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My Brother's Keeper Aims For A 'Collective Impact' On Young Men Of Color

Boys in My Brother's Keeper Charlotte Mecklenburg marched in uptown Charlotte last June during a Black Men Matter rally.
My Brother's Keeper Charlotte Mecklenburg
My Brother's Keeper Charlotte-Mecklenburg marched in uptown Charlotte last June during a Black Men Matter rally.

Former President Barack Obama started My Brother's Keeper at the White House in 2014, and it has since evolved into a network of more than 250 affiliates nationwide. Its website says the idea is to help young men of color "feel valued and have clear pathways to opportunity."

Michael Devaul
Michael DeVaul

"The issue … is we have a tendency not to see the boys," said Michael DeVaul, co-founder and strategy leader of My Brother's Keeper Charlotte-Mecklenburg. "Therefore, we don't provide a system of belonging, which then leads to an exacerbated, tragic problem because we're not being seen."

A year ago, the group hired Don Thomas as its first full-time executive director. It recently obtained nonprofit status. And this school year, the organization enrolled its first group of students, Thomas said.

"We have 102. So far, they have profiles on Gradify," Thomas said. "We have about half of those young men that have taken our social-emotional assessment in partnership with Hello Insight, just so we can know where these young men are situated."

Those two names Thomas mentioned, Gradify and Hello Insight, are among more than a dozen partners that My Brother's Keeper Charlotte-Mecklenburg works with. And that's what sets it apart from other nonprofits. Rather than provide all services alone, it's an umbrella organization that coordinates services from other groups.

"We've identified five focus areas," Thomas said. "One is culture. Another is art. The next is agriculture. The next is emergent technology. The last is health and wellness. … We've brought together three to five organizations per focus area."

Don Thomas is executive director of My Brother's Keeper Charlotte Mecklenburg.
Don Thomas is executive director of My Brother's Keeper Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

My Brother's Keeper has a tiny annual budget — just $270,000. But it pays these organizations fees for helping build what Thomas calls a "collective impact strategy."

And, by the way, Thomas said, all are led by people of color.

"It's important for our young men to be able to see that type of leadership," he said.

That was one of the recommendations in a report last fall for the Charlotte Opportunity Initiative. It found that economic mobility is still lacking for Charlotte youth who grow up in poverty, but it highlighted ideas to address the problem, including My Brother's Keeper. Thomas quotes report author David Williams.

"Just the very presence of positive, Black males around some of these young brothers that we are engaging, it has an impact on how their very DNA is expressed," Thomas said.

That's what Obama was thinking when he started the initiative. NPR covered his 2015 announcement of the nationwide My Brother's Keeper Alliance, where he said the goal is to ensure equality of opportunity.

"And we won't get there as long as kids in Baltimore or Ferguson or New York or Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta or the Pine Ridge Reservation believe that their lives are somehow worth less," Obama said then.

Last year's Charlotte Opportunity Initiative report said the focus on young men of color is needed. They're more likely to be suspended from school or drop out, and to be either victims or perpetrators of crime. To cite just one statistic from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department: Of the jurisdiction's 121 homicides in 2020, 103 victims and 110 suspects were Black or Latino. And nearly all were male.

Franklin Chacon
Isaiah Arrington
My Brother's Keeper
Franklin Chacon

The first group of boys in the local My Brother's Keeper ranges from fifth grade to high school, and are all from west Charlotte. They come from varied levels of academic achievement — one-third each from low-, medium- and high-grade point averages. They're referred to My Brother's Keeper by school staff and other agencies.

Thomas says this year, the organization plans to enroll a total of 120 boys on Charlotte's west side and another 120 on the east side, where many Latinos live.

For many of these boys, just having someone to turn to makes a huge difference. Franklin Chacon of Harding University High School is among the first cohort.

"You can say they have been my support, Chacon said. "They have been that foundation for me in the times that you just feel like you just can't do it anymore or it's just too much for you to handle, you can just go up to these people and … they provide you with solutions to your problems."

Michael Nettles
Isaiah Arrington
My Brother's Keeper
Michael Nettles

"Whether it be for college, whether it be for my class, or just whether it be me trying to deal with my personal issues, you know, in the world, so you know I always have somebody to tackle different areas," said Michael Nettles, a West Charlotte High School student who's also in the first cohort.

Those interviews come from a video in production to promote My Brother's Keeper.

Thomas said My Brother's Keeper's approach is to create a support network where "we can ensure that from childhood development to workforce development, young boys of color can navigate their entire life with having the proper linkage — organizations, systems, institutions — that linkage so they have all the necessary resources throughout that lifecycle.

"So it's an ambitious goal, but this is how we're looking at the work," Thomas added.

With just 100 students, My Brother's Keeper Charlotte-Mecklenburg is just getting off the ground. It's been hobbled this year by the need to do everything virtually because of COVID-19.

But Thomas says they eventually hope to have thousands of boys.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.