Accountability was something Mayor Bloomberg stressed from the beginning of the YMI. But the Initiative's small scale and unique funding structure make it unclear where it goes from here.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

Accountability was something Mayor Bloomberg stressed from the beginning of the YMI. But the Initiative’s small scale and unique funding structure make it unclear where it goes from here.

A highlight of Mayor Bloomberg’s third term was the creation of the Young Men’s Initiative, to “help at-risk young men build stronger futures for themselves and their families.”

Funded at the tune of $43 million a year – predominantly private money from the Bloomberg Foundation and George Soros’ Open Society Institute – the YMI aims to stanch the flow of young men of color out of school and into the criminal justice system; to encourage the ideals and practice of fatherhood for so many whose own dads had been absent; and to open doors to training and employment to move New York’s young men of color into productive, independent adulthood.

Now, $129 million in, City Limits wondered how the YMI had fared in its first three years. With nearly 160,000 young black men in New York City facing high unemployment, low high-school graduation rates, disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates, and the near-innumerable slings and arrows of city life, what had the YMI amounted to, on the brink of the mayoral transition? Had the myriad programs braided together under the YMI umbrella actually worked to improve the lives of the city’s young men of color?

A hallmark of YMI is accountability, defined by measurable progress toward concrete goals. We wanted to see what the data would tell us. Yet again and again, insiders urged us to look at the mission, not the outcomes – at intentions, not data. Consider the idea of the YMI, the place in the public conversation that the YMI had carved, they said, rather than the flat facts of how many young men are being helped.

“This was a critical part of the population that was not being well-served,” YMI advisory board co-chair Richard Buery, the president and CEO of the Children’s Aid Society, says. “The elevation of this critical group of young people as a central focus of public policy, this was the biggest victory, more important than any individual policy or program.”

“You have to acknowledge the novelty and the power of a mayor saying, ‘Hold me accountable for outcomes,'” Buery continues.

The outcomes

It’s unclear, however, what outcomes the mayor ought to be judged on. “It would be a mistake to evaluate the impact of the Initiative on individual impacts of the programs,” Buery tells City Limits. “YMI represents a critically important opening to young men outside of the economic mainstream I don’t know that it would show up in a ledger or a balance sheet.”

More than a quarter-million young black and brown men live in New York City. According to YMI and Department of Education statistics, only about half finish high school – and fewer than one in five graduate ready for college.

YMI programs to date have a somewhat more modest reach, according to data posted in the 2012 Annual Report: Of 260 participants in a GED-peer mentoring program, 56 have passed their GED. Low literacy levels plague academic achievement for the YMI population from the early grades forward – but literacy efforts coordinated by the YMI included only 320 participants in all five boroughs, according to YMI’s 2012 Annual Report.

Work Progress, which places youth in subsidized, short-term work in community-based organizations, placed 366 youth, male and female, in fiscal 2012.

That many young men grow up in households without fathers or male role models is without debate; the Fatherhood Academy aims to reverse that practice. The jewel in the YMI crown, the CUNY Fatherhood Academy, graduated its first cohort in June, 2012. Of that first group, nearly two-thirds completed the program, according to the YMI’s 2012 annual report. Twenty-two young men “graduated” from the Fatherhood Academy; 13 went into the workforce and 45 percent of the cohort applied to college. Eight enrolled in LaGuardia Community College, as of fiscal 2012.

Another YMI program, the Expanded Success Initiative, intends to bring more youth to high school graduation, well-prepared for college. ESI high schools currently number 40, among the city’s 700+ high school programs. ESI schools must have, in addition to sufficient black and Hispanic and low-income enrollment, A or B grades on their progress reports, and also have a graduation rate of at least 65 percent – above the citywide average. In this way, ESI helps the schools that are already helping their students achieve, and does not include students in struggling schools.

“The Bloomberg administration put forward the idea that we need new approaches to long-standing problems. That means taking risks without knowing they’ll work. It’s hard to quantify,” Buery says.

While the YMI created some new programs, many existing programs were re-organized under the YMI tent. For example, the Young Adult Internship Program – which in fiscal 2012 involved 326 young men – predates the creation of the YMI. Notably, it’s open to young women and young men, although it’s under the YMI aegis.

And the newest initiative of the YMI – a $24 million infusion into Jobs Plus, a jobs program that invests $8 million a year in job placement and other supports for residents of New York City Housing Authority residences, will serve anyone in NYCHA – not necessarily the young, and not exclusively men, either.

