In 2014, President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative challenged communities to address the opportunity gap between young men of color and their peers. In Pittsburgh, government officials and community leaders formed the local MBK Committee to respond to the President’s call to action and created a plan to do just that. The result of their efforts was the Pittsburgh-Allegheny County My Brother’s Keeper Playbook, which outlined local steps that could be taken to achieve the six goals for MBK established by the White House.

To put the MBK Playbook into action, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto issued a call-to-action of their own to improve the quality of out-of-school digital learning programs for young men of color in the region.

With support from The Heinz Endowments, this next phase of My Brother’s Keeper in Pittsburgh began in the fall of 2016 when The Sprout Fund commissioned UrbanKind Institute (UKI), a Pittsburgh consultancy, to host a series of community conversations between young men of color and the adult program providers who serve them.

UKI recently released a report summarizing the input provided by youth participants and program providers. The report also details recommendations for program providers, funders, and policymakers working to close the opportunity gap for young people of color in Pittsburgh. In the coming weeks, The Sprout Fund will issue a Request for Proposals offering grants totaling $100,000 to support ideas for implementing the recommendations of the report.

In the meantime, we caught up with UrbanKind executive director Dr. Jamil Bey to learn more about the process.

Jamil Bey/UrbanKind Institute

Jamil Bey/UrbanKind Institute

Remake Learning: What did the young men have to say during the community conversations?

Jamil Bey: In the first phase we just wanted to hear from the young men and have the service providers listen to what they had to say. We asked them what they find worthwhile in the afterschool programs they participate in. Do programs meet their expectations and needs? What don’t the adults who are designing these programs get? They all had a response to that question!

I bet. What did do they see as missing in programming?

They said adults don’t quite understand that the space is more important than the content. They will participate in a program if they’re safe, nurtured, and respected—that’s what drives their participation.

We were dealing with the tech space, asking how programs are using technology and how they prepare students for careers. Those programs hardly ever have adults whom the young men see as supportive of their emotional needs. The people designing these programs are not always the best people to implement them.

Can you say more about who those “best people” are? What would a supportive adult or program look like?

They want mentorship from adults they can relate to, adults who consider their needs as individuals important. Often these young men are coming in with a lot of stressors, and they need a chance to vent or work through something. A supportive program would give them that space and opportunity.

“They will participate in a program if they’re safe, nurtured, and respected—that’s what drives their participation.”

Is there a tension between meeting program goals and what the young men say they need?

Yes. A kid can get a certain number of digital badges, but maybe he ends up in trouble because he isn’t nurtured or supported elsewhere. These young men would say, “Nobody’s ever showed me how to tie a tie or change a car tire.” They need long-term mentors, not adults there for a six-month engagement because of a grant. We need to think more holistically about putting the child as a whole at the center of our quality metrics.

Why is it important to have conversations about education and community change led by young people of color?

Too often, policies and decisions are made without including insight from the people who are most directly impacted. Our process makes sure those voices are included and lifted up. Service providers appreciate this. It’s too easy to become arrogant in your expertise without critically reflecting on how it’s received.

How did you get youth ready to assume these facilitator roles?

We identified 10 participants willing to facilitate conversations with adults in the next phase. They spent six hours in a Saturday facilitation training with us. Then they led the conversations with service providers, asking how they develop programs and whether they include youth input.

We were also interested in activating the next generation of doers in the neighborhood. They’ve now been empowered to call foul. Young people often think they don’t have much power, and think their issues are isolated. They found out there are young men across the county with the same stories as them. Now they have the facilitation and organizing skills to take on those issues.

My Brother’s Keeper was launched by President Obama. As a new administration assumes office, why is it important to continue to have discussions about community change led by young people of color?

I don’t know if we can frame it in the context of the new president because it’s been quite a while that legislators and public education have had a hostile relationship. We haven’t seen any policies that are really going to transform how we prepare young people. The election didn’t make this more meaningful. What’s meaningful is we now have young people questioning their roles and becoming agents of change rather than recipients of change. Our process is a bottom-up approach to reform—really from the bottom, from the young people.

“This is a bottom-up approach to reform—from the young people.”

What are the main barriers that prevent programs from meeting students’ needs?

Often the people who can reach the kids are not the people who have the skills we want to teach young people. Or the people who have the digital skills are not the people who can connect with young people. We need to find a way to bridge that gap. Grant cycles and funding came up a lot in these conversations. We need to be thinking about how we can connect these kids to opportunities in the long-term, over the next two or three years.

I’m excited and hopeful that similar conversations are going on in all of the foundations. Everyone is recognizing these gaps, and we’re asking good, critical questions. It’s not that funding in the out-of-school tech space doesn’t work—it’s how can it work?

Read UKI’s full report from theMy Brother’s Keeper Community & Stakeholder Planning Process: Recommendations to Improve Access and Quality of Out of School Programs.

In February, The Sprout Fund will issue a special funding opportunity offering a total of $100,000 in grants to support ideas for implementing the recommendations of the report.

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