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Hundreds attend local Brother’s Keeper summit

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Hundreds attend local Brother’s Keeper summit
Mayor Martin Walsh speaks Dec. 6 at the My Brother’s Keeper summit in Roxbury, flanked by Michael B. Smith (r), special assistant to President Obama on My Brother’s Keeper, and Felix G. Arroyo, Boston chief of health and human services.

Mayor Martin Walsh welcomed some 500 community members to a My Brother’s Keeper summit in Roxbury last Saturday. A diverse group of community stakeholders that included local residents, clergy, educators, police and business and nonprofit leaders — as well as a good number of teens — gathered at the James P. Timilty Middle School to help shape the local MBK initiative to improve the opportunities and outcomes for Boston’s boys and men of color.

“Injustice lies in conditions that create hopelessness,” said Walsh. “It’s up to us to root it out, and make faith and hope grow. That’s what My Brother’s Keeper is all about. Today is an opportunity for everyone in this room to make a difference.”

The MBK Boston initiative is co-chaired by Health and Human Services Chief Felix G. Arroyo and Economic Development Chief John Barros. Arroyo introduced Michael D. Smith, special assistant to President Obama on My Brother’s Keeper, who traveled from Washington, D.C. to attend the summit and lend his support to Boston’s MBK program.

Smith cited troubling national statistics: double unemployment rates in communities of color; less than 20 percent of black and Latino students reading at grade level by fourth grade; and black boys representing more than 50 percent of U.S. murder victims, though they are only 6 percent of the population. He told a “babies in the stream” parable to illustrate the importance of seeking root causes of immediate crises.

“This is an upstream moment,” he said, “a moment where we stop falling in love with the solutions and fall in love with the problems, and go upstream together to figure this out.”

Smith called Walsh a “powerful national voice” on the issue of race and equality, citing the mayor’s recent visit to the White House, appearances on TV and radio and discussions with other mayors and governors.

“Boston is taking concrete steps,” he said. “This is the beginning of something powerful. And we are doing it because your mayor has stepped up, and you have stepped up.”

After a performance by the Boston City-Wide String Orchestra and a short speaking program, participants split up into smaller sessions to spend an hour exchanging ideas on subtopics such as public safety, youth employment, education and business development.

Upon returning to the auditorium, group representatives reported on the key points of each session.

A group of high school students reported that the youth employment group discussed reaching out to teen parents and teen dropouts and homeless children, streamlining the application process for youth jobs programs, extending employment programs from summer to year-round and providing shuttle buses to help teens go from school to jobs. The ultimate dream, they said, is “Every youth in the city who wants a job, has a job.”

The public safety session discussed expanding Boston Center for Youth and Families youth centers and creating jobs for 13- and 14-year-olds in these centers, and bringing mentorship to all youth and families. Young participants alerted the audience that many youth who want mentors languish on waiting lists for years.

Barros invited Smith, who had gone room to room observing the breakout sessions, back to the podium to give some feedback.

“I am fired up. I am so excited,” Smith declared. “I have a meeting with President Obama next week, and I cannot wait to tell him what I saw here in Boston.”

He ticked off a list of ideas he’d heard: the crucial importance of mentoring and youth jobs; honing a focus on jobs for the future; bringing services into the prison system so that when people leave prison they will be connected to services.

As a final note, Smith expressed alarm and hope on the issue of disconnected youth.

“We have almost seven million young people in this country that are not in school and are not working. That’s unsustainable,” he said. “But what I heard here in Boston is, you’re going to change that. You’re going to find that teen mom and figure out how to connect her in; you’re going to go find that foster care youth who is now 18 and doesn’t know what to do; you’re going to find that young man who is out of jail but owes child support and doesn’t have a driver’s license to get to a job. In Boston, you’re up for that challenge.”

The program closed with Malachi Hernandez, 16, a junior at Boston Latin Academy and a youth member of the MBK Advisory Committee.

“Today we are talking about our local community, but are part of a national movement,” he said. “Being at the table today is a huge opportunity. Now I know my voice is important in this process.”

To Hernandez, MBK means supporting boys and men of color and being supported, he said.

“Ask yourselves, what will you do to keep the promise, not only to me, but to all of us?” he urged the audience. “Because we matter. I ask you to join me in proving it.”

As participants filed out, most seemed buoyed by the morning’s work.

“Awesome. Great energy,” said Robert Lewis, founder of The BASE and Pathway to Redemption. “For once I think it’s not about talk, but about being on the ground taking action.”

Shimon Warden of Dorchester, a business owner and member two nonprofit boards, said he was pleasantly surprised, especially at the strong showing by Mayor Walsh and his staff and the mix of government, nonprofits, business and youth.

“We were talking about how all these issues intersect,” he said. “It makes you feel you’re not spinning your wheels.”

Warden echoed several other attendees in lamenting the lack of civics classes in today’s high schools, making it less likely that young adults know how the political system works and see how they could be a part of it.

Building on the national My Brother’s Keeper initiative announced by President Obama, Walsh established the MBK Boston Advisory Committee in September to engage the local community to work for positive outcomes for all youth, focusing especially black and Latino boys and young men. The Advisory Committee created subcommittees to focus on eight key areas: Civic Engagement, Education, Business Development, Workforce Development, Human Services, Public Health, Public Safety, and Youth Employment.

The discussions and recommendations of the Dec. 6 Boston summit will be sent in a report to the White House and will help formulate an action plan, Barros said.

To learn more about My Brother’s Keeper in Boston, visit www.boston.gov/mbk.

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