The blog of the Urban Institute
February 27, 2020

How Efforts in Two Cities Are Increasing Economic Opportunity for Young Men of Color

February 25, 2020

A growing number of US cities are working to help Black and Latinx young men unleash their full potential.

These efforts emerged during a decade of increased political and economic will dedicated to improving the lives of young men of color, which was sparked by a series of high-profile police shootings of Black men and expanded by the Obama administration’s 2014 My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative.

Two efforts—the New York City Young Men’s Initiative (YMI) and the Milwaukee Public Schools Department of Black and Latino Male Achievement (BLMA)—demonstrate the potential of place-based strategies to increase economic opportunity for young men of color. These initiatives combat local challenges with locally tailored solutions, and they recognize that contextual factors beyond education and training, such as structural racism, shape the lives of young men of color.

Our new report explores several promising approaches to closing racial economic opportunity gaps, including tailoring interventions for the local context.  

New York City Young Men’s Initiative

The New York City government created YMI in 2011 as a public-private partnership to address widening disparities in education, employment, health, and justice.

YMI, housed in the Office of the Mayor, aims to help Black and Latinx men between the ages of 16 and 24 by “developing and championing policies, programs, and partnerships that holistically support the success of young men of color throughout NYC.” YMI accepted the MBK Community Challenge in 2014 and aligned its efforts with MBK’s goals. The early implementation and scale and scope of YMI have made it a national model for similar efforts by other localities in the MBK Community Challenge.

YMI roots its priorities in data, commissioning an annual disparity report (PDF) that presents disaggregated outcomes in multiple areas of young people’s lives.

YMI also advocates for and implements agency reforms that address policies around accountability, school discipline, special education, physical and mental health, voting and civic engagement, and hiring obstacles for young men with a criminal justice history.

These efforts have produced concrete action, including requiring schools to turn in yearly progress reports on the academic performance of Black and Latinx students and the creation of a working group to help change the NYC Department of Education’s Discipline Code to make school discipline practices more responsive to students’ needs.

YMI also uses its extensive partner network to pilot and support programs for young men of color that focus on mentorship, fatherhood, community safety, employment, and literacy, many of which specifically serve court-involved youth.

One program, NYC Men Teach, is a collaborative effort between the Office of the Mayor, the New York City Department of Education, and the City University of New York to increase male teaching staff of color in public schools to ensure that all students have diverse role models and mentors. In 2018, the program surpassed its goal of adding 1,000 male teachers of color to the New York City workforce.

Milwaukee Public Schools Department of Black and Latino Male Achievement

Milwaukee Public Schools launched BLMA in August 2017 to prioritize the success of Black male students in the district. The department was created as a response to the city’s large racial disparities in academic and other life outcomes.

BLMA envisions that “Black and Latino boys and young men will possess an affirmed sense of identity, dignity and self-confidence, and will have the necessary tools to triumphantly navigate college, career and life.” The program focuses on six priority strategies including mentorship, school culture, manhood development, teacher recruitment, narrative change, and data to improve students’ lives.

BLMA’s Manhood Development Academy is offered as an elective in four district schools and includes a curriculum that promotes positive racial identity through culturally relevant texts and materials, as well as BLMA’s 12 Guiding Principles.

Development of the academy’s curriculum was guided by research (PDF) demonstrating that when students of color feel positively about their racial identity, they feel more connected to school, are more resilient, and are more likely to succeed academically, have positive mental health, and have positive relationships in life.

BLMA is also focused on narrative change, with an explicit goal of changing how Black and Latinx boys are perceived in the district by ensuring that others see them as assets that bring “brilliance, creativity, and greatness” to the community.

Visual art is one avenue through which BLMA is pursuing narrative change. In 2018 and 2019, it partnered with a local campaign, #SeeMeBecause, asking Black and Latinx boys to articulate how they would like to be seen by the world and overlaying their quotes on their photos.

The benefits of tailoring programs for the local context

New York and Milwaukee are working to address the complex and interacting factors—beyond education and training—that affect the ability of young men of color to succeed in the workforce, including physical and mental health, criminal justice system involvement, community safety, and school culture and discipline.

Additionally, by engaging in structural reform of systems and institutions, and by focusing on narrative change and an examination of racial and gender identity, these initiatives account for the role of structural racism (the ingrained historical, institutional, cultural, and interpersonal dynamics that legitimize and reinforce racial inequality) in shaping economic opportunity for young men of color.

This creates the space for relevant, effective solutions by targeting the structural injustices at the root of racial disparities, rather than assigning blame to individual failings.

Place-based approaches like YMI and BLMA allow communities to go beyond a one-size-fits-all approach. Local knowledge of resources, politics, and infrastructure can facilitate locally tailored solutions that address the unique needs and leverage the assets of a community.

And when these initiatives are housed in city government, as in New York and Milwaukee, they may have more authority to encourage collaboration between local actors and to implement, rather than just advocate for, institutional change that moves the needle for young men of color.

By investing in and expanding capacity around efforts like YMI and BLMA, cities can build on important progress made in the last decade and help ensure that young men of color can thrive.

Executive Director of the NYC Young Men's Initiative Cyrus Garrett speaks at the NBA Players' Association's All-Star Youth Summit: Real Talk on February 13, 2015 in New York City. Photo by Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty Images for BET.

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