"I don't want to survive, I want to live."
These powerful words spoken by the character of Solomon Northup in the Oscar winning movie "12 Years A Slave" echoed in my mind as I sat in the East Room of the White House this winter and heard President Barack Obama unveil the promise of what the My Brother's Keeper initiative can do for boys and young men of color: provide the opportunity to thrive, not just survive.
Never in our history has our government taken such an affirming action to specifically lift up boys of color — in particular black boys, who bear the burden of a long history of slavery, Jim Crow laws and acts of violence committed upon black men, women and children. In President Obama's initiative, we are witnessing a glimpse of freedom from a culture that often still demeans and diminishes youth of color and the possibility of bright futures for young black men.
Now, more than a month after the initiative's announcement, it's time to get to work. So what will it take for boys of color to choose to thrive and not just survive?
Studies show that communities plagued by generational disadvantage produce unhealthy and unsafe environments. Too many youth are trapped within a world view dominated by bleak assumptions about their own abilities to effectively shape their futures in constructive ways. Every day, youth of color are told to compete with their counterparts, yet many are without basic needs: a safe and healthy community, access to high quality education, and fair and equal access to economic opportunities for them and their communities. The lack of these three key success factors leaves far too many ill-equipped to thrive, resulting in daily decisions focused on simply surviving.
This reality forces many boys of color to develop street-savvy skills and grit to simply make it through the day rather than academic skills, such as reading and proficiency in math. That constant survival mode often leads to extreme decision making — the kinds of dangerous and life-altering decisions one would never make in a safe and well-resourced environment.
In order for such youth to make better choices, meaningful options for building skills must exist, and barriers to accessing them must be eradicated. No amount of optimism and renewed motivation alone will overcome institutionalized unjust laws, policies and practices that can knock the wind out of the efforts of young men of color and the community programs that support them. Zero tolerance policies, unfair student discipline practices, inequitably resourcing schools, racial profiling, unjust prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses and felon disenfranchisement laws are just a few of the many policies that make it difficult to protect the futures of our youth.
The two most powerful things that the My Brothers Keeper initiative can do are:
•Marshal the collective influence of national, private and community based advocacy efforts to accelerate the elimination of inequitable legal, social and economic policies at both the federal and state level,
And galvanize a movement that builds the belief that black boys are as worthy as any other American boy of a fair shot at thriving.
After 16 years of leading an organization that provides compassionate and capable support to young boys and girls of color in high-risk communities across this country, I have witnessed children go from surviving to thriving. I know the power and freedom this expanded view of life gives to our young people. Their adult lives, once assumed to end in warehouses of imprisoned souls and lost potential, are redirected to dreams of entrepreneurship, community leadership and healthy families.
This initiative, done right, can change lives.
C. Diane Wallace Booker is executive director of U.S. Dream Academy, Inc., a national non-profit based in Columbia serving children of incarcerated parents and children falling behind in school. She can be reached via usdreamacademy.org.
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