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Why being ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ matters

Governor Deval L. Patrick

As a black man, my heart aches over the disproportionate numbers of men and boys of color left back by schools, left out of jobs and caught up in crime. As a black public official, I am struck by how little appetite there seems to be among law makers to deal with the root causes of this. So, I am encouraged by President Obama’s leadership in his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative.

We all know the statistics. Disproportionately more African- and Hispanic- American boys are in poverty, ill-nourished and without adequate health care; more stuck in achievement gaps or in underperforming schools; more subject to school discipline; more “disconnected,” as the social scientists say, from college education and jobs; more victims of violence or in jail. We also know how interconnected these calamities are, how poverty, for example, connects to school readiness, or how critical good fathers are to growing boys into responsible men. And yet we listen to the statistics and the news reports with a measure of resignation, as if these realities are beyond our capacity to care about and to solve.

The President has wisely engaged us all. His initiative brings business and philanthropic leaders together with policy makers, educators, faith leaders and law enforcement, to consider how to save boys and men of color. A comprehensive approach is inherently ambitious, but it is the right approach. The task force is charged to consider the whole picture, the combination of challenges and opportunities presented by personal behavior and related policy affecting an at-risk population, to stop doing what isn’t working and to scale what works.

Everyone is at the table because everyone has a stake in the outcome. Our economy needs the creativity of young men of color. Our society needs the contributions of young men of color. Our communities need peace and a reason to hope. America is in the midst of the most profound global competition in centuries, and we need everybody on the field ready to play.

In Massachusetts, we have taken a similar approach. We have taken a number of collaborative, “public-private” measures to close the achievement gap in our schools and to prevent crime among young men who are known high risks.

We have better aligned our community colleges to provide the job training our businesses actually need their prospective employees to have. One high school in Boston has formed a partnership with the community college across the street to create a clear pathway for students to high demand careers, supported by mentoring and after school opportunities. We have even engaged new financing tools, such as social impact bonds through the private sector, where the state pays local community-based agencies for better outcomes through demonstrated savings in prison or remedial costs. And, like the President proposes to do, we pay attention to measurable results, adjusting as we go, with a commitment to ending programs that don’t work.

I am pleased to report that we are getting results. For the first time in decades, achievement gaps in our schools are shrinking. The dropout rate has been cut in half. In our targeted cities, overall crime victimization is down significantly, with a 25 percent drop in homicide and a 19 percent drop in aggravated assaults.

We need people caught up in their own cycles of self-destruction or even violence to break these cycles, and a combination of personal responsibility and targeted programming can help them do so. As we charge young men of color to break their destructive cycles, we as policymakers can help by breaking a few of our own. President Obama’s initiative will give young men who work hard and play by the rules a chance to succeed. That’s good for them and for America.

My father was old-school. He believed, like countless other black fathers, that being hard on his son was the only way to prepare him for the harsh realities of being a black man in America. He was a creature of his times and also of timeless truths. But he, again like countless other black fathers, was also transferring his pain to another generation. That is a destructive cycle and it must also be broken. It is brave, and inherently risky, for any president to undertake to do so. It might be that only this president could.