majority. Such a group may well transform America's greatest dilemma into her most glorious opportunity."
The great dilemma that King wrote about in 1967 still gnaws at the roots of a nation that was founded on a premise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but was built on a foundation of racial and gender inequality. And while today no single group of people in America can claim that it alone is marginalized — sadly, there are many such groups — it is hard to dispute that disparities faced by black men and boys across a number of indicators, including incarceration, academic achievement, and unemployment, paint a picture of their systemic exclusion from the American mainstream.
The thorny issue of black men and their standing in American society is, of course, not a new one. Yet in light of recent advances in the emerging field of black male achievement, there is reason to hope that the small committed minority of believers who have been working hard to improve the life outcomes and perceptions of black men and boys are swaying the majority of non-believers.
By now, most people have heard that President Obama intends to launch a significant new effort "to bolster the lives of young men of color" in America. Building on momentum that has been growing over recent years, the public rollout of My Brother's Keeper, as the initiative is called, represents a bold response to the challenges confronting so many young men of color. Without a doubt, this is an historic moment for the work and aspirations of many leaders working within and outside philanthropy who have devoted their lives to creating an America where black men and boys can compete on an even playing field of opportunity and realize their full potential.
Still, as campaign manager of the Open Society Foundation's Campaign for Black Male Achievement, I couldn't help but read between the lines of a recent Washington Post article about the initiative and picture the faces of the tireless, innovative, and inspired leaders and their organizations who have contributed so much over the years to the field of black male achievement. They are the ones whose commitment, compassion, and courage to stand up for black men and boys elevated this issue all the way to the White House — and who represent, in word and deed, the hope that Dr. King held out to the rest of us.
I am referring to leaders and organizations like Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of the California Endowment, which recently launched a $50 million Sons & Brothers initiative in California. Or the twenty-six foundation executives who, encouraged by Ross, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's Alberto Ibargüen, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation's Emmett D. Carson, and Open Society's Ken Zimmerman, formed the Executives' Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys & Men of Color during last year's Council on Foundations annual meeting. Or the seven foundations that partnered in October 2012 to help launch the Institute for Black Male Achievement (IBMA), a national membership network that's providing essential field-building support to leaders and organizations committed to the issue. If we as a nation are going to build on the current momentum, philanthropy needs to agree on what opportunity looks like for a black male in the United States — which is why IBMA is developing a BMA Life Outcomes Dashboard to serve as a go-to source of data and indicators designed to track opportunity over the life course of black males in the United States.
To be sure, even with the launch of the White House's game-changing initiative, my mantra remains the same as it has always been: there is no cavalry coming to save the day. You and the people who care deeply about this issue are the leaders we have been waiting for in the field of black male achievement. All the more reason why efforts such as BMe (Black Male Engagement) — originally a project at the Knight Foundation which recognizes and supports a network of black men in select cities who have already demonstrated that they are assets to their families and communities — must be lifted up as the vital "ground and growth game" of the black male achievement movement.
Of course, when I read news articles and press releases about the launch of the president's groundbreaking initiative, I also see the faces of leaders who have long labored in the field of black male achievement. Leaders like Dr. Bobby Austin, Alvin Starks, Loren Harris, Dr. Ron Mincy, Charles Augustus Ballard, Dr. Rosa Smith, Haki Madhubuti, Jawanza Kunjufu, and a host of others whose inspired and innovative contributions — well known in their own unique ways inside and outside the philanthropic community — have helped make black male achievement and the success of boys and men of color a national priority. We owe all of them a deep debt of gratitude.
Shawn Dove is campaign manager for the Open Society Foundations Campaign for Black Male Achievement. In a December 2012 Newsmaker interview with PND, he discussed the report Where Do We Go From Here? Philanthropic Support for Black Men and Boys.