"I'm reaching out to some of America's leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential."

President Barack Obama, 2014 State of the Union address.

Talent is everywhere, but opportunity isn't. President Obama reminded us of that simple truth during his State of the Union Address, acknowledging individuals and initiatives that are finding new ways to uncover and create opportunities using vision, resolve and determination.

One of these initiatives is a powerful movement led by Open Society Foundation's Campaign for Black Male Achievement, which aims to create hope and opportunities for black men and boys. As we are all too aware, young men across the country are facing serious challenges. African-American males are struggling with poor academic performance, low high school graduation and low college enrollment. In Baltimore City, where 45 percent of black males do not graduate from high school, this is especially true. Research conducted by Advocates for Children and Youth revealed that Maryland's African-American students are more than twice as likely to be suspended as white students.

The good news is that in cities across the country, young men of color are showing us what is possible when we provide them with the support needed to be successful. Joined by other foundations, Open Society Foundation's Campaign for Black Male Achievement is leading the charge by providing young men of color with rich opportunities to reach their potential and access their talent. They are raising awareness and helping organizations coordinate their efforts to create a tipping point of change. These organizations, which include Big Brothers Big Sisters, Higher Achievement and the Y, have a wide range of goals and programs. But they share one similarity: an emphasis on mentoring — a key component.

According to an Urban Leadership Institute report, mentoring "may be the most important strategy in ensuring the successful development and maturation of young African-American males into a generation of men who will be loving fathers to their children, faithful husbands to their wives, and leaders for their community."

Mentoring breaks down preconceived notions and builds relationships based on trust, and it helps reverse what the Urban Leadership Institute calls the "tragic plight" of black males.

At Higher Achievement, we recruit over 1,000 mentors each year to work with a group of middle school students two hours per week as part of our mission to give children from at-risk communities their best chance to succeed in school and life.

The results are clear: 94 percent of Higher Achievement students graduate high school and 76 percent graduate college (double and quadruple the rates of their peers). At least 50 percent of our students improve their grade-point averages in math and reading by at least one full letter grade, and 75 percent improve or maintain perfect attendance every year. Beyond benefiting the students, Higher Achievement mentors report that they have learned as much from the students as the students have from them. This engagement suggests that while large inequalities exist and black boys face an array of unique challenges, these disparities can be broken down and changed. As one of our Higher Achievement students said, "It's like this: my mentor teaches me and I teach my mentor."

But we need to do more. According to the MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, nearly 17.6 million young Americans need or want mentoring, but only 3 million are engaged in formal, high quality mentoring relationships. This leaves 14.6 million young people still in need of mentors.

As President Obama said, "Opportunity is who we are" in America. Initiatives like the Open Society Foundation's Campaign for Black Male Achievement demonstrate that opportunities come in all shapes and sizes. I invite you to consider becoming a mentor to expand opportunities for students in your community because that is how lives are transformed. One mentor at a time. One student at a time.

Erin Hodge-Williams is executive director of Higher Achievement Baltimore. Her email is ehodgewilliams@higherachievement.org.


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