How Should Philanthropy Respond to Obama’s Speech on Black Men and Boys?

Can philanthropy help America heal from the open wound caused by the Zimmerman verdict?

How do we as a nation now heal from the open wound caused by the Zimmerman verdict? Words from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, offer guidance: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”

I’ve watched more than ten times now President Obama’s speech responding to America’s Trayvon Martin moment. With each viewing, I am increasingly inspired by our president’s courageous depiction of the challenges black men and boys face in a society that too often perceives them as criminals and ignores their potential to be productive contributors to this great nation. In his 20-minute speech, the president pulled off the societal scab of racial pain and fear covering America in the week after a jury deemed George Zimmerman not guilty of killing unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Scores of debates on race, gender, the criminal justice system, and states’ “stand your ground” laws rattled the country in the week leading up to Obama’s speech. When the president finally spoke, the many Americans of all races who have devoted their time and resources to improving the life outcomes of black men and boys had divergent reactions. I heard stories of sighs of relief, jaw-dropping disbelief, and tears of joy. But I also heard that the president’s message about how America views, values, and invests in black men and boys was off-base, too late, divisive, and lacked a substantial plan.

Much of what the president said resonated with me, particularly as a black man, the father of young twin black boys, and the manager of Open Society Foundations Campaign for Black Male Achievement. What was perhaps most compelling was how he helped the country understand the pain black communities were experiencing by weaving explanations of the complex policies that create the disproportionate prison population of African American men with his personal experiences of being racially profiled. What also resonated with me was the return to the question, “Where do we go from here?” which I evoked in a post last week.

I am hopeful that there will be a concerted effort across various sectors to devise a plan in response to the president. But today I am grappling with a question for my committed and courageous colleagues in philanthropy. What should philanthropy do?

I would like to offer the following ideas as points of departure as philanthropy collectively forges its next steps. Here are five things to ponder and perhaps address by the August 24 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington.

  1. Philanthropy should understand that the president’s seminal speech on black men and boys requires an urgent response by the philanthropic community. If in the coming weeks and months philanthropy keeps with the current status quo, we will have missed the opportunity given to us by this catalytic moment in our nation’s history. A good start is for every foundation president and board of trustees to read Foundations and the Fallacy of a Post-Racial America: African American Men and Civic Engagement by Dr. Emmett Carson, president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Then the field needs to quickly put its recent pledge on this issue, made at last April’s Council of Foundations annual meeting, into investment practice.
  2. Philanthropy should understand that it cannot over-invest in law enforcement and criminal justice strategies while  under-investing in family and youth development, community-building, organizing, and educational equity strategies. Philanthropy must explicitly invest on the front end of the prison pipeline to support black boys and men. Where are we if we reduce racial profiling and implicit bias of law enforcement, but still have only 10 percent of black boys reading at grade level by the end of the third grade? Philanthropy needs to collectively embrace the “power of positive deviance,” realizing that the answers to this seemingly intractable problem lies in the heads, hands, and hearts of young black men in communities across the country along with the support of girls and woman—especially single moms. Let’s find ways to tap their assets.
  3. Philanthropy should ramp up and sustain investments in strengthening the field of black male achievement, which is currently grossly under-resourced. Last year, seven foundations partnered to launch the Leadership & Sustainability Institute for Black Male Achievement (LSI), a national membership network designed to ensure the growth, sustainability and impact of leaders and organizations across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors committed to this work. But the LSI is just a drop in the bucket if we are truly going to catalyze change.
  4. Philanthropy should increase investments in strategic communications and messaging efforts. We need an alternative to the narrative that presents black men and boys as liabilities or threats to our society. One such effort is led by former Knight Foundation vice president, Trabian Shorters. He recently spun-off Black Male Engagement, which organizes and supports a network of black males who are already demonstrating that they are assets to their communities.
  5. Philanthropy should realize that what America truly needs to adequately respond to the challenge at hand is not another convening, but the creation of a Corporation for Black Male Achievement – a catalytic enterprise that could lead the implementation of a Marshall-like Plan that could finally change the paradigm for black men and boys in America. As I shared in the Foundation Center’s recent report Where Do We Go From Here? Philanthropic Support for Black Men & Boys, we need an endowed philanthropic social enterprise that can lead us over the decades it will take to address this issue. As Open Society Foundations founder George Soros states in the same report: “[T]his is a generational problem. It demands a long-term commitment.”

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Good read! Definitely sharing w/ the local funder orgs in my area. See you on August 7th in Milwaukee!

Thanks, Jeff. I am really looking forward to spending time with you and Milwaukee leaders next month. I will be in touch to make sure I am clear on my marching orders. keep pressing, sir!

These are great. I'd like to add one more Shawn...
6) There should be cross sector collaboration led by philanthropy aimed at providing resources ie. training, mentorship, and enrichment on a mass scale to young black men.

I agree Steve. While what I offered was just a limited point of departure, I am wondering how this cross-sector collaboration can fuel a human capital crusade to close the mentoring gap in America, particularly to respond to the unfortunate high number of our children growing up in homes without their fathers.

Shawn, I agree with you a National Practitioner Leadership Fellow.. and serving in the field of responsible fatherhood since 1996. I believe the return on the philanthropic investment would be worth the positive outcomes and change in our neighborhoods and community.

Hi Debra. Critical to next steps in building the field is measuring and promoting what's working which the Leadership & Sustainability Institute - - is beginnning to focus on. Responsible fatherhood policy advocacy and direct service work is important to the what winning looks like equation. Keep pressing!

