Warren Bolton

July 24, 2014

Bolton: Will you be your brother’s keeper?

What will we do in Columbia? Will we simply point fingers and call for more police, or will we get involved and have a ready answer when asked about the plight of our youth: “I am my brother’s keeper”?

THE BIBLE tells the tragic story of a jealous and angry man named Cain who kills his brother, Abel. When God asks Cain where is his brother, Cain utters the well-known words, “I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?”

Indeed, he was not. But he should have been. It’s a violent story line that has been played out countless times among brothers, neighbors and strangers in cities and towns throughout history and across our United States. It’s one that plays out all too often here in Columbia.

And it’s one that we must halt. Black boys in particular are killing one another at alarming rates. The violent crime, gang activity and drop-out rates are alarming as well. But it’s not just black boys; Hispanic youth deal with the same struggles.

As communities across the country struggle to find more ways to address these problems, President Barack Obama has called for a nationwide private-public initiative to reverse the troubling trends and turn the Cain narrative on its head: In February, the president introduced “My Brother’s Keeper,” a program that calls for businesses, schools, churches, citizens and celebrities around the nation to help black and Hispanic boys and young men to avoid prison, turn their lives around, succeed academically and become productive.

Our community is among those that have been exploring ways to address gang activity, violence and other ills among our youth. While part of the solution is increased vigilance on behalf of law enforcement — such as the new partnership between the Columbia Police Department and Richland County Sheriff’s Department to address gangs — the real difference will come from the work of families as well as elected, community, business and church leaders.

Yes, many have been working to change the lives of our youth. I’ve written about various programs and initiatives through a series of columns this year, as well as in years past. But the fact is that while needed and helpful, what we are doing hasn’t proven effective enough. We wouldn’t be lamenting the dire straits many of our youth are in if we already had all the answers.

Fortunately, there are those who continue to explore new and broader ways to tackle the problem. The Columbia Urban League, which long has offered programs to help develop young people, held a forum in May to get teens’ perspectives on what can be done to reduce violence and promote a safe and healthy community. Mayor Steve Benjamin, who has been hosting meetings seeking ways to improve the lives of black youths, has called for a Center of Excellence for Black Male Achievement to be established in Columbia.

All those efforts fall in line with the president’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program, and this community quite likely could benefit from the resources — financial and otherwise — that initiative will offer.

Ten major foundations have agreed to join the initiative; although they already were spending more than $150 million on programs aimed at young men of color, they pledged to invest at least $200 million more on efforts aimed at delivering measurable results.

Educators, athletes and companies have signed on. The NBA has said it will recruit 25,000 new mentors and work with at-risk students to increase attendance and performance. AT&T will commit $18 million toward mentoring and other education programs. And many others, from 60 of the nation’s largest school districts to the College Board, are promising programs to help foster change.

Perhaps something like the Center of Excellence for Black Male Achievement that Mayor Benjamin has proposed could serve as an incubator and clearinghouse for new initiatives as well as a place that coordinates with existing programs, helping them tap into resources and funding.

While there likely will be national funding available, ultimately, we in this community must make our own pledges in terms of our time, our money and our resources, in an effort to improve the lives of our young people. If we steer our youngsters away from gangs and crime and toward positive pursuits, it can only bolster our economic, cultural and social future.

As we pursue answers, we must do so in the best interest of our youth and with the intent of adopting the best practices. We can’t have sacred cows, and we can’t create programs simply to give friends jobs. There’s too much at stake.

What I’ve found as I’ve talked with people about existing programs is that some are very good at what they do, while others aren’t effective at all. We must be willing to inventory and assess the programs that exist — and there are oodles of them — and then make some tough choices as we consider how to distribute the limited resources available.

That means agreeing to expand effective programs and merging — or shuttering — others. It means exploring new, promising initiatives and giving them the support they need to succeed. That’s not an easy thing to do. But, in the long run, it’s needed to turn the fortunes of many of our wayward and at-risk kids around as well as to encourage those already on the right path to continue doing good.

Some might wince at — or even reject — the notion of targeting minorities.

But as President Obama noted in February when announcing this initiative, “if America stands for anything, it stands for the idea of opportunity for everybody; the notion that no matter who you are, or where you came from, or the circumstances into which you are born, if you work hard, if you take responsibility, then you can make it in this country.”

“But the plain fact is there are some Americans who, in the aggregate, are consistently doing worse in our society — groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique ways that require unique solutions; groups who’ve seen fewer opportunities that have spanned generations. And by almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century in this country are boys and young men of color.”

The president doesn’t hide from the shameful statistics that haunt minority youth. Yes, they’re involved in gangs at a high rate. Yes, they drop out of school at a high rate. Yes, they commit crimes at high rates. Yes, they have a high rate of unemployment.

“(T)he worst part is we’ve become numb to these statistics,” he said. “We’re not surprised by them. We take them as the norm. We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is. … But these statistics should break our hearts. And they should compel us to act.”

He said that we must be willing to acknowledge that “my neighbor’s child is my child.”

What will we do in Columbia? Will we simply point fingers and call for more police, or will we get involved and have a ready answer when asked about the plight of our youth: “I am my brother’s keeper”?

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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