How the program, launched by President Barack Obama in 2014, is bridging the color gap

For about the first eight years of his life, Levi Hairston lived on Seaforth Place, a cul-de-sac on the East Side of Columbus. A distinct feature of his family's home was its massive garden, where he logged a lot of time under the direction of his mother, a master urban farmer.

“I didn't like it at first, [but] my mom used to always make me plant,” said Hairston, 18. “We always had our own vegetables. We used to live across the street from another family and [my mom] would give them cucumbers and tomatoes, and then they would cook them.”

Hairston's family gave up their garden when they moved to East Rich Street on the Near East Side, but his mother filled the inside of the house with plants, including a huge aloe vera (she promised to give him a piece when he moves out). She also made a point to buy vegetables like lettuces, tomatoes and onions for their meals.

It wasn't until Hairston learned about food deserts in his high school anthropology class that he realized the lack of resources in some areas of Columbus. “I started to look around my own community and I was like, ‘This is crazy. There isn't a lot of access,'” he said. “Other than Save-A-Lot [on Main Street], you don't find fresh food, which is a really big problem.”

Like Hairston, many African-American youths in Columbus grow up with fewer resources than their white counterparts. The scope of that disparity was outlined in “Renewing Our Call to Action,” a 2017 report by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. According to the report, 45 percent of residents age 24 and younger live in neighborhoods experiencing high or very high vulnerability, which are marked by stressors like poorly performing schools, poverty, inadequate healthcare and unsafe environments.

The report also found that 55 percent of vulnerable youths are of color, and youths of color are 18 percent more likely to live in a neighborhood experiencing high to very high vulnerability. Finally, according to the report's racial distribution map, there is a clear racial divide in the city, with most African-American youths concentrated in the east.

That plight is a part of a nationwide trend. “From historic disinvestment driven by the practices of redlining, urban renewal and white flight, our nation's history of segregation and discrimination still permeates throughout our society,” read the Kirwan report.

In recognition of the obstacles faced specifically by boys and young men of color, President Barack Obama launched the My Brother's Keeper (MBK) initiative on Feb. 27, 2014, to “address the persistent opportunity gaps” concerning that demographic via support from the government, private sector and philanthropic entities. He later challenged communities to develop “cradle-to-college-and-career strategies” to improve education, employment and safety.

As part of now approximately 250 communities in all 50 states, Columbus accepted the challenge on Sept. 27, 2014, under the leadership of Mayor Michael Coleman.

“Ohio is losing future doctors, engineers, teachers and entrepreneurs because of an opportunity gap between youth of color and their peers,” Sen. Sherrod Brown said in a statement to Alive. “The My Brother's Keeper program in Columbus is closing that gap by engaging with young people and helping them grow into the leaders of the future. My office has partnered with communities across the state to launch 10 My Brother's Keeper initiatives in Ohio. This is among the most important work I'm involved in as a senator, and I will continue working to ensure all young people have the opportunity to succeed.”

Four years after Obama's initial call to action, and in the year since President Donald Trump's inauguration, MBK has undergone a transition both nationally and locally. MBK now operates under the MBK Alliance nonprofit, which became a core project of the Obama Foundation in September 2017. In Columbus, following the election of Mayor Andrew Ginther, MBK is now co-chaired by Council President Shannon Hardin and housed under the newly formed Department of Neighborhoods (information can be found at mbkvillage.org).

Following a bit of a lull with the change in administration, the city appears to have revived its commitment to MBK. Officials commissioned the Kirwan “Renewing Our Call to Action” report and allocated $100,000 in grant money, which will be available for service organizations to apply for in the coming months. But as the city moves forward with the initiative, community members are still seeking clarity on a few questions: What exactly is MBK? What has it achieved so far? And how will it successfully address the seemingly insurmountable disparities facing youth of color?

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On Dec. 1, 2014, Columbus hosted its first My Brother's Keeper forum at the King Arts Complex. Nearly 400 people, from government officials to service organization staff, gathered to discuss objectives.

