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End of Year Reflection: Michael D. Smith, MBK Alliance Executive Director

Young boy watching President Obama

It’s natural to wish for life ‘to just get back to normal’ as a pandemic and economic crisis upend everything around us. But we have to remember that for millions of Americans, being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly ‘normal’ … This shouldn’t be ‘normal’ in 2020 America. It can’t be ‘normal.’ If we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better.⁣”

President Obama, May 29, 2020

These are the words President Obama shared just four days after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. By this time, grief and anger were already rising across the nation, and we saw the beginnings of what would become the largest protest movement in the world. Further fueled by the news of the murders of Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Elijah McClain, Nina Pop, Tony McDade, and too many others, individuals from all walks of life, of all ages, took to the streets to demand America confront its history of unchecked racial violence enacted by everyone from vigilante neighbors to sworn officers of the state. 

This is 2020. This is a year none of us could have prepared for, and never could have imagined. Before the masses took the streets to protest racism in law enforcement, we were already dealing with what the American Psychological Association described as a racism pandemic, where record unemployment, and the unimaginable health effects and death toll at the hands of COVID-19 and police violence continue to disproportionately impact people of color. We saw on vivid display the reason My Brother’s Keeper was created in the first place: communities of color bearing the impact of long-standing racism and discrimination that is built into the American system, which leads to maddening gaps in opportunity, health care, employment, education, housing, and the environment. 

In the face of overwhelming grief and unprecedented loss in 2020, we also saw everyday changemakers, community leaders, and grassroots organizations set aside their own pain to take care of their neighbors. Individuals delivered food and personal protective equipment, established mutual aid networks, created online mentoring programs, responded to upticks in violence, organized protests online and offline, and did whatever was necessary to support youth and families who were disconnected, isolated, and in need. We saw that when we invest in organizations rooted in community, like those at the helm of the more than 250 MBK Communities, we improve our resilience and relationships and strengthen connections—all of which are critical during this racism pandemic.

Whatever plans MBK Alliance had for 2020 at the beginning of this year were thrown out the window. Instead, we listened to the needs of our youth and communities, pivoted quickly, and redoubled our commitment to speak with a louder voice about the countless ways systemic racism limits the lives and potential of our boys and young men, and their families. We continued to build and support a diverse, cross-sector coalition of leaders and organizations committed to advancing evidence-based programs and policy reforms that will reduce barriers and expand opportunity for our children in greatest need. In 2020 we truly saw the worst of times, but also the best of the American spirit of reaching back, speaking up, and helping out. And, we were proud to play a part in our own way.

Here are some of our highlights from the year past:

Co-hosted a screening of Just Mercy in Chicago (Opens in a new tab), sponsored by the Joyce Foundation, bringing together leading voices from Chicago to discuss the film’s themes and the potential of restorative justice.

MBK Chicago youth and community leaders participated in multiple NBA All-Star Weekend events,  including a special service project with President Obama and NBA Rising Star players (Opens in a new tab).

Celebrated MBK’s sixth anniversary with  a photo essay of our most memorable moments and reflections from champions of our work

Curated and published the  Resources for Communities Impacted by COVID-19 webpage, which includes information on meals for students, internet connection for young people to continue their school work, and funding for non-profit organizations and small businesses affected by COVID-19.

Launched the  MBK Alliance Inspiration and Action During Times of Crisis Town Hall Series, (Opens in a new tab) which included four national town hall meetings, four regional roundtables, and speakers such as President Obama, Cecilia Muñoz, and John B. King, Jr.

Supported MBK Impact and Seed Communities by creating flexibility in spending limitations and identifying additional dollars to respond to the COVID-19 and police violence crises.

A student from Ron Brown College Preparatory High School in Washington, D.C.—launched in 2016 as part of the city’s response to the My Brother’s Keeper initiative— joined President Obama for the national #GraduateTogether celebration (Opens in a new tab). Students from MBK Fresno and MBK Sacramento also  joined President and Mrs. Obama for YouTube’s commencement special (Opens in a new tab), “Dear Class of 2020.” 

Launched the  Anguish and Action resource page, allowing visitors to sign petitions and demands, connect with activist organizations on the ground, learn about police accountability, and donate to a variety of funds, including bail funds. This page remains the most visited page in the  Foundation’s history.

