Congressional Leaders, Scholars Gather to Strategize on Black Male Issues

NEW YORK — For the third consecutive year, more than a 1,000 academics, activists and political leaders gathered in New York on Friday to strategize on the problems that beset young Black males.

The gathering, which was convened by Charles J. Ogletree, who teaches and directs the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University’s Law School, is part of “The Pipeline Crisis/Winning Strategies Initiative,” a national effort aimed at identifying ways to tackle the many barriers that limit the number of young Black men in the pipeline to higher education and professional endeavors.

Ogletree’s initiative calls on the legal, financial services and business communities to partner with the public sector to address the needs of young Black men in five target areas: early childhood education, public school education, employment and economic development, criminal justice, prison reform and re-entry, and opportunities for high potential youth.

At the symposium, held at the Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, Congressman Charles B. Rangel and Congressman Jerrold Nadler said that government could do more to address the issue. But private companies, like American Express, Goldman Sachs & Co., and the law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, have also pledged dollars and support services toward providing young Black men additional educational and career opportunities to help them succeed.

“The numbers are staggering,” says Ogletree, in an interview with Diverse. “It’s a disgrace that we live in a society where the rate of failure has not been stemmed.”

The statistics are alarming and there is little evidence that the overall situation for young Black men is improving. The U.S. Census Bureau currently estimates there are about 5 million Black men in America between the ages of 20 and 39, but many scholars say that this demographic is losing ground in mainstream American society, despite advances made by Black women. They argue that the problems for many Black men often begin when they are boys.

Yet, despite the setbacks, Ogletree — one of the country’s most prominent legal scholars — says that there are also many efforts aimed at reversing this trend.

He points to a program created at Bard College by Dr. Leon Botstein — who was honored at the symposium — for his work in spearheading the Bard Prison Initiative, a program that provides college education to inmates in New York’s prisons. Botstein has long argued that college-in-prison programs slash rates of re-incarceration, particularly among Black males.

But over the past two decades, many of these programs — which were once publicly funded — have been severely cut or eliminated altogether. In New York, for example, the Abyssinian Development Corporation — a nonprofit that was started by Abyssinian Baptist Church — had to step up where government fails and is helping young homeless Black men become homeowners.

“We can’t just keep citing the statistics,” says Ogletree. “We have to work to give Black and brown men a second chance and provide them with the opportunity to work and earn a decent pay.”

With the presidential election just four months away, Ogletree and others say that they are looking to the presumptive presidential candidates, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, to address the crisis facing young Black men as they barnstorm the country for votes.

“We’re sending very clear messages to both camps that it’s important that we help to open up new opportunities, create new challenging jobs, and provide educational opportunities to our young men,” says Ogletree, who is supporting Obama. Obama was one of his former students at Harvard.

In addition to Botstein, Dr. Roland G. Fryer, who is the Chief Equality Officer for the New York City Department of Education, was honored for his work in executing the New York Million Motivation Campaign, a pilot program that seeks to help high-need students internalize the connections between education and success. Participants in the campaign received a free Samsung U740 handheld cell phone and earn text messages, talk time, and other rewards, such as free ring tones, music downloads, or event tickets through their performance in school.

“I’m grateful for this honor and gratified that it comes as we continue to develop strategies to re-brand achievement, helping high-need students fully appreciate the value of education,” Fryer said. “This recognition is a great sign that more people are willing to join our fight to end the educational crisis plaguing African-American and Hispanic communities.”

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