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March 19, 2021

My Brother’s Keeper: Raising Student Achievement for Boys of Color

Standing in front of a group of determined young men of color at the White House, President Obama described his new initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper.” I heard his words, felt his conviction, and strong emotions surged within me – anger and exasperation, deepening my unwavering resolve. The call to end disparities in education and the criminal justice system for boys and young men of color, is a personal, professional, and moral one for me.

As an African American man and father of a two-year-old boy, the predictable outcomes that lie ahead for him – and other boys of varied brown hues – weigh heavily on me. My son has yet to encounter the subtle and sometimes blatant obstacles, but I know he will. This is a painful realization for any father or mother to carry. The cradle to prison pipeline, as well as the economic, educational, and violence statistics for black and brown boys in our country is devastating. And as President Obama said, many people in our country have “become numb to these statistics.”

We as educators must ask ourselves difficult questions to fight this numbness. Why have we grown so comfortable and accustomed to the current state of black and brown boys? How can we not see our failures to engage and authenticate their learning experience? Do we fear a society that has strong, educated, and fearless black men?

The black and brown boys that walk our halls, move through our cities, and see their image portrayed in the media, can’t help but internalize negative perceptions. They grow hardened to environments that question their worth, value, and ability. They, like the young Obama, sometimes sell themselves short, but we must own our part. What do we really think and believe about the black and brown boys sitting in our classrooms? How do our beliefs impact our actions and their reactions? How do we reverse the deficit-based thinking surrounding black and brown boys?

Dubs is a group started by Kevin Bennett 4 years ago. Dubs: Dads, Uncles, and Brothers.  

Principal Kevin Bennett and former NBA Chicago Bulls star Trent Tucker, lead a morning DUBS (Dads, Uncles, and Brothers that Serve with the community) meeting discussing the importance of college education and career planning with boys on the high school basketball team.[/caption]

Collectively and collaboratively, we must address what we believe and what we do. We all must join those who have tirelessly advocated for black and brown boys, persistent in their efforts to curb the number that find themselves in prison, unemployed, or undereducated. We must address our beliefs and school culture, policies, and practices. Do we really create a safe place for black and brown boys to belong and prosper in our schools? The statistics say no. President Obama signed a memorandum after his speech, asking the government, “What can we do, right now, to improve the odds for boys and young men of color?” What is it that you can do – as an educator, school leader, citizen, or neighbor – right now? Here are a few suggestions to get you started, but know this is not something that can be solved with a band-aid approach:

1. Own your part, ignite your passion and drive, and take action.

Get to know your black and brown boys, hear their perspectives and connect. Learn their culture, attend trainings, engage in discussions, read relevant literature, and reflect on your practice regularly. Be culturally responsive and act to counter misunderstandings and microaggressions, those subtle but powerful actions that demean and insult.

2. Create a safe space for students.

Utilize recovery rooms – a place for students to refocus and regroup and is not the office or in-school suspension rooms. Have students meet with a school psychologist, social worker, or restorative coach to address disruptive behaviors or mental, social and/or home issues. By creating time limits and using behavior improvement plans, the room can become an effective place for students to get the support they need and keep their education on track.

3. Rethink what we’ve always done.

Break out of the traditional student discipline approaches that do little to help students and schools succeed. Diffuse power struggles which often lead to office referrals for defiant and disruptive behavior. In the Minneapolis metro area, school equity leaders have called for a moratorium on non-violent out-of-school suspensions. This idea alone will not close the opportunity gap that causes so many of our black and brown students to check out of school and sell themselves short, but it does make us rethink what we do.

4. Create a counter story.

Positive mentoring, career apprenticeships and internships, athletics, networking and community partnership programs allow boys to see themselves as whole human beings, who have much to offer their schools, communities, and most importantly, themselves and their families. As a black adult man with a quality education, successful career, and beautiful family, I know first-hand how transformative it is to be seen and respected as a man, as opposed to some young thug.

If you believe in the soul of children – their youthful spirit is curious and seeks to grow and embrace their authentic destiny – I challenge you to transform your practice, defeat despair, and move to eliminate the heartache that so many mothers and fathers feel when they lose their sons to a world that is complacent to cruelty and numb to devastating statistics.

Kevin and Kids

We are all our “Brother’s Keeper,” because we, as a country, will not realize our full potential by leaving our black and brown boys and young men behind. We are all impacted by this moral issue, and if we don’t act now to improve the odds, we sell ourselves short.


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