My Brother's Keeper In The Community: Hopes And Aims At Ground Level

President Obama's new initiative, My Brother's Keeper, aims to ease disparities faced by young men of color in the U.S. Malik Washington of the William Kellibrew Foundation explains what's needed to make it successful.

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Now a view of the president's national initiative from a man whose long worked with young men of color at the local level, Malik Washington. He's acting executive director of the William Killebrew Foundation based here in Washington, D.C.

Welcome to the program.

MALIK WASHINGTON: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: So tell us what your organization does.

WASHINGTON: So we are putting emphasis on youth outreach and that's one of our main regular programs is a men's circle. And we also have a women's circle, as well. And the whole idea of that is to give these young men a safe space where they can talk about whatever they want to talk about. And it's very similar to the Becoming a Man Program that President Obama spoke about when they announced the initiative last week.

CORNISH: Now, when the president described the areas of focus for My Brother's Keeper, it included improving childhood literacy, increasing educational opportunity, studying interactions with the justice system and building ladders to economic opportunity.

WASHINGTON: Right.

CORNISH: It's a long list.

WASHINGTON: Yes.

CORNISH: Your initial reaction and which do you consider a priority?

WASHINGTON: Well, it is a long list. And I think that if there was any shorter we would probably criticize him for not focusing on all of it. I personally think that it's all-important but it does certainly revolve around education. I think if we focus on school all those other issues that are kind of related to it will also come into play naturally.

CORNISH: When you actually look at the White House memo outlining the My Brother's Keeper initiative, the descriptions of solutions are incredibly vague.

WASHINGTON: Mm-hmm.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Right?

WASHINGTON: Yeah. Yeah.

CORNISH: And I'm wondering, it's one thing to say, you know, that you want to increase educational opportunity, but how do you actually do it and what do you see here that actually has real concrete action?

WASHINGTON: Well, that's where a lot of my concern is, is in its vagueness. So they talk about taking the time to kind of review what's already out there, what approaches and programs work and what don't work. And so that's a good thing.

But the problem is that is if we get to a place where the White House with the black president says that this is the approach that is best to engage young black men and secure them on a path to success, then we can get into a place where a lot of other philosophies in engaging young men kind of fall by the wayside. And we can't get the money and the funding to do those things.

CORNISH: Right, because they have essentially corralled all the big foundations...

WASHINGTON: Exactly. Exactly.

CORNISH: ...into their point of view.

WASHINGTON: And everybody is going to be in search of that money. And they're going to adjust their approaches based on what the White House says is good. Now, the problem with that is for those of us on the ground, and specifically black men like myself, we don't want to have standards that are based around what is wrong with black kids. We don't want that. And so, if we get to a place where it's about, you know, behavior correcting, that's problematic.

CORNISH: You know, it's been about a week since his announcement came out. In that time, I can imagine the phone kind of ringing off the hook, right, between groups such as yours and people who do this work. And what are you saying to each other?

WASHINGTON: Right.

CORNISH: I mean kind of what's been the reaction?

WASHINGTON: Well, I can tell you one of the questions that we've been asking one another is: Why didn't we know about this earlier? Why weren't we informed? And shouldn't we have a little bit more information. And we don't know if it's there and they're just, you know, withholding it, or if this is just a very vague initiative in general. And we don't know. We'd like some more information.

I think that the White House has been criticized for their messaging. And if they want this to be successful, they're going to need to communicate with the organizations and people who are on the ground to the best of their ability. And maybe that's also something that organizations such as the William Killebrew Foundation and everybody else could do better, as well.

Like, hey, you know, the president said this, this is what they want to do, but this is what we already have, here's how you can join. But we have also failed in that respect.

CORNISH: Malik Washington, he's the acting executive director of the William Killebrew Foundation here in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for coming in to talk with us.

WASHINGTON: Thank you, Audie. It was a pleasure.

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