May 18 2015

 

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the island of Puerto Rico, invited by the Puerto Rico Community Foundation, to learn about efforts there to respond to your nationwide challenge and signature public-private initiative: My Brother’s Keeper.

As you know, the problem of the lack of well-being and opportunity in too many African-American and Latino boys and young men across our nation is at a crisis level. Rates of homicide, incarceration, high school dropout, and unemployment- all indicators of a loss of hope and optimism in the American dream- remain stubbornly high in Black and Brown young men. You were absolutely correct in calling national attention to this issue.

In Puerto Rico, a microcosm of this national crisis is revealed, as the Latino young men experience similar disparities, but Black Puerto Rican males in particular suffer from the greatest inequities. However, during my visit, I saw clear evidence that Puerto Rico is poised to emerge as a national model of your initiative.

For example, a visit to the seaside community of Loiza- historically once a hamlet for runaway slaves, and home to a substantial portion of Black Puerto Ricans- demonstrates what real partnership and community engagement can do. As a result of a public-private partnership (supported, in part, with federal resources from the Department of Justice), community leaders in Loiza have seen a more than 60 percent decrease in homicides over the past two years. The program, housed at a remarkable feminist, grassroots organization called Taller Salud, utilizes trained community residents as peacemakers and local problem-solvers. Federal officials are beginning to pay attention to the Loiza program as a national success in community-based violence prevention.

Nearby, an innovative school called “Nuestra Escuela” utilizes themes of culture and responsibility to provide at-risk Black and Brown youth with a meaningful alternative to the prison pipeline, offering real learning, mentorship, and hope. The school is housed in a partnership with the private foundation created by legendary singer Ricky Martin.

The Community Foundation of Puerto Rico, celebrating its 301 h anniversary, convened an inspiring, multi-sector gathering of leaders to discuss strategic options to implement your My Brother’s Keeper Initiative. The group included nonprofit leaders, the Dean of the University law school, economists, anthropologists, psychologists, poets, musicians, government officials- and young men of color themselves. Rather than lamenting the relative lack of federal and state funds, the conversation focused on the assets and strengths that the island of Puerto Rico can bring to the table. Secretary of State David Bernier is providing visibly engaged leadership, and participated in community listening sessions as well.

Nelson Colon, CEO of the Puerto Rico Community Foundation, its Board and Team are taking the lead in convening the island’s leadership to focus on this population that is at the brink of a promising future. Clearly, these leaders on the island could benefit from additional public and private resources to implement the emerging My Brother’s Keeper plan, as many other needy communities across our nation. Based on my recent visit to this inspiring place, I wanted to leave you with five words: Don’t Forget About Puerto Rico.