When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg publicly launched the Young Men’s Initiative on August 4, he gave voice to a fact that society alternately decries and ignores: in cities across America, Black and Latino males are over-represented in our jails, on our unemployment lines, and in our special education classrooms, and are more likely to see the inside of prison walls than college dorms.
But it wasn’t just what the Mayor said that made headlines, it’s what he did. He took responsibility for the outcomes of Black and Latino young men on the City’s watch. He didn’t just launch one new program, issue a report, or wag his finger. He told the City agencies that interact with young men of color to put a stop to disparities. He signed new policies to reduce counterproductive barriers faced by young men of color. And he put his money where his mouth is.
The Young Men’s Initiative has received the most attention to date because of the unprecedented $127 million funding commitment. This is understandable. According to experts in the field, this is the single largest funding program focused on Black and Latino males. The Mayor not only prioritized this initiative in the City budget, recognizing the loss of taxpayer dollars in cycles of incarceration and educational disconnection, but donated $30 million personally and asked philanthropist George Soros to join him. What makes YMI a unique endeavor, however, is not just this public-private partnership. It’s that the goal is systemic reform. Now underway are a series of policy initiatives to address barriers that young Black and Latino males encounter in the pursuit of opportunity, reforms in the practices of key City agencies, and new programmatic investments designed to change lives in the immediate while informing City agencies about how best to bridge the achievement gap.
Let’s start with the policy reform. City governments have leverage to reduce counter-productive barriers that young men of color face. For example, we know that lack of state-issued identification is an obstacle to the pursuit of employment. Many of us take this for granted, but take a moment and try to unwind what happens if you don’t have a driver’s license in your pocket. No job application. No ability to open a bank account. Through YMI, it is now the policy of the City to help New Yorkers understand the importance of obtaining ID and help them to do it. Another cornerstone policy initiative is the Mayor’s Executive Order prohibiting questions about criminal convictions in the first stage of the hiring process with City agencies. Known as “ban the box” nationally, this policy allows candidates with a record to get their foot in the door before their conviction history is considered along with other factors in determining qualification for employment.
It is the City agency reform where the seriousness of YMI is most exemplified. Young Black and Latino men interact with City agencies all the time. The question is, are they better off or worse off for that interaction? For example, it was the Mayor’s frustration with the involvement of young Black and Latino males in the criminal justice system that sparked this entire effort. With three out of four men who leave Rikers returning, it is clear that our justice systems are a revolving door. Key to breaking this cycle is the role of the Department of Probation. Under the leadership of Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs and Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, and with nearly $20 million dollars in support, the DOP is transforming its role from that of compliance machine to an engaged partner. DOP’s goal is to work with their clients (almost all are young Black and Latino males) in the neighborhoods where they live by providing them the supports—education, connection to employment, help cleaning up their RAP sheets, mentoring—to make it so that they do not commit another crime. They can turn the page to the next chapter in their lives, and our communities are safer for it.
Reducing disparities in education is another top priority of the YMI. For the first time, Chancellor Dennis Walcott will hold schools accountable for bridging the achievement gap by including a measure focused on the performance of Black and Latino male students on School Progress Report Cards. These metrics are joined by efforts to highlight and investigate disparities in areas including special education and suspension.
The record $127 million is being spent very carefully on initiatives designed to make a difference while helping agencies learn information that will lead to better service delivery. The Expanded Success Initiative is a prime example. This initiative will help thousands of young men graduate high school ready to succeed in college or careers while teaching lessons about how to bridge the achievement gap that can be exported throughout the system. Under the supervision of the Mayor’s Center for Economic Opportunity, the programs that will be launched in education, mentoring, juvenile and criminal justice, health and employment will be carefully measured to make sure that they are meeting their goals.
Look – any program tackling a challenge as profound as this is going to be critiqued. Those on the left will say that the simplest fix is to end stop-and-frisk policies and arrests for low-levels of marijuana possession. But that’s not a fix. While I personally support the merits of this argument, any such action will do nothing to change the fact that Black and Latino males graduate from high school ready for college and career at rates far lower than their peers. We need a comprehensive strategy – and that’s the approach the City is now taking. Those on the right have dismissed the effort as a public relations stunt – how can government possibly address a problem this big and entrenched and isn’t this problem really only about how more Blacks and Latinos need to get married? (The divorce rate being highest among White Americans never seems to factor in, but whatever). Of course this line of critique ignores the enormous leverage that City governments have to reduce barriers and to improve service delivery by refusing to accept disparities by race and gender.
Is the Young Men’s Initiative controversial? Sure. Any discussion of the intersection of race, class and gender will arouse emotion. That’s why most political leaders shy away from it. Thankfully for the Black and Latino males of New York City, Mayor Bloomberg isn’t one of them.