President Obama just recently announced a new initiative called My Brother's Keeper. The idea of the initiative is to focus on primarily the kids in low-income communities that struggle with staying in school, and are more likely to end up in jail.
In his announcement he gave some shocking background statistics:
“As a black student, you are far less likely than a white student to be able to read proficiently by the time you are in 4th grade. By the time you reach high school, you’re far more likely to have been suspended or expelled. There’s a higher chance you end up in the criminal justice system, and a far higher chance that you are the victim of a violent crime. Fewer young black and Latino men participate in the labor force compared to young white men. And all of this translates into higher unemployment rates and poverty rates as adults.”
This announcement is important for young men like me, who grew up in a low-income community, and attended struggling public schools. I am currently benefiting from a program at my college called “Men Of Color” that tries to address very similar, if not the same, issues.
I was on the verge of switching out of my third college because I felt misplaced and uncomfortable. I was starting to miss having class with people who looked like me. But another part of me wanted to stay, because the whole reason I transferred to the College of Alameda was to get away from familiar faces so I could focus more in class.
But when I got recruited by my math teacher to join a class called “Men of Color,” my urge to leave completely went out the window. I finally found what I been yearning for. I had the best of both worlds. I was surrounded by people I could relate to, who also ran into trouble in the past, but have their minds set on bettering themselves. The class is designed to build a strong support system for each other. Not only did I develop a relationships with the guys in the class, but also with my instructor.
So one day after class I sat with Professor Jamar Mears, who leads the class, to get a better understanding of the intended outcomes of the class, and where he got the inspiration to start the program. He told me, “It hit home. I'm a counselor and teacher now, but I was a College of Alameda student from Oakland. I felt I didn't have the resources or feel like I belonged in college... So choosing that population was like a no-brainer. These are my people.”
Professor Mears grew up in East Oakland and dealt with the same everyday drama I faced with my friends and family growing up. He attended College of Alameda, but it took him about 10 years to obtain his bachelor’s degree, because he dropped out of school a couple times.
When Mears first got hired as a counselor in 2010, the vice president of the college and other instructors expressed that they were having challenges reaching the black students. But Mears couldn’t get anything off the ground. Last year, the new President of the college told him to start the Men Of Color class.
“In my thesis for college I studied black men in a community college setting,” said Mears. “I found out that African American males do the worst when it comes to secondary education, have the highest dropout rate, worst GPA, and are the hardest population to retain in college, and that also was me. So once I had the resources and support to start this program, I hit the ground running with it.”
In a nutshell, this class is a brotherhood of men from all different ethnic backgrounds, and we all help each other in and out of class -- from homework to personal issues. Our first homework assignment was to get at least three contacts from people in the class so we could strengthen our relationships with one and another. Our instructor teaches us about the different ways our society is designed to promote inequality. We’re also taught leadership skills, professional and public speaking skills, as well as how to improvise in a tough life situation.
Mears told me that the purpose of giving us these skills is not to only get us ready for when we graduate and start our careers, but also to succeed in everyday situations. “I say college is a game. In this class I would like to equip the students with the tools that they need to play the game... You can just walk right out and start implementing them in your life with family, friends, professionally, and school,” he said.
According to Mears, after we graduate, our participation in the Men of Color class will not be over. “Our vision for the future is for the students themselves to go on and work with the youth at the high schools and middle schools and continue on with that movement that we started here at College of Alameda.”
When I informed my instructor that President Obama is launching the My Brother’s Keeper initiative he told me it felt like a pat on the back. “It feels great knowing that someone else, like the president, is acknowledging that this population needs help, and giving them a leg up in the race.”
In my opinion, this country’s new focus -- minority males -- is a great opportunity for universities to increase graduation rates by implementing more classes like mine. This could mean more of us are employed, which could decrease the number of us who are incarcerated. More employed citizens means more people contributing to the market, as well as more tax dollars that the government can collect. In more ways than one, supporting young men of color in education will be intensely beneficial for our country.