Wednesday, November 17, 2010

THE ‘BLACK MALE CRISIS’: Why We Mean So Well but Do So Badly

by Karen Pittman,  SparkAction |

November 17, 2010 - “Black males are in crisis.” So begins a new study from the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS), which finds that black males have fewer opportunities and perform lower than their peers on nearly every indicator, from infant mortality through to career prospects.

The data are appalling. I am not sure, however, that there is anything CGCS or any other advocacy group can do to make the country believe that this is a crisis.  As the authors note, the story has been told before.  We know the gaps.  America can do and should do better. 

But it won’t. 

Why not?  Because America, writ large, is not embarrassed by these data.  Parsing and packaging the data won’t change minds.  The data will make those sympathetic more depressed.  Even more dangerous, they will make those who are unsympathetic more strident and might make those who were undecided more concerned that nothing can be done.

The first data group is labeled “readiness to learn,” followed by information on poverty, family status and lack of access to health insurance. Most Americans know these factors are correlated with “readiness to learn.”  What most don’t know, however, is that these factors can be overcome with programs that more than pay for themselves.  Restating the problem without offering clear evidence of cost-effective solutions is not an effective way to generate momentum.

There’s a better way to use this kind of data: the Ready by 21 strategies provide such findings to stir both optimism and outrage among people who work with youth in specific communities, then galvanize them to act.  For example, when we give these community leaders the Gambone findings that only 4 in 10 young adults are ready for college, work and life, and suggest that the percentage of prepared youth in their community could even be lower, we don’t parse this by race.  We show them the research that suggests they could change the number to 7 in 10 by doing things well within their reach. 

Only after we’re sure they understand that they could change the number do we ask them why they aren’t angry and get them talking about what they could do.  Only in that context do we ask them to tell us which students are farthest behind – after they are outraged in general, optimistic in general and publicly onboard to make changes for all children and youth. 

I cut my teeth on the black teenage pregnancy problem which, in the 80s, was really the black teen out-of-wedlock birth problem.  For years, the same case was made about why black teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births rates were so high.  Not much was done. 

Then two things happened:  the white rates got into the danger range, and data analyses showed that birth rates to black, white, and Hispanic teens were virtually identical once you controlled for family poverty and basic skills.

Combining these two pieces of information allowed me and other advocates to recast the problem.  Teen pregnancy was no longer a black problem.  It was a national problem, and the solution—beyond sex education and contraceptives—was to ensure that young people had good life options in their present (for example, addressing the effects of poverty) and their futures (such as preparing them for college and work). This Life Options movement always had low-income and minority teens as its target, but it never had them in its title.

I have mixed feelings about calling for a White House Council on Young Black Males as the CGCS does, because the problems articulated in its report reflect a cascade of system, family and community failures that start at birth and march through to young adulthood.  In the 90s, many thought that the solution was not to create population-specific interventions (such as special programs for black males), but to increase our capacity to screen all children for risk factors at every stage of their development and increase our commitment to do something to address the risks that those screenings found. 

That was naïve.  It didn’t take long to realize that in schools where 90 percent of the students required Individual Education Plans (IEPs), it made no sense to do IEPs—we needed school improvement plans. 

The call for more consistent disaggregation of data to expose the gaps in services makes sense, but let’s go further: we need not just school data, but data on students that reflects not just their academic status but their broader well-being and competencies and data on the quality and quantity of supports they are receiving from family, community and school. 

In order to get to right solutions, we need data that allow us to compare outcomes (like student progress) to outputs (like school, family and community supports).

There are other worthwhile recommendations, but my main objection is this: take out the word Black.

I desperately want this country to be committed to closing the gaps between white and black males’ access to good schools, counselors, mentors, neighborhoods, job opportunities.  But it’s one thing to explicitly create these assets for black males and another to redouble efforts to create these assets in the schools and communities that need them the most, then make sure that they reach black males. 

I’m not sure that the country has the public will needed to achieve the second goal.  I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have the commitment to achieve the first. 

During my short stint running the President’s Crime Prevention Council, I learned very quickly that the emotion that propels most American’s to think about black males is fear and that the solution that calms fear is not education but prison.  The fact that prison costs more than education was not compelling to those driven by fear because they were convinced that the young people who would avail themselves of the opportunities were the not the dropouts who would mug them.

KPKaren Pittman is President and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment , SparkAction's managing partner.  A sociologist and recognized leader in youth development, Karen started her career at the Urban Institute, conducting numerous studies on social services for children and families. Later, she worked six years at the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), launching its adolescent pregnancy prevention initiatives and helping to create its adolescent policy agenda. In 1990, she left CDF to become a Vice President at the Academy for Educational Development where she founded and directed the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research and its spin-off, the National Training Institute for Community Youth Work. In January 1995, Karen handed the Center’s reins to Richard Murphy, former Commissioner for Youth Services in New York City, in order to accept a position within the Clinton Administration as Director of the unfortunately short-lived President's Crime Prevention Council, where she worked with 13 cabinet secretaries to create a coordinated prevention agenda. In the fall of 1995, Karen joined the executive team of the International Youth Foundation, charged with helping the organization strengthen its program content and develop an evaluation strategy. In 1998, she and Rick Little, head of IYF, took a six-month leave of absence to work with General Powell to create America’s Promise. In 1999, she returned to IYF to lay the seeds for what has become the Forum.

A widely published author, Karen has written three books, dozens of articles on youth issues and is also a regular columnist for Youth Today and public speaker.

Karen currently sits on the America’s Promise Board of Trustees, and the boards of the National Human Services Assembly and YouthBuild USA.

Karen is the 2002 recipient of the National Commission for African American Education Augustus F. Hawkins Service Award and the 2003 American Youth Policy Forum Decade of Service Award for Sustained Visionary Leadership in Advancing Youth Policy.

Karen was named one of the top 50 CEOs in nonprofits with power and influence. This 12th annual edition, published August 1, 2009, of The NonProfit Times list is the first time Karen has been recognized for her leadership in the youth development field.

Karen earned a Masters degree in Sociology from the University of Chicago and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Oberlin College.

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