Isaiah grew up on the North Side of Minneapolis. He felt the responsibilities of helping to provide for his family as a child. By age 10, Isaiah had a job sweeping up hair at a barber shop to help put food on the table.
He tried hard to follow the right path — getting involved in student council, focusing on his studies and having a mentor who helped him develop his own potential. But life still presented many obstacles. Isaiah said that to stay on the right path he learned from his older siblings’ mistakes.
Isaiah became the first in his family of seven children to graduate from high school on time and go to college. He even got a scholarship to Minneapolis Community and Technical College. He also got involved with an after-school program at the YMCA. It was there he was recruited to interview for BUILD Leaders, a collaborative effort that targets 18- to 24-year-olds and trains them to facilitate gang and violence prevention among their peers.
Today, Isaiah’s gifts are flourishing. As a BUILD leader, he works in his community to prevent youth violence. While he still has some hurdles to overcome, his story of triumph is an example of how engaging older young people in community-based activities and city programs can benefit that person, other young people and his community. It is inspiring and hopeful to hear a story like Isaiah’s. We need to hear more about young men of color who are succeeding in the face of challenges and barriers, seen and unseen.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul region has some of the starkest disparities in the nation between white people and people of color — including disparities in employment, education and health. In Minneapolis, the on-time graduation rate for African-American boys is only 39 percent; in St. Paul, the trend line is better, with a graduation rate of 59.5 percent in 2013, but this is still far from where we need it to be.
Young men like Isaiah succeed because they dedicate their hearts and minds to living a different way. But this isn’t the whole story. Most often, they are supported by individuals and organizations who believe in their capacity to succeed: Parents, friends, community workers, faith leaders and teachers all have a role in helping kids and young men recognize and develop their potential. But that support is most successful when we have recognized and removed the often-unintentional barriers of institutional racism we may perpetuate.
That’s why, as the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, we have enthusiastically accepted President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge. My Brother’s Keeper is an ambitious initiative to fully include boys and young men of color in our cities’ success and in America’s promise. Its six goals are that every boy and young man of color be ready for kindergarten, read by third grade, graduate from high school, complete postsecondary education, be fully and productively employed, and live free from violence.
Our work on My Brother’s Keeper began as soon as Obama announced this initiative, a year ago this weekend. At the community level, we recognize that many in our cities have been working hard and for a long time to achieve the goals of My Brother’s Keeper. It is not intended to create a new infrastructure on top of the many initiatives we already have, but to harness the collective efforts of the partners already doing this work and focusing, amplifying and lifting up issues as well as successes, while removing institutional policies and barriers to that success.
Last summer, our offices hosted a briefing for the community, then we both answered the president’s call to action by hosting a summit in November with top Obama administration officials and community stakeholders. Currently, a joint planning team comprising nonprofits, education, government and young people is developing a series of actionable recommendations for our Twin Cities, building on existing strong work and collaborations, and engaging the voices of young people themselves in framing the recommendations. Later this spring, we’ll invite the community to join us to launch the work of this planning team.
But don’t wait until then. Join us now by raising up your positive stories, raising up stories like Isaiah’s. Share those stories with your neighbors, share them with the news media and share them with us. One day those stories will be our communities’ norm.
Chris B. Coleman is mayor of St. Paul. Betsy Hodges is mayor of Minneapolis.