Being Our Brother’s Keeper in Philly

When President Barack Obama issued a national challenge in September for cities to become My Brother’s Keeper communities, Philadelphia seized upon it.

mbk_obama

After all, with blacks and Latinos making up 57 percent of the city’s population, a wicked violence rate and sagging academic achievement among this large segment of our city, the president’s charge arrived like an SOS – one powered by neighbors to help save their neighbors.

It was with that sense of urgency that Mayor Michael A. Nutter convened the My Brother’s Keeper Philly summit, gathering thinkers, advocates, academics and advocates from the public and private sector together to start shaping how this initiative would look and what it would achieve. PCHR was among them.

Mayor Nutter opened the morning and set the stage for what lies ahead, describing the initiative as some of the most important work in which the city could engage, and should engage.

With dismal high school graduation and lackluster employment rates among Philadelphia’s black and brown males, failure to intervene would equate to draining the city of a valuable resource by failing to capture and convert talent.

The Center for American Progress just released a study noting that were the educational achievement gap experienced by black and brown children closed, the nation’s gross domestic product would rise by the trillions, and state and local tax receipts would increase in the billions annually. For economically struggling urban centers like Philadelphia, whose 12.2 percent poverty rate ranks it the poorest of the country’s big cities, that type of change would amount to considerable improvement.

Just the night before, he spoke about one of the deepest pains he experiences daily as mayor – the daily briefings from Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey that detail the murder and mayhem of the night before. Too often, the names of victims – and perpetrators – share commonalities: young, black, male and many times undereducated if not unemployed.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx helped put the challenge ahead in context, giving personal testimony from his own family. Hard work is half of the battle; having support along the way can carry you across the goal line.

But it begins with a mindset, Foxx said, quoting the legendary lawmaker Adam Clayton Powell Jr.:  “Freedom is an internal achievement rather than an external adjustment.”

Given the fact that there are more African-American men behind bars than were held in bondage at the height of slavery, it is clear that modern freedom requires greater inward work, Foxx said. It’s work that needs external support – from family, friends, neighbors, educators and employers, driving at the heart of this gathering and this national initiative.

“The good news is that the mayor’s office is dedicated to focusing its resources on this project,” PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau said. “We can lay the groundwork for a long-term initiative in the city.

“We are all responsible for the circumstances currently facing African-American and Latino boys and men, and we must all play a role in dismantling the current structure and creating new avenues for success. “

There were plenty invested in creating such avenues. Attendees grouped themselves thematically along the major goals of the initiative to ensure:

  • All children enter school cognitively, physically, socially and emotionally ready
  • All children read at grade level by 3rd grade
  • A 100 percent high school graduation rate
  • All young people complete post-secondary education or training
  • All young people out of school are working
  • All young people remain safe from violent crime

Inside the West Philadelphia Community Center in Mantua, the room was abuzz as education, employment, social and public safety considerations rose at every table.

The conversations around the tables were thoughtful, as well as frank, assessing what initiatives already are in place, what players need to be involved in these discussions moving forward and establishing concrete to-do’s, beginning in bite-sized chunks. From these discussions, the mayor’s team will establish a work plan, expected shortly.

The PCHR contribution will involve boosting violence prevention programs as well as enhancing employment prospects through broader education and cultural shifts such as through awareness of the city’s Ban the Box law.

“In order for My Brother’s Keeper Philly to be successful, the momentum needs to continue,” said Randy Duque, PCHR deputy director. “The leaders who attended must not only continue to collaborate, but also invigorate their respective agencies and organizations with the MBK initiative so that each can work fully in tandem at achieving the various goals generated.”

Long after the folding chairs are stacked in their closets at the community center, many will remember the words and story of Juan Jefferies.

Like many young men in this city, his life took a wrong turn, to the deep anguish of his parents who worked to steer him on a better road. But he gathered himself together with the help of programs such as PowerCORP PHL.

Now he’s an intern with the Philadelphia Water Department and a student at Community College of Philadelphia, a success like many people able to combine their desire for a second chance and initiatives such as PowerCORP PHL and Ban the Box.

“I never saw myself as a college student, and if you had asked me a few years ago, I would have never thought I would be where I am now,” he told the audience. “I’m grateful. They weren’t worried about my past. They just saw my potential.”

His is a story worth repeating – and replicating, citywide. MBK Philly can help make it happen.

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