I'm just a mom with a young son, worried, very worried about the future for my son when I hear conservatives retorting that there isn't discrimination against black youth and men after the POTUS speaks about his personal observations and experiences. After reading your report, I feel somewhat better knowing that the philanthropy community is investing in young black men. I admire your work and that of my friend Cedric Brown at the Kapor Foundation - you are one of two that I know of working on this important issue - is the community listening? Are you getting positive feedback across the culture lines and from our own community? As a mom, I worry - I need things in our country to improve for my son for his future.

Thanks for sharing your voice, Solange. Cedric Brown is an amazing person and leader, glad to hear you are connected to him. Do know that there are many people across the country of all races leaning in on this critical work. Stay,encouraged!

Gr8t points but it is time for us to stop throwing $ at a societal problem that relates to a lack of simple service and accountability of manhood and mankind. Service needs no price tag.
and love of one another

I'm curious, why is this a philanthropy problem and not a problem for the parents?

My mother and I fought about who my friends were going to be. She was raised racist. I abhor racism, but even when I tell blacks that I am not racist they demand that I am.

I graduated from a small college with a degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice. Therefore, I do know and appreciate the problem of more minorities in prison than whites. I don't like that it happens and I have some ideas about why it happens.

1. Many black fathers seem to treat their families as chattel. When tired of them, the fathers move on.

2. Opportunities exist for everyone regardless of race, but black fathers seem to desire less responsibility and the only place they can get that less responsibility is prison.

3. Like father like son. Or, we learn from examples.

4. Failure of the father to remain home and with a job leads the youth to look for organization and acceptance even if it's from a gang.

5. Fathers who survived the gangs and remain actively part of the family should fight for their children harder to keep them out of gangs.

I do hope that some day, hopefully in my lifetime, that society changes enough to help the youth escape the gangs. I believe we can all benefit the society, if we stop thinking about "what's in it for me."

But I don't see how philanthropy can solve the problem. Please enlighten me.

Thank you.

David, the piece did not profess that it was solely philanthropy's job to help improve the life outcomes for black boys, but the sector indeed can and should play a catalytic role in this issue. At its root philanthropy means love of man. I am bothered though by your sweeping generalizations about black fathers that you rattle off in your note. For you To imply that black fathers are inherently less responsible is way off base.

David, From what I understand philanthropy does not claim to be THE answer, but AN answer. The criticism that money cannot solve problems is not a new one, and in my opinion it fails to understand what philanthropy aims to accomplish. I do not see philanthropic contributions as just money or handouts. I see philanthropic contributions as investments in a cause or community. Perhaps not the best analogy, but how often do we say we're throwing money at a problem when a city uses money to repair streets, or we pay a doctor for medical care, or we pay money to go to a gym? I would also add that what this article asks us to do is rethink how we view African American men (consider who or what informs our views). It also challenges us to understand and address how issues of poverty, education, and race intersect. Finally, if a given problem disproportionately impacts African American men, do you then attribute the disproportionality solely to their race (or if women, gender; if immigrants, their country of origin) -- what do you leave out? Too much to enumerate here. **excuse the typos - on a mobile device**

Hi Shawn - representing the Positive Deviance Initiative (, I was thrilled to see your comment on the importance of philanthropy realizing "that the answers to this seemingly intractable problem lies in the heads, hands, and hearts of young Black men in communities across the country..."

The positive deviance methodology is designed to find existing solutions from within communities that are experiencing seemingly intractable problems. Too often communities that are experiencing problems are not given the opportunity to discover and amplify what is already working. Thank you for encouraging us all to take advantage of this time to push for human rights and social change.

Thanks, Roger. I think PD is an untapped asset in the field of black male achievement and would welcome an opportunity to explore with you how to be more intentional with it. Send me any relevant PD links incorporating young people using PD to make change.

I am truly in awe!! For years I wondered when we would have the opportunity to overtly address the injustices and inequities that plague the lives of so many Black men. I am honored to be a part of this movement through my work with the National Transitional Jobs Network at Heartland Alliance. I could not have found a job with more purpose and fulfillment than leading off our B.MORE Project (Black Men Overcoming barriers & Realizing Employment). Shawn, while I was looking forward to meeting you in person this Wednesday in Milwaukee, I am excited that the life outcomes of Black men and boys is now a National agenda. I cannot express in words how elated I am to be an American in this moment. I pray the work we have all dedicated our energies to takes shape and lights a brighter path for those who come behind us! #BMA #LSI #OSF #Rockstars

Shawn this article is amazing! You have echoed my voice, thoughts and ideas completely. I am on fire and anticipate dealing with these issues in my on community as we speak.However the reality is as you stated I know that I have to coral funding, time, relevant passionate team, resources and an undying persistence that will allow others (race,classes,etc) to see this as a community problem that affects us all. My city is small ( ie 50000 pop.) yet is riddled with one side thriving and the other side lacking opportunities, education and impoverished that is breeding a continuous cycle of youth murders, gang activities, crime, pregnancy. The sad part is as a whole, if we fail to see a correlation in this problem with our youth period, but especially our black youth we all will cry. I am an advocate for accountability but there must be opportunities and a willingness to see that each and every youth has something to offer, so they can start making intelligent decisions and choices. I am never shocked by what the lack of hope, opportunities, self worth, economics,education and most of all Christmas will yield. We have some amazing young people out here. Let's reach them where they are!

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