Warren Bolton

Helping our brothers survive, thrive

ERIC WASHINGTON should have been embarking on a career in the National Guard after graduating high school in May; instead he was placed in fresh grave this past weekend, the victim of a tragic and senseless shooting.

Yet another young life claimed by violence. Yet another reason Columbia needs its local “My Brothers Keeper” initiative — this community’s version of President Obama’s program aimed at turning around the lives of young men and boys of color — to succeed.

Unfortunately, Eric Washington, a well-liked, promising youngster who played football at C.A. Johnson High, isn’t the first we’ve lost this way. Just a year ago, another 17-year-old high school senior, Da’Von Capers, an honor roll student who played football himself at Dutch Fork High, was stabbed to death. Both of these young men lost their lives at the hands of other black teens, who face the possibility of losing their lives to prison.

After Eric Washington’s death last week, I talked to two pastors on successive days who both were shaken by the tragedy. One said that we’ve got to do something — now. The other told me he had visited the family and that he had never been so affected by such a young person’s death; the young man had such a good character and so much promise. That pastor also said we have to do something — now.

In case you miss their message: We must do something — now.

There are far too many young people being cut down by violence, committing crime, getting caught up in drugs and gangs and dropping out of school. Far too many are without jobs and without direction.

That’s why “My Brother’s Keeper” is so vital. Its mission is to keep boys and men of color out of the grave, out of jail, out of gangs and in college, working jobs and contributing to society. The initiative enlists the help of individuals, corporate America, nonprofits and government to help provide job opportunities, training and education, among other things.

Businesses the nation over have responded to President Obama’s call and have contributed $300 million to the cause. The intent is to extend grants and other aid to various communities that commit to helping boys and men of color chart a positive, productive course in life.

Mayor Steve Benjamin, noting that Columbia was the third community in the nation to join the “My Brothers Keeper” movement, said he is pleased with the partnership being formed to make a difference in our capital city.

In truth, communitywide conversations about helping improve the lives of young men of color began in Columbia about a year before the president announced his program. This community had been dealing with gang and youth violence, and people began searching for answers. The mayor convened a group of men committed to working toward change, as did some others.

When “My Brother’s Keeper” came along, it was only natural for Columbia to sign on. “We’ve been staying involved every step of the way,” Mr. Benjamin said.

He said an advisory committee will soon be appointed to help direct “My Brother’s Keeper Columbia,” which recently got a commitment of $500,000 over four years from the city, Richland County, Richland 1 and 2, USC, Allen University, Benedict College and Midlands Technical College.

While the effort will begin with locally raised dollars, the greater Columbia community eventually will make an application to receive funds from the the $300 million national pot, the mayor said.

A local collaborative such as “My Brother’s Keeper Columbia” will allow the community to put greater muscle and more structure behind the effort to improve the lives of young people. The money committed will be used along with dollars from private and philanthropic sources to expand existing programs that work or start new ones.

Mr. Benjamin cited some successful programs such as the Lower Richland STEM initiative, the United Way’s early readiness program and Concerned Black Men as the types of efforts that could be expanded.

In addition, Mr. Benjamin said that the city is working with local businesses and others to expand the Columbia Urban League’s Summer Work Experience Leadership program that accommodated 250 youngsters last year. “We’re going to try to get 1,000 kids working this summer,” he said. “The goal is to pay them $10.10 (an hour) as well.”

He said the youngsters would not only work but also participate in community service activities, among other things. Funding would come from the city and the private sector.

I’m glad to see the city and its partners coalesce around “My Brothers Keeper.” While there are many groups helping youngsters now, it will be invaluable to have a single entity that serves as a catalyst and offers support, collects data, identifies best practices and even provides funding. If we’re going to help young men become productive citizens, we don’t just need programs; we need effective ones that produce results.

That said, you don’t have to be a part of “My Brother’s Keeper” to help change the life of a young person. Whether you’re a community member, a volunteer at a nonprofit or a dedicated layperson at church, you can take part. Volunteer at a school; read to youngsters; be a mentor. Each one of us, in our own way, can help.

We shouldn’t have lost Eric Washington the way we did. And God knows we don’t want to lose another.

The inexplicable, tragic loss of a teen sends shock waves of sadness and hurt across any community. We not only should be compelled to pray for Eric Washington’s family that they receive the strength and support to endure, but we must unite and declare no more.

We must encourage those young people who are on the right track to excel while guiding and training those headed the wrong way in hopes of changing their fortunes.

The two pastors I talked to were right. Now is the time. Every day that we don’t act provides an opportunity for yet another to fall prey.

Eric Washington and Da’Von Capers deserved better. And so do the many peers they left behind.

Reach Mr. Bolton

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