February 27 2019

I had the opportunity to attend the national My Brother’s Keeper gathering in Oakland last week, organized by the good folks at the Obama Foundation.  My Brother’s Keeper – “MBK” in shorthand – is the initiative birthed by President Obama while he was in office to address the potential and promise of young men of color across the nation.  You may recall that President Obama – visibly moved by the tragic shooting death of young Trayvon Martin – was inspired to do something meaningful about the plight of young men of color in America.

The MBK gathering was an electric, highly engaged three-day event that was a blend of the sharing of best and promising practices, advocacy for public policy, family gathering, and had the feel, at moments, of just plain goin’ to church – of the high-energy evangelical variety.  Several hundred attendees from a cohort of MBK “challenge” communities broke bread, shared stories, shook hands, and hugged.  Young men of color were in abundance, and for a veteran conference-attender over many years, it was indeed a pleasure to see young men of color positioned at center-stage, rather than being invisible or barely visible – which is typically the case at too many of the policy and philanthropy gatherings I attend.  The oversold, standing room-only gathering was multigenerational in makeup, and featured women, African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian-Pacific Islanders, and whites.

A session featuring three African-American mothers who lost young men to violence – including the mother of Trayvon Martin – was facilitated by musician John Legend.  He followed this emotional and inspiring conversation with a piano recital featuring the music of the legendary Marvin Gaye, which was soulful and powerful.

But the highlight of the MBK gathering for me was an hour-long conversation featuring President Obama and NBA star Steph Curry, accompanied by several young men of color on stage, who were invited to ask questions of President Obama and Steph Curry as well.  The set-up of this particular session was important for symbolic reasons – not only was the President surrounded by young men of color on the stage, but young men of color also occupied “the best seats in the house” in the front section of the auditorium closest to the stage.  So-called VIPs and older adults (foundation CEOs like me) had to sit in the balcony.  It was great — as a symbol of the need to place our young men front and center.

The conversation itself was led by a President Obama who was accessible, transparent, reflective, and engaging of the young men in attendance.  The topics of race, and gender, single-parenting, hypermasculinity, and public policy were all touched on.  The President affirmed both the uphill struggles that young men of color face, and their promise and potential for leadership in civic society.  Indirectly, he spoke to the older adults in the audience about the need for all of us to raise our game on behalf of young people – men, women, boys, and girls.  The President and Steph Curry spoke to the glory and challenges of being husbands and fathers.

Parenthetically, I read a recent opinion piece in the New York Times asserting that President Obama took an opportunity to “scold” young black men at the MBK event – not a new critique of the President that has emanated on occasion from black scholars and writers.  Let me say, for starters, that no one among us is above criticism – not even President Obama – and when it comes to the matter of the present and future of our young men and young women of color in our nation, we all need to be held to account for our words and actions.  But as someone who sat – with rapt attention – through this session, I did not witness a top-down “scolding” of young men in the audience at all.  The context here was the general topic of hypermasculinity, and the President offering an alternative, uplifting narrative about “being a man” – not to be defined by the number of gold chains one wears or women dancing about in a music video – but by a sense of comfort and confidence in self, and his own loving commitment to his life partner, Michelle Obama.  He spoke from a place of vulnerability, highlighting his own insecurities as a young man: anger about his absent father, questions about race and belonging, confusion about his career path.  I heard the comments as plainspoken, kitchen table wisdom from an elder, sitting eyeball-to-eyeball with young men whose future he gives a damn about.

This critique serves as a healthy reminder for us all.  There is no one among us – not even President Obama – who can single-handedly carry the weight of assuring a more promising future for our young people generally, and our young men of color specifically.  The complexity and depth of the issues defies a singular, straight-line solution carried by a superhero.  Some of us dedicate ourselves to the frontal assault on structural racism, others to criminal justice and policing reforms, others to the matters of school-to-career and mentoring, and others to issues of hypermasculinity and gender justice.  No one among us can do it all or be responsible for it all.  The “big tent” of folks engaged in the work that must be done is what MBK is about: be engaged, be committed, do what you must and do what you can – and then let’s gather as one to hear from our young men directly, and candidly assess what else must be done.  The work is beautiful, and inspiring, and messy.

An appreciative shout-out to President Obama and our colleagues at the Obama Foundation – and to all of the MBK attendees who do the hard work and the heavy lift on the ground, and in the neighborhoods.  Keep up the promising work of My Brother’s Keeper.

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