“I was really excited about the turnout,” said Kay Wilson, executive director of LeaderSpark, a Columbus-based youth leadership organization. “I think we were all on the same page that the spirit of My Brother's Keeper was phenomenal.”

But many wondered how goals for the initiative would be measured, Wilson continued, saying, “Everyone had a lot of enthusiasm … but there was also a bit of skepticism.”

As a next step, Mayor Coleman and then-Councilmember Hardin formed the MBK Task Force to gather perspectives on how to meet the needs of young men of color. During the summer of 2015, the group engaged more than 500 male youths and men of color, ages 10 to 24, at four summits staged at high schools across the city.

Facilitators asked participants to describe their vision for “a happy, healthy and productive life,” the obstacles preventing them from realizing that vision, and resources needed to achieve the goal.

Levi Hairston, then 15, attended all four summits. “My mom made a point for me and my cousin to go to all of them because she saw the need for us to be able to voice what we wanted to see changed,” he said. “And I think that doing those forums brought the problems to light.”

The community feedback informed the MBK “Youth Perspective Report,” released in October 2015, which highlighted several areas of focus: safety, mental health and wellness, mentorships, education and workforce development. Next step recommendations were partly inspired by MBK Alliance Board Chair Broderick Johnson's visit to Columbus.

“[Johnson] said, ‘If you really want to have the impact that I think that you guys are going for, you've got to get data,'” Hardin said. “And that was our real hard stop. … So we reached out to Kirwan to give us a level [data] set.”

In 2017, Hardin commissioned Kirwan to create the “Renewing Our Call to Action” study, which compiled quantitative data about the “landscape of youth vulnerability” and provided a snapshot of existing youth programs, initiatives and services.

Rather than develop its own MBK programs, Columbus has opted to engage private organizations, corporations and other philanthropic entities to collaborate and work toward improving opportunities for boys and young men of color. The goal is to use the Kirwan data to set citywide goals and measure progress.

According to Hardin, there was some pressure to invest public money into MBK from the onset — “I think what folks wanted right away was, ‘OK … put $300,000 [up] and let's all jump and get these resources,” he said — but city officials opted to take a more restrained course of action.

“I'm not [just extending more government funding]. We've been doing that. We have not gotten here overnight in terms of the issues facing young men of color,” Hardin said. “What we are looking for are system-level changes and creation of something foundational that we can all plug into or buy into after I'm gone.”

In that spirit, Hardin said the forthcoming $100,000 grant is just a small step toward this type of systemic change, incentivizing organizations to collaborate by making these partnerships a requirement of the grant application.

“This is a way that we can do it and get some dollars out the door right away as we build the larger system,” Hardin said.

“While it's not a lot of money, it's a start,” said Department of Neighborhoods Director Carla Williams-Scott, “and we have to start somewhere.”

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As part of the 2017 Kirwan report, researchers highlighted key indicators in the domains of education, economics, health and safety in an effort to better understand the differences between youths in very high vulnerability neighborhoods and those in very low vulnerability neighborhoods. They discovered a 21 percent difference in high school graduation rates, a 52 percent difference in youth poverty rate, an eight-year difference in life expectancy and a 15-point difference in violent crime rates — to name just a handful of findings.

“We like to talk about these issues over and over again, but sometimes you need to see it to believe it,” said Kirwan Senior Legal Analyst Kyle Strickland. “There are numbers and statistics and stories in this report that highlight the dire circumstances that some of these boys and young men of color are living through.”

“We've grown accustomed and we've normalized the idea that black and brown male youth are going to be over-represented in categories that measure failure, and underrepresented in categories that measure success,” Strickland continued. “And we can't have that anymore.”

As a senior at Columbus Alternative High School and already taking college classes at Columbus State, Levi Hairston's story doesn't fit that norm, but he is aware of the challenges facing his peers.

