“America is hemorrhaging talent. We can no longer waste the skills and dreams of countless young men and boys of color.”
That truth was echoed throughout a two-day national town hall in Los Angeles to address the health disparities facing boys and young men of color across California and the nation.
Researchers and community leaders at the town hall looked at how communities either foster or limit the life chances that young people have. Communities can give you access to resources like transportation, good schools, parks, health services and jobs. But communities can also expose young people to stressors — like crime, environmental hazards, unemployment and inadequate housing.
While these issues touch every part of our communities, they are particularly tough for boys and young men. This is because the bad policies and practices that institutionalize disadvantage, disproportionately affect boys and young men of color.
In particular, America’s growing preoccupation with crime has toughened schoolhouse policies to what might have been labeled “boyish” mischief in the past. Making a mistake is often more costly for boys.
Rather than making our schools better places to learn, boys and young men of color are more likely to do worse. Studies have linked suspensions to an increased likelihood that a young man of color will drop out, which means that he will find it harder to get a job, be more likely to be connected to crime and prison and less likely to be connected to community.
Of course, we want our children to grow up with a strong sense of responsibility to themselves, their families and their communities. But we must also take responsibility to protect them from harm and provide them with an open door to opportunity.
The first step is to recognize that place — homes, schools and neighborhoods — matters. The second is to change the policies and practices that shape place.
To do this, The California Endowment in partnership with PolicyLink is supporting work in three communities — Oakland, Fresno and Los Angeles — to build the leadership needed to overcome challenges facing boys and young men of color.
We will measure our success at achieving four big goals, which we see as the strongest indicators of a healthy community. These include ensuring that everyone has a healthy home (or usual source of care), reducing childhood obesity, reducing youth violence and improving school attendance.
Doing so will have positive implications for California and the nation.
The good news that emerged from the town hall is that we know how to keep a child in school; we know how to help a young man become a productive community member.
Getting there will not only require new policies, but new politics — particularly the courage to declare that America cannot afford to ignore the challenges facing young men of color. From workload to tax revenues to gross domestic product, the future of the nation depends on the very people who are often least prepared by their current conditions to shoulder the burden.
We know what we need to do. If we take action now and do it right, we can help not just young men and boys of color but all of us. Let’s invest in them — and let’s invest in ourselves.
Robert Phillips is the Director of Health and Human Services for The California Endowment. As director of the Health and Human Services program, Phillips leads the foundation’s efforts to develop initiatives to reduce barriers to efficient, effective functioning health systems that promote the health of low-income communities and communities of color.
Angela Glover Blackwell, Chief Executive Officer of PolicyLink, founded the organization in 1999 and continues to drive its mission of advancing economic and social equity. Under Blackwell’s leadership, PolicyLink has become a leading voice in the movement to use public policy to improve access and opportunity for all low-income people and communities of color, particularly in the areas of health, housing, transportation, education and infrastructure.