We Must Light a Path to Hope, Opportunity for Young, Black Men

Sep 14, 2016

September 10, 2016

 The Hill


By Anthony Smith

The past few months have tested our resolve and strengthened our commitment to reducing violence against Black men and boys. Keeping Black men and boys safe is at the forefront of our hearts and minds, with cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas seeing spikes in violence, and the string of police-involved shootings of African American men coupled with violence against police officers.

We need a new blueprint for what safety looks like in our communities and our country, one that lights a path to real hope and opportunity for the most vulnerable among us—young Black men. Rates of violence against young Black boys and men remain unacceptably high; our research shows their experience with violence—whether as victim, survivor or witness—sets them apart from nearly every other demographic group, including Black men older than 25, white men and Black women and girls. Homicides are the leading cause of death for African American men and boys.

In addition to the devastating impact on young Black men themselves, violence inflicts trauma on entire families, neighborhoods and communities. When we lose any young person, the lost potential is limitless. Have we lost the next president? The next scientist who might have cured cancer? The next great inventor, entrepreneur or school teacher? We will never know; what we do know is that, every day, we are losing too many of our sons and brothers. And it’s time for us as a country to treat the loss of young Black men and boys for what it is, a public health concern that impacts all of us.

We must act now and for the long-term to transform neighborhoods that have been historically disinvested in into pockets of opportunity, healing and hope—where young people are encouraged and supported so they can live up to their full potential. At Cities United, we believe mayors and city leaders play a critical part, catalyzing all corners of our communities to come together and improve our cities, block by block and neighborhood by neighborhood—until violence is no longer an option. So what can we do? Here are eight steps we must put into action:

Bring all hands on deck

It will take all of us, from city leaders to youth and community members to the business and philanthropy sectors, to tackle this crisis. In Fort Wayne, Mayor Tom Henry joined with the community to launch Fort Wayne United in late July to facilitate collaboration across sectors, and invite committed individuals to join citywide work groups that strive to reduce violence by improving community, youth and family outcomes.

Create and drive a data-driven, multi-year plan of action

Cities can create and drive a comprehensive action plan that measures specific outcomes for African American men and boys. The plan must encompass a cross-section of agencies and systems to transcend the often sharp lines that divide education, child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health and workforce development. In Minneapolis, Mayor Betsy Hodges recently expanded resources for public safety, with a new initiative that will focus in two neighborhoods with high levels of youth violence and direct resources toward residents, business owners and community-based organizations to identify collaborative strategies for reducing violence.

Engage African American men and boys in developing solutions

Young Black men must have a seat at the table when devising solutions that affect their lives. For example, Knoxville, TN, invited young Black men to be part of the dialogue through a Sons Summit. That step is resulting in the Change Center, a new $2.9 million state-of-the-art facility slated for 2017 that will provide a safe recreational space, along with mentorship and leadership development for young people ages 14 to 24.

Use a public health approach to end violence

A public health approach acknowledges that law enforcement cannot be the only solution, because many factors contribute to violence, including housing, employment and education. For example, Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser is directing new resources toward the city’s public health approach to ending violence through its Safer, Stronger DC initiative. We can tackle violence as a disease and replicate promising models, like Cure Violence and Alive and Free, which break the cycle of violence and retaliation. We can also ensure everyone has access to culturally appropriate mental health services through a trauma-informed approach.

Ensure a quality education for every child

A core solution to reducing violence is improving educational outcomes for young people. We can recruit mentors to help African American men and boys stay on track in school, advocate for in-school alternatives to suspension and expulsion, reduce chronic absence and truancy, and develop alternative pathways to high-school completion. The Oakland Unified School District is the first district in the United States to create a department that specifically addresses the needs of African American male students. Through the Office of African American Male Achievement, Oakland aims to dramatically improve academic, and ultimately life, outcomes for African American male students in Oakland.

Support criminal justice reforms

City leaders can promote and develop positive policies and programs for youth who are at risk of becoming or already are involved in the juvenile justice system, and work with the police department to push for reforms that rebuild trust between communities and law enforcement.Recognizing that Kentucky spends more than $19,000 per year to house an adult inmate, but only $7,000 to educate a child, Restorative Justice Louisville works with the Louisville Metro Police Department to provide an alternative to the criminal justice system.

Incorporate workforce readiness into all strategies

“Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” That’s why cities must bolster access to entry-level jobs and post-secondary education or vocational training that leads to well-paying jobs in their city. City leaders can also help young African American young men and boys gain valuable work experience through summer and year-round job and career exploration programs. Fort Wayne United will create opportunity for young black men by showing them career options, such as in the building trades, and pairing them with mentors and caring adults.

Build political will for lasting change

None of these changes will be possible unless we have the courage and commitment to lead—today and for the long run. Developing sustainable solutions that will result in lasting change requires committed leadership from mayors, police chiefs, superintendents of public schools, faith leaders, local heads of health and human services organizations, elected officials in neighborhoods that experience crime at a higher rate and community leaders. This must be an enduring collaboration that transcends local election cycles and is strengthened over time. 

The road forward will not be easy, but we know our African American men and boys lives are worth the effort. We encourage mayors and city leaders to get involved with the Cities United network and learn more about the most effective solutions to creating pathways to opportunities for our African American men and boys. We cannot rest until we can make sure that not one more life is lost to needless violence, until we can make all of our cities safer, healthier and more hopeful for everyone.

Smith is the executive director of Cities United – a national mayor-led initiative focused on eliminating the violence in American cities related to African American men and boys. Before joining Cities United, Anthony led the Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods for Mayor Fischer and the city of Louisville.


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