Given Columbus' record high of 143 homicides in 2017, and recent police-involved killings of African-American boys and young men like 13-year-old Ty're King and 23-year-old Henry Green, it's not surprising Hairston cites safety as a main concern.

“We're the same person, just different circumstances,” Hairston said, reflecting on King and Green. “That could've easily been me.”

“I never feared the police,” he continued. “But in the past three years, to see the increase in conflict between young African-American males and the police … has made me not fear them, but just look at them in another way.”

Hairston has remained occupied and motivated by participating in myriad organizations and programs. He has served on the Franklin County Youth Council, attended the Central Ohio Leadership Academy and interned with Hardin. He also volunteers at the Mid-Ohio Food Bank and is president of LeaderSpark's social enterprise program. His goal is to study agricultural engineering or agricultural business at a four-year university following graduation.

Depending on their location, some young people don't have the same access to community assets. According to the Kirwan report, there is a lower concentration of youth services in Greater Linden, Northland, Hilltop and South Side neighborhoods. Additionally, safety is the least-addressed topic by existing youth-service providers, which are often hamstrung by limited resources.

“There are good people doing good work in this space. We just need to make sure that we're providing the support,” said Strickland, who encouraged an alignment of resources to tackle big problems. “There is money out there … but we've got to make sure it's going to the right programs or the right people.”

Questions remain about how MBK grant money will be distributed and, perhaps as important, how success or failure will be measured in the coming years. Indeed, at this stage it's difficult to point to what, specifically, the program has accomplished, though there's an understanding among those running MBK that appreciable results from these early investments might not surface for years down the road, which can make it difficult to maintain public momentum.

“Lives are being changed and saved … every day by the work that's going on in these MBK communities across the country,” Broderick Johnson said. “We have to be so careful, too, in sending any kind of a message, particularly to our young people, that, ‘Sorry, but you're going to have to wait a while as we do our planning.' That's certainly the wrong message to get out there. At the same time, we have to be more rigorous and plan better and measure results better and see the kind of stability and infrastructure that needs to be in place to sustain this work so that we don't just have moments of success … but [are] able to really point to more systemic and more systematic change."

Kay Wilson at LeaderSpark said she doesn't mind if funding goes to other programs, she just wants the city to do a better job of tracking how money is spent. “If you don't give me that data that shows me that you've given them money and they did well with it, I don't know to partner with them,” she said.

And though the city is encouraging collaboration, Wilson said many organizations simply aren't aware of each other, and therefore need assistance with external marketing. “[Organizations] don't have the money to tell the community what they're doing,” she said.

But there are current models of collaboration the city hopes to replicate, like the CelebrateOne initiative to reduce infant mortality and the Columbus Mentoring Alliance, a collaborative effort designed to recruit more adults to serve as mentors for local youths.

Hairston also recommended MBK utilize youths of color to help spread the word.

“It would be really nice to see something that says My Brother's Keeper is a collective of young men … who are going to be on the forefront of change,” he said. “It's nice to see a councilmember leading a thing, but I think it's more powerful to see the young men affected by what's going on lead something.”

Last year, the city and the Department of Neighborhoods hosted a summit and conference to further engage youths of color, and will do so again this spring and fall, respectively.

Department of Neighborhoods Director Carla Williams-Scott referred to these events as small-but-important steps in terms of building awareness within the community. “Even if we're only able to get to 100 or so kids,” she said, “that's 100 more than we would've been able to get.”

Hardin, for his part, stressed the importance of finally addressing long-lingering issues within these at-risk communities, but doing so from a foundational basis.

“If we don't solve some of these issues pertaining to young men of color, we as a community will continue to see lower graduation rates. We will see higher rates of incarceration and safety numbers that just do not jell with who we are as a community,” he said.

Investing in programs that reaffirm young men of color, Hardin said, benefits the community as a whole, regardless of race.

“This is not a black conversation or a white conversation,” Hardin said. “This is a Columbus conversation.”