“And that’s what ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ is all about—helping more of our young people stay on track; providing the support they need to think more broadly about their future; building on what works, when it works, in those critical life-changing moments.”
My Brother’s Keeper: Seven Years of Walking Alongside Youth and Communities
It’s been seven years since President Obama called on the nation to address the persistent opportunity gaps boys and young men of color face and to ensure all young people can reach their full potential.
From three words to a national movement, in that time, My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) has reached hundreds of thousands of youth at an unprecedented scale: From 40 mentees engaged in résumé workshops, pick-up basketball games, and career shadowing at the White House, to countless served by the nearly 250 cities, towns, counties, and tribal nations in our network; from the young people impacted by 50,000 new mentors recruited with our NBA family, to the ever-expanding benefit of significant policy initiatives like the Second Chance Pell Experiment or MBK Success Mentors Initiative.
Charting this path, we’ve met young men who have prepared for and finished school, joined the workforce, found their voices and passions, and poured themselves into improving outcomes for their peers and the next generation.
To honor seven years of accelerating impact through youth-centered initiatives, we’re sharing seven snapshots from our walk with boys and young men of color. Here’s some of what we’ve learned about our movement—through them—on this journey.
President Barack Obama with Noah McQueen in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in February 2015.
MBK is about building bonds
MBK’s connection to mentorship stems from the fact that research shows mentors can have a tremendous impact on absenteeism, social-emotional growth, school performance, career ambitions—all outcomes that align to the six key life milestones our work is rooted in. That’s part of why President Obama launched a mentorship and leadership program right in the White House, where we met Noah McQueen. Noah credits MBK with providing the resources he needed to see his ambitions through, showing him that there are caring adults working to support young men and boys through the issues they face. In 2015, Noah McQueen told his story to President Obama for StoryCorps. In that interview, Noah said he attended eight or nine middle schools over two or three years, where fights were normalized, and where his interaction with the juvenile system started, before turning a corner. In that interview, Noah shared his plan to spread what he learned about nurturing the voice and potential inside young people from early on. “We owe it to everyone and ourselves to come back,” he said. Today, Noah is a Morehouse graduate and the founder of Lifting Our Voices, Inc (LOV), a service-driven organization spreading love, community, and food relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past seven months, LOV has distributed over 20,000 bagged lunches to people experiencing homelessness across the country, registered over 250 voters, and implemented its own mentorship program.
After President Obama issued the My Brother’s Community Challenge for localities across the country, we began to meet more young people, like Quamiir Trice of Philadelphia. During his coursework at the Community College of Philadelphia, after youthful indiscretions led him to two stints at juvenile detention centers, Quamiir was pointed to an MBK Philadelphia-affiliated program—the college’s Center for Male Engagement—as a building block in overcoming some challenges and continuing his academic pursuits. He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Howard University in Washington, D.C. On weekends there, he paid it forward by working with students through the Saturday Strong program sponsored by the Empowering Men of Color initiative, one element of D.C.’s response to the launch of MBK. Because of his transformative story, Quamiir was able to meet President Obama at an October 2016 town hall hosted by ESPN’s The Undefeated on the campus of North Carolina A&T. He joined us again in February 2019 to reflect on the interventions that made a difference. Today, he’s an accomplished elementary school teacher going on four years in his hometown school system in Philadelphia, and carries forward the vital work of inspiring children to chase their dreams.
President Barack Obama meets with students, including Quamiir Trice, prior to a My Brother's Keeper town hall hosted by ESPN at North Carolina A&T State University in October 2016.
MBK is about removing roadblocks
When President Obama signed the Presidential Memorandum creating the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, he called on every federal agency that touched boys and young men of color to do everything in their power to disrupt broken systems. That call to action led to scores of new policy initiatives to reduce barriers and expand opportunity from cradle-to-career. Among the new partnerships and policies spurred by the White House, the MBK Success Mentors Initiative launched in 2016 intending to reach one million students through an evidence-based model to raise attendance and achievement in our nation’s highest-needs communities.
