Generating ideas, connections, and action

My Brother’s Keeper through the Lens of Leadership & Race

Oakland is a hot bed for innovation and collaboration. While recognizing the diverse cultures that make this city vibrant, it is also a community that has been plagued by violence, economic disparities, racial tensions, and questionable public services.  One thing Oakland does not lack is a commitment to improvement; a determination to better our schools, neighborhoods, and infrastructure in the hope that these will support our community to thrive.  Oakland has been the center of controversy, such as the Oscar Grant shooting, the Occupy Movement, and the constant barrage of violence combatted by and at times even committed by the police department.  This upheaval has also inspired people to work together more intentionally; to reframe the dialogue so that Oakland can transform from a city of violence and poverty, into a community where social justice is alive and well, and where change is on the horizon.


Despite these challenges, Oakland is home to many nonprofits and organizations that are working for change.  In addition, Oakland is on the top of the list for My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative recently launched by President Obama focused on building ladders of opportunity for boys and young men of color. The program aims to support them to stay on track to reach their full potential.  The President called on foundations, governments, the private sector, and local businesses to pool resources and expertise to get the initiative off the ground immediately.  With a keen eye on Oakland, the initiative not only looks at critical points of intervention for young men and boys of color but also is committed to changing the narrative about these often stereotyped members of our communities.

Available on the White House website dedicated to My Brothers’ Keeper[1], are some alarming facts which I am sure you have seen before:

  • 86% of black boys and 82% of Hispanic boys read below proficiency levels for the fourth grade, compared to 58% of white boys reading at proficiency level.
  • African American and Hispanic young men are more than six times more likely to be victims of murder than their white peers – and account for almost half of the country’s murder victims each year.

When a White House representative came to Oakland earlier this year to help launch the program, he met with several young African American and Hispanic boys, who said that they were tired of being regarded as threatening by people who walked by, and tired of being data points instead of individuals.[2]  The experiences of young boys of color are often unpleasant if not traumatic, but these individuals are committed to changing that perspective and to do so will need the support of the schools, nonprofit programs, community members, and local policies to make that shift. The Obama Administration is working on updating guidelines to provide schools with more effective disciplinary actions, as suspensions, dropout rates, and absenteeism were significantly higher among African American and Hispanic boys.  Making schools a safe and welcoming environment for students to learn, be creative, and explore their interests is a shift from the strict disciplinary action that discourages young people.  School is a place where young people spend much of their time growing up.  If schools fail to meet the needs of the students, they are ultimately contributing to the setbacks and struggles faced by these individuals and the community at large.  This is just one example of the collaborative efforts that will contribute to the success of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. 

At LLC, we are paving the way for a new type of leadership, one that is more inclusive, networked, and collective.  Leadership can play a critical role in either contributing to racial justice or reinforcing prevailing patterns of racial inequality and exclusion.[3]  Further, as sited in LLC’s collaborative publication, Leadership and Race:

Failing to pay attention to structural racism in leadership development programs and nonprofit leadership leaves unchallenged several issues that undermine the effectiveness and sustainability of community-based organizations and racial justice work.

To support leadership that contributes to social justice, we need to focus on how individuals and groups are connecting, organizing, thinking systemically, bridging and learning as part of a dynamic leadership process that mobilizes action on the scale needed to address racial injustice.

In relation to My Brother’s Keeper, leadership is critical for making this initiative happen on the ground.  It requires leadership in philanthropy and the corporate sector, which have currently contributed $150 million and is expected to contribute more. We would also need collective leadership at the local level with businesses that can support the employment of young boys of color, of nonprofit agencies who can provide the programs, skills, and support for these individuals as they are working to achieve their goals.  It will require leadership among African American and Hispanic boys, so they can be role models for their peers and for future generations. 


If we employ the recommendations from the Leadership & Race publication as cited below, in order to support racial justice leadership, we – meaning My Brother’s Keeper – need to make racial justice an explicit and active commitment.  What this looks like is an expressed commitment through planning and practice including diverse staffing models, inclusive policies and power in making curriculum decisions.  To support those engaged in leadership to make racial justice a conscious part of planning and decision making, those in leadership need access to tools and resources to understand the racial impact of programs and policies.  Incorporating racial justice training into leadership development strategies, such as an analysis of structural racism and support for the development of skills and strategies for advancing racial equity and institutional change, ultimately strengthen leadership development efforts. Specifically for My Brother’s Keeper, it will be important for leaders to support the development of systems thinking and analysis, as tackling structural racism requires an understanding of how systems operate and perpetuate themselves. 


Organizations and programs will need to consider the importance of providing time, processes and space that is conducive for talking about race and racial/ethnic identity.  Also, recognizing that the needs and support structures for people of color, particularly those from low income communities, differ considerably from those needed for middle-class whites, those leading My Brother’s Keeper would therefore need to provide resources, skills and networks specifically geared for young boys of color.We are all responsible for pushing the field to change the systems that have gotten us to where we are, the systems that hold boys of color down, limits their options, and keep them from their dreams.  Leadership is a lever for social change and what better time than now to exercise that lever to make movements that truly advances society while holding a racial justice lens.   Our world is quickly changing, and we need to respond with urgency to the systems and challenges that are limiting people of color from reaching their potential.  Ultimately, systems based on inclusivity will support the advancement of a more just and equitable society, shaped by the principle of racial justice, where everyone has the opportunity to step into leadership and achieve their goals.

[1] Office of the Press Secretary.  My Brother’s Keeper.  The White House, 2013.  Web.  April 28, 2014

[2] Grady, Barbara.  “President’s ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ aide visits Oakland’s AAMA program for ideas.”  Oakland Local March 12, 2014

[3] Keleher, Terry, Sally Leiderman, Deborah Meehan, Elissa Perry, Maggie Potapchuk, Professor john a. powell, and Hanh Cao Yu.  Leadership & Race: How to Develop and Support Leadership that Contributes to Social Justice.  San Francisco, CA: Creative Commons, July 2010.  Print