Last month, President Barack Obama challenged America to do more to help young men and boys of color succeed in life. His charge was a personal one for me, as it should be for everyone who cares about the future of our country.
The president showed vision and courage as he acknowledged that his own youth had been less than perfect. Yet, he declared, with the help and opportunity available to him in a “more forgiving” environment, he had been able to succeed. “They never gave up on me,” he declared, “so I did not give up on myself.”
This, I believe, should be a lesson for us all as we seek to help the young Black boys and men in our own communities. President Obama made it clear to the young people he invited to the White House for the launch of My Brother’s Keeper, that the ultimate responsibility for their lives is squarely their own. Then, challenging us all, the president asked us to work both harder and smarter to instill hope and opportunity in a generation that is facing difficult odds.
The president noted, but did not belabor, “the stubborn fact” that life chances for young Black and brown males are far worse than for their contemporaries. He did not soft pedal the devastating consequences of poverty, prejudice, or dysfunctional families. What President Obama did do was challenge all of us to do what we can to change the heart-breaking equations that plague far too many young men of color in our society.
The $200 million initial commitment by the foundations and businesses that have agreed to work together as partners will not be the entire answer for young Black boys and men. Nor is there any quick fix for the devastation that is consuming so many young lives. Still, as Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson has observed, “It’s a start.”
We know, for example, there are critical junctures in young lives where positive intervention and support can make a big difference. Now, on a national basis, foundations, corporations, and the executive branch will be working to identify and build upon those local solutions that already are making a difference. This is the rekindling of a movement, a national effort in which we all have important roles to play. Our central organizing concept is both simple and profound: support what works.
Memories like my own, I believe, are what give the president confidence when he declares, “We know what to do for these young men.” I was honored to be invited to this event at the White House. Yet, during the presentations, it was the wonderful human beings who lifted me up in life – more than memories of my own efforts on behalf of our young – that filled my mind. Like President Obama, and most of us who have gained a measure of success, I know precisely whom to remember, and thank, for my life.
I thought about Dad and Mother, who struggled economically to give their children an empowering education, taught us values by their example, and accepted no excuses when we stumbled along the road to our dreams. I remembered the NAACP’s Juanita Jackson Mitchell, who stood up for us children during the integration of Riverside swimming pool, showing us that we had rights that others had to respect.
I recalled great teachers like Mr. Hollis Posey, who taught to my strengths and never allowed me to fall prey to the lowered expectations that some had held for me and community leaders like “Captain” Jim Smith, who made our neighborhood recreation league into an all-encompassing family. There is the AFRO’s John (Jake) Oliver, a powerful role model who took the time and effort to encourage me academically; and Dr. Albert Friedman, our neighborhood pharmacist, who trusted me, gave me my first regular job, and helped me all the way through college.
These positive memories are what allow me to push past my doubts and work to make a difference in young lives. So too, we all can have confidence in our competence to contribute because someone made that difference for us.
Even when circumstances make our personal involvement impossible, we all know of outreach programs achieving positive results that deserve our support. For example, five years ago, I was deeply moved by the young men I met at the “Young Lions” mentoring program at Catonsville’s Morning Star Baptist Church. I will never forget Devin, who learned from the older volunteers that he must give the women in his life both commitment and respect if he wishes to receive these values in return; fatherless Shawn, who now is committed to being there for his own children; or Marcus, who learned the crucial life lessons of self-discipline and respect.
We all know of similar programs that are making a difference in young lives. Now, President Obama is challenging each of us to get involved. For young Americans of color, we can, and must, become their ladders to opportunity.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.