Launched a new phase of our town hall series titled  “Reimagining Policing in the Wake of Continued Police Violence, (Opens in a new tab)” to focus on action items for mayors, county executives, and police commissioners, featuring President Obama, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a local elected official from the City of Minneapolis, highly respected youth leaders, and national activists. The video stream, which was broadcast by nearly every major news network, received 1.7 million views within 24 hours of going live and trended as the #1 video on YouTube for nearly 24 hours. More than 2.6 million people have watched the YouTube video to date. 

Hosted an additional town hall on  mental health and wellness in the wake of a racism pandemic (Opens in a new tab) featuring President Obama, Congressman John Lewis, Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, American Psychological Association President Dr. Arthur Evans, and youth leaders. 

Launched the Reimagining Policing Pledge. During our first town hall, President Obama issued a call to the nation to recognize and root out the tragic, painful, maddening effects of systemic racism and to take concrete steps to address police use of force policies in their communities.  Mayors were asked to take a pledge to review use of force policies. MBK Alliance continues to work with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Cities United to encourage pledges, spotlight responses, host monthly technical assistance workshops and office hours, and publish updates about actions taken.  More than 330 mayors have officially accepted the pledgerepresenting at least one pledged city in 41 states and DC, with 59.2 million people collectively living in pledge cities.

Issued the first call to action since the Obama administration for new jurisdictions to accept the MBK Community Challenge. Over 30 new communities have accepted the call and are being onboarded. We have also received more than 3,000 requests to connect directly with communities.

In August, we began partnering with Lyft through their  LyftUp Access Alliance (Opens in a new tab) to provide free Lyft rides to MBK Communities—connecting them with reliable transportation to continue their critical work through challenging times.

In November, My Brother’s Keeper was able to publically shine a light on the impact that the movement has had on the lives of young men of color and the leaders that support them.  Jerron Hawkins, Chris Johnson, and Dr. Edwin Quezada shared their experiences in the movement in a one-hour long primetime interview with MSNBC’s Jonathan Capehart and President Obama (Opens in a new tab).

Increased and solidified new support to strengthen the MBK Network including developing a new community onboarding process, office hours, and engagement touchpoints. We also finalized and piloted the MBK Framework to Affect Systems Change—a guide for communities as they build local infrastructure to implement their cross-sector equity agendas—slated for release in 2021.  

Co-facilitated monthly MBK Chicago Action Team meetings ensuring a collaborative approach to meet the goals of the MBK Chicago Action Plan, hosted four focus groups comprised of black male educators and young adults from Chicago’s MBK communities, and convened MBK Chicago grantees for our annual grantee meeting.

Spotlighted opportunities to donate to our 19 MBK Impact and Seed Community partners on Giving Tuesday Now, an emergency response to needs caused by COVID-19, in May and again during the annual Giving Tuesday event in December. 

Delivered quarterly professional development sessions to our  Impact Community Leaders, facilitated monthly roundup calls with the full cohort of our  MBK Impact and Seed Communities, and provided a robust suite of technical assistance in the areas of sustainability and development ( 1847 Philanthropic (Opens in a new tab)), collective impact ( FSG (Opens in a new tab)), mentoring ( MENTOR (Opens in a new tab)), violence prevention ( Cities United (Opens in a new tab)), and program evaluation ( Listen4Good (Opens in a new tab)).

Learning for Action and Public Equity Group submitted the Year One Evaluation report for the  MBK Community Challenge Competition. We look forward to sharing case studies in the new year. New evaluation data shows that one year into our $5 million investment in 19 organizations across 10 states and Puerto Rico,  nearly 7,000 young people were served by our inaugural group of Impact and Seed Communities.

During our town hall with  Congressman Lewis this summer, he said: “We must continue to be bold, brave, courageous, push and pull to redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself.”

President Obama, John Lewis, Bryan Stevenson and more discuss mental health during a racism pandemic

Thank you to every MBK youth and community leader, local and national partner, donor, and champion for being bold, brave, and courageous. We are honored to work alongside you to ensure nothing stands in the way of our boys and young men and their biggest dreams. We wish you and yours a happy, healthful, and restful holiday season.

Every Good Wish,

Michael Smith signature

Michael D. Smith

Executive Director, MBK Alliance