This data-driven effort continues today by addressing the barriers to school attendance in the face of obstacles like food access, housing security, underemployment, transportation challenges, or unpredictable work schedules. Here’s one recent success story after a young man named Antonio and his family were engaged this past school year as a part of the Success Mentors Initiative in New York: Before connecting with a Success Mentor, Antonio had trouble adjusting to kindergarten—reportedly uninterested in attending school and facing a hard time in the classroom. Yet, individualized attention and extra support from his Success Mentor helped him blossom over the year to reach a 96 percent attendance rate and make remarkable improvements to his behavior in the classroom.
When the pandemic hit and schools closed, Antonio’s Success Mentor ensured his access to technology and school supplies for remote instruction, supported food distribution, and helped his family navigate the system to enroll in a summer program to combat learning loss. Now, Antonio maintains that high level of attendance well into the new school year and displays a new excitement, curiosity, and love of learning with support from his mentor.
MBK is about opportunity
Between 2016 and 2018, the MBK Alliance hosted four Pathways to Success: Boys and Young Men of Color Opportunity Summits in Oakland, Detroit, Memphis, and Newark. The summits—designed to connect young people with skills training, job placement, and other educational opportunities—resulted in over 1,000 on-the-spot job offers, as well as countless connections to mentors and community programs, exchanged résumés, new headshots, business attire, haircuts, and more. In March 2018, the Newark event broke records in registration, participation, and community and corporate involvement. That day, MBK Newark Fellow Dennis Hickerson-Breedon was inspired by its scale: “It gave me a new sense of purpose, because it’s not about me. It’s not about my fellows. It’s not about the program in general. It’s about us as a collective and mobility.” He shared how, after making his way through college and then studying law—which he currently practices—on the heels of a modest high school GPA, he returned to Newark and became involved with the local MBK Community because he recognized his story in many of the city’s young people. He wanted to be a part of giving them an opportunity. “It’s very important for our stories to be told because, that same struggle that we faced, we can now reach back and pull another young brother through,” he said.
Participants engage in workshops at the Newark “Pathways to Success: Boys and Young Men of Color Opportunity Summit” in March 2018.
MBK is about celebrating heritage
In 2018, 19 organizations were chosen by the MBK Alliance as national models to expand evidence-based initiatives to measurably improve the lives of boys and young men of color. Among the cadre of partner organizations selected—serving a nationwide range of Black, Latino, and Native American youth—was the NACA Inspired Schools Network. NACA promotes Indigenous culture, identity, and community investment while deepening and scaling a community of practice for social and emotional learning. Self-described former “troublemaker” Quincy Walker says NACA “flipped my whole experience around.” Through teaching him his culture, his language, and his roots, alongside a newfound focus on wellbeing, Quincy told us at the 2018 Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago that NACA helped him to think more about how to change his community for the better: “Who are you and what can you do to help your people?” As a testament to his commitment to his community, a year later, Quincy was honored for his vision, passion, and dedication to improving the lives of local families, and remained an active member of his local MBK youth advisory council. Today, he’s a senior at the network’s flagship school, the Native American Community Academy.
Quincy Walker, a student of the MBK National Impact Community partner NACA Inspired Schools Network, and MBK Impact Community Leader Maȟpíya Black Elk in 2018.
MBK IS ABOUT REACHING BACK
We’ve known Christian Champagne, an alum of another National Impact Community partner selected in 2018, Youth Guidance and their Becoming a Man (BAM) program in Chicago, since the very beginning. He was a student at Hyde Park Academy and recounts BAM, a program to help young men navigate difficult circumstances that threaten their future, as a “big part” of his life at the time President Obama paid the school a visit in February 2013. Christian said his BAM counselor was like a father-figure for anything he needed help with, and that it meant the world to him while growing up on the Chicago South and East Side. The next year, Christian was at the White House to introduce President Obama at the launch of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative through a touching speech about how BAM—which became a key reference point in the creation of My Brother’s Keeper—and meeting the president gave him more ambition and drive to accomplish his dreams. Now, BAM serves more than 8,000 youth each year in 140 schools.