Jobs Plus was administered by the Human Resources Administration until January 2013; now, it’s part of the YMI. Under YMI, it has placed 806 young adults in jobs; that total includes men and women of all races and ages, not only young men of color.

With over $40 million a year in non-public funding, the YMI was able to host conferences, gather expert opinion, create and repurpose existing programs, and surely change the lives of several hundred young men. The gains of a few may look small, yet the worth and meaning to the individuals whose lives were altered cannot be underestimated.

“It doesn’t mean the money was wasted because the work was a failure,” Buery says. “If something doesn’t have the impact, It doesn’t mean it’s a failure,” because knowledge gained informs future work.

Missing in action

Some members of the YMI’s original advisory council – academics, advocates and non-profit leaders – say they distanced themselves from the project because of a perceived disconnect between language and action. David Jones, the head of the Community Service Society (City Limits‘ parent company), says he was concerned after the first few meetings, because representatives of the Police Department were notably absent.

Of all city agencies, the NYPD arguably has the greatest effect on the lives of young men of color, Jones says. “But they weren’t there. They’re still not there.”

Buery says the advisory board engaged with the NYPD, but those conversations did not gain their participation. “I can’t speak to why,” he says. “I don’t work for the City.”

“We did not deal with stop and frisk,” advisory board member Ana Olivera says. Olivera, who is president of the New York Women’s Foundation, and David Banks, President of the Eagle Academy Foundation, published an initial report to the mayor in January 2010 that laid the groundwork for the YMI.

She says the group focused on criminal justice and juvenile justice issues – but did not include the NYPD’s controversial, signature street-policing program.

“We were advisers,” tasked with fleshing out City Hall’s YMI agenda, Olivera says. “We did not have the authority to make the decisions.”

The Department of Corrections and the Department of Probation both participated in YMI programs. But the NYPD’s absence is striking. The NYPD have an outsize influence on tens of thousands of young men of color; young black men represent less than 5 percent of the total city population, yet are over 40 percent of those stopped by the cops.

YMI programs do include a focus on bringing youth involved with the criminal justice system back into the fold of society, through work and school. But efforts to keep youth of color from being swept up in the juvenile and criminal justice systems in the first place did not have equal visibility.

YMI was also notably absent from the conversation about the Human Resources Administration’s policy that young men receiving TANF (temporary assistance to needy families, the federal welfare program) support be directed out of education, including GED and college programs, and into work or job-readiness training. Changes to the federal TANF rules in 2008 explicitly permitted the use of TANF funds for higher education, on the basis that post-secondary education was a more reliable route out of poverty than a federal handout. Yet the city did not adapt their practices.

Improving the academic success of black and Hispanic youth is an avowed cornerstone of the YMI. With high-school graduation rates of 52 and 54 percent for black and Hispanic boys and low college readiness among those who do earn diplomas, keeping young men of color enrolled in college would seem to be a no-brainer.

The City Council ultimately passed a law, signed by the mayor, to increase reporting by HRA on its handling of young welfare recipients who were pursuing education. But the YMI never weighed in.

“YMI is something powerful that addressed many aspects of the lives of young men – not just health, not just education, not just criminal justice,” Olivera says. “But it was not comprehensive.”

Despite requests for interviews that began in early September, City Hall did not permit a conversation with the Bloomberg administration’s YMI leadership.

Scaling up, going forward

Scaling up – vital in a city as big as New York– has so far eluded the YMI, Olivera says. The ideas are good; the approach is philosophically sound, she and others agree. But expanding pilot programs to a level where tens of thousands of youth could benefit, instead of hundreds, has eluded the YMI to date.

“YMI needs to transform and improve our education system. It needs to be scaled up. You begin with the kernel, you make sure certain elements are there, because you want to grow a much bigger plant.” It needs to be “mainstreamed,” Olivera says, hopeful that the city will invest in the work on a much greater scale.

The YMI was not funded through the city budget – nor incorporated as a formal agency or city program, for which a budget line would be created and funded – so the funding for YMI going forward can’t be presumed. Will generous funders continue to support the YMI? Will they, once Bloomberg leaves office, change causes? As the city anticipates an economic crunch fueled by labor contracts that need renegotiation, does the YMI’s status as a boutique program threaten its existence?

“There’s a call to continue this work,” Buery says, of the new administration. “As we innovate, we have to commit to long-term investment in systems that benefit young people of color. As a city, we have to invest in ourselves.”

“The new mayor has to decide,” Buery says. “I think he’ll be a champion of young people of color. I look forward to working with him.”