We had to do something.
In 2004, the Mitchell Kapor Foundation began noticing a disturbing trend in the San Francisco Bay Area. Black male applicants were visibly absent from the selection pool for the educational programs run by our sister organization, the Level Playing Field Institute. At the same time, we were dismayed by the news of several shootings of young black men, among them a college-bound high school senior.
We knew then that we had to do something.
We dug deeper, and the numbers we uncovered painted a disturbing picture. In today's tough economic climate, job loss is hitting black men the hardest, and research links education to that trend. In California, it is estimated that nearly half the state's black male students drop out of high school. Even in the "knowledge economy"-based San Francisco Bay Area, black males are less likely to have high school or college degrees than the general population: 27 percent of black males in Oakland and 32 percent in San Francisco have a high school diploma or GED, while only 10 percent of black males in Oakland and 14 percent in San Francisco have a bachelor's degree. Moreover, high school dropouts and those without a college degree are more likely to be jobless and incarcerated.
Although young black men in our communities have tremendous potential, too often that potential is not being recognized or maximized. So we decided to do something: We launched an effort to invest in the phenomenal minds that exist in our communities, with the aim of getting youth away from the margins, helping them overcome obstacles, and supporting them on a path to college.
Five years later, this past June, we celebrated the first cohort of college-bound graduating high school seniors from our Black Boys College Bound Initiative, a multiyear, $1 million effort aimed at increasing the number of black male youth in the Bay Area, particularly from San Francisco and Oakland, who are prepared for college.
As part of the initiative's first phase, we allocated grants of up to $50,000 to eleven organizations. To date, our grantees have served nearly four hundred Bay Area youth in middle and high schools with such programs as college readiness workshops, college tours, academic coaching, mentoring, mental health services for students and their families, social development and much more. This fall, more than forty seniors will go on to college, serving as visible role models of success and possibility for other youth in their communities.
These early results show the types of community returns that we can expect when we invest in young black men, a population that despite the historic election of Barack Obama faces tremendous challenges.
The root causes for such disparities range from insufficient investment in education to an array of biases and barriers, some hidden and some blatant, to a culture of low expectations shared by members of the community, parents, and the young men themselves. The dearth of role models and the absence of visible diversity in many parts of the private sector, including California's Silicon Valley, makes the promise of hard work being rewarded ring hollow.
While the causes remain up for debate, one thing is clear: young black men are valuable assets to our communities and we must invest in their potential by helping them to earn college degrees. Without an education, there's no question that young black men will fall further behind, and families, neighborhoods and communities will bear the brunt of our collective failure. As a nation, we're willing to invest big dollars in the prison industrial complex to disproportionately lock up young black men. Why aren't we as committed to socially responsible investments in this same demographic?
Though we launched our initiative specifically to meet some of these challenges, our efforts are part of a larger emerging national trend in philanthropy characterized by large institutional funders focusing more resources and attention on young black men and boys:
- The Ford Foundation provided funding and leadership for the Masculinity Project, an innovative multimedia initiative launched by NBPC and ITVS that explores black masculinity.
- The Open Society Institute recently launched the Campaign for Black Male Achievement.
- The 21st Century Foundation is coordinating Black Men and Boys Initiatives in six cities nationally and serving as a lead agency in Project 2025.
- In New York, along with the Fund for the City of New York, a public/private philanthropic partnership has formed to launch the Pipeline Crisis/Winning Strategies initiative.
- The Schott Foundation for Public Education maintains a Web-based 50 State Report on Black Malesthat provides ready access to educational data on black male academic achievement.
- The California Endowment released Reparable Harm, an examination of racial and ethnic disparities for men and boys of color in California. A set of recommendations accompany the report.
- The Association of Black Foundation Executives is serving as a convener and information clearinghouse for philanthropy on improving outcomes for black males.
But more must be done. We can't turn our collective backs on young black men in crisis. We can't let issue fatigue stand in the way of meeting the needs of a population that deserves the benefit of our attention, hope, and investment.
Each sector and individual has a role to play. We can continue to seize on the historical significance of President Barack Obama to challenge commonly held stereotypes of black men and mundane or subtle biases against them. We can devote our time to tutoring and mentoring the youth in our communities, providing the guidance and encouragement they need to overcome obstacles. We can invest in the organizations in our midst that are directly working with youth to prepare them for college. And in a truly radical move for businesses, for every H-1B visa covered we can pay an equivalent amount for a young black man to pursue an education that would prepare him to be hired by our companies.
Without collective action, we will continue to lose too many young black men and along with them, their unlimited and dynamic potential for contributing to our families, communities, and workplaces. That is a loss we simply cannot afford.
We have to do something.
Cedric Brown is Director of the San Francisco-based Mitchell Kapor Foundation.