|Rappers waiting to perform at Portland club Branx, Feb 15. Portland has a thriving music scene, but making a living as an artist is far from easy|
Black men and boys are in a deadly crisis, here and across the country. With homicide a leading cause of death, sky-high school dropout and unemployment rates, and too many Black men in prison, hope for the future has been hard to find.
"We start to see it as normal," says Antoinette Edwards, director of Portland's Office of Youth Violence Prevention. "It's almost expected that you'll be at the bottom rung. Racism has a played a part in this. It's systemic. This is a crisis all across America, and we're calling it out."
But this week Portland won an opportunity to forge a bright new future, with help from a National League of Cities program designed to raise achievement and build success for Black men and boys.
"We know that our fathers, our brothers, our partners and our sons are much more than these statistics," Edwards says. "And this community is coming together to reclaim the promise and the hope that belongs to all our men."
One of 11 cities chosen to take part in the League of Cities program, Portland will receive consultation and support from the league for the next four months. And dozens of community partners will come together in an unprecedented collaboration to support Black men and boys as they become successful scholars, innovators, pioneers, fathers and leaders.
With love and the community behind them, Black men can be anything they want to be, Edwards says.
In fact, our city is already ahead of the curve, with a track record of men coming forward to mentor and support youth through efforts such as the groundbreaking Eleven:45 movement.
|Black Poverty |
1 in 3 Black families in Portland live in poverty
GED Help Underway
One immediate priority will be tutoring high school dropouts to get their GED this year. That's because the GED is set to change drastically in December and it will be more difficult hurdle to cross. Edwards says Africa House on Northeast 102nd Avenue has offered tutoring space.
Another priority in May is to get as many Black boys as possible to the I-Urban Tech Teen summit, where they can explore career options in gaming and technology. The summit is May11 at the University of Portland.
And over the next months efforts will be underway to improve school graduation rates, keep boys in school, clean up driving records and unpaid fines through Project Clean Slate, identify felony friendly employers, and expand horizons for Black boys.
"You can be a geek and a baller too," says Erika Preuitt, a Department of Community Justice manager with Multnomah County.
Black Men in the Lead
Black men and boys are taking leadership roles and making their voices heard.
"Our vision is to serve as a beacon of leadership," says Ralph Evans of the Coalition of Black Men in a letter supporting Portland's application. "We bring to bear in fulfilling our vision, our cumulative wisdom, caring, enthusiasm, professional capability, candor, commitment and courage to effect new results."
But changing outcomes for Black men and boys will take all kinds of people working in many different areas.
Black men in Portland with full-time work: 34 percent
White men in Portland with full-time work: 47 percent
Percentage of unemployed Black men who have no income: 52
On average Black men in Portland earn $10,000 less than White men
And dozens of nonprofits, educators, faith-based groups, and employers are already working with city and county staff to build a network that can rescue and support Black men.
"It's the village," Edwards says. "It's like that African proverb: When you have many spiders working together the web they spin can bring down a lion."
Expanding young men's vision of what is rewarding and possible for them, will be one key piece of the work.
"All our children cannot be basketball and football stars," says Michael Chappie Grice, an educator who founded the nonprofit Airway Science for Kids. "Indeed it is a cruel hoax to limit their vision of achievement to only sports and entertainment."
This Village Needs You
Everyone in the community who wants to play a part will have opportunity to do so, Edwards promises. That's a thorny topic for the many Black men who are barred from helping organizations because of long-past felony records.
"There will be formal and informal opportunities for mentoring and supporting this effort."
Students on track to graduate:
White 63 percent
Black 34 percent
Only 18 in every 100 Black students will complete a postsecondary education
If you can cook a delicious pound cake, you can contribute to celebrating a boy's A grade. If you can read, you can help a child read by becoming a SMART volunteer. You can volunteer with one of the numerous programs that support youth. Or you can make a commitment to look a Black boy in the eye and smile.
"Some important things came out of the Restore the Village events, that were held a couple of years ago," Preuitt said. "And one was just the importance of recognizing our boys, and not being afraid to look them in the eye, and let them know you see them and you care about them.
"This is not a sprint, it's a marathon."
Chicago, Oakland, Phillie and Portland Won Places
Thirty cities applied for the program. Portland was chosen because city and county leaders and the community have already shown a strong commitment to change. Rebecca Stavenjord, of the STRYVE project, based at Multnomah County wrote the grant application. STRYVE is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and sees youth violence as a public health problem.
Mayor Charlie Hales, County Chair Jeff Cogen, and Sen. Ron Wyden wrote letters of support, along with leaders from the Portland African American Leadership Forum, the Coalition of Black Men, Healing Hurt People, the World Arts Foundation, Big Brothers Big Sisters and the church-led group, Eleven:45.
After the first phase of the program is over, Portland could be chosen to go to the next level. But the competition includes cities with much larger Black populations, such as Chicago, Philadephia, Oakland, Orlando, Charlottesville, VA and Louisville, KY