To this day, Christian gives the program a lot of credit for how far he’s come and what he continues to accomplish: “To have a little bit more support that wants to see you win was a big thing that carried me all the way through college years and now professionally.” These days, Christian devotes his time to his career as well as side projects to engage the community and help less fortunate Chicagoans. He also serves on the board for Youth Guidance alumni and takes every chance to inspire program participants who remind him of his younger self. “My Brother’s Keeper means you look out for the next man or the people that are under you,” he said recently. “I’m seeing how I used to be just like them, and I want them to be better than I was—to be better than the BAM groups that came before me and the classes of MBK that came before them. We have to pull each other up for all of us to succeed.”
MBK is about the future
MBK Rising!, our 2019 national convening in Oakland, was in many ways a beautiful reflection of how our young people are turning the tide on narratives about boys and young men of color—from the idea that youth can’t advocate on their behalf, to challenging the unhealthy, rigid definitions of what it means to be a man. Alejandro Galicia Cervantes from the MBK Sacramento Collaborative, anchored by National Impact Community partner The Center at Sierra Health Foundation, was among the leaders of tomorrow we met that week. At The Center, Alejandro received coaching, training, education, and compensation for learning how to be a community changemaker.
During our town hall featuring President Obama and Steph Curry, Alejandro posed, “From the time boys and young men of color are born, we are given a narrow definition of what it is to be a man. How can we begin to change the narrative that is forcing us to follow a path that doesn’t align with our identities, including our brothers who are a part of the LGTBQ community?”
The candid question spoke to an important aspect of unburdening young people on the path to reaching their full potential—and trusting their capacity as advocates for change. Alejandro later recounted his passion for advocacy with our partner MENTOR by saying, “Youth are experts in the systems within which they are a part of, beneficiaries of, or oppressed by.”
Alejandro, now deeply engaged on several youth boards and the founder of an initiative to train our next generation of immigrant STEM professionals, is but one example of the commitment we can harness by engaging youth as full partners.
Alejandro Galicia Cervantes (center) and other youth leaders participate in the “Reflecting on What We’ve Learned: The Final Words of MBK Rising!” closing session in February 2019.
MBK IS ABOUT JUSTICE AND EQUALITY
Last summer, communities across the country turned their anguish over police violence into action. Today’s MBK youth leaders aren’t sitting on the sidelines as they come of age and start their adulthood at this turning point in how we protect our communities. Yonkers MBK has long been an exemplar in our network, and today with its National Impact Community partner, the Nepperhan Community Center, serves as a model jurisdiction for New York State MBK, the first statewide MBK Community enacted in 2016. It came as no surprise that, as youth clamored to make their voices heard, their MBK Community leaders stood alongside those calls for peace and an end to racism and injustice.
Joshua Heron was among the young people who took action by joining the June rally at Yonkers City Hall. He took on a leadership role within Yonkers MBK in 2019 after a bout with anxiety. In MBK, he says he found a brotherhood. Together, his peers have shared challenges, built connections, completed service projects, and more. In a conversation this summer with USA Today, he also described when he began seeing his life as a young man of color in a new light. At the age of 9, learning about the killing of Trayvon Martin—which inspired President Obama to create My Brother’s Keeper—awakened him to some of the realities of racism. Still, Joshua, who is now a college freshman, believes in standing up for justice: “I have something to fight for. I have people to fight for.”
The Walk Continues
For seven years, we’ve locked arms with young people and communities in almost every corner of this country. These are only seven stories of many we’ve learned from our young people—those that participate in our MBK Communities, help lead MBK Communities, and those we’ve seen grown from not only being served by our initiative but are now also serving others in their own right. Every day, these remarkable young kings teach us something new. In 2021 and beyond, while there is so much ground left to cover to realize a better future for boys and young men of color, may we keep walking and learning until each one—and all young people—can go as far as their dreams and hard work will take them. By joining the Alliance, you can help us reach even more.
Avi and his mother, Veronica, from MBK L.A. County tuned in to watch President Obama live for our April 2019 town hall on inspiration and action during the COVID-19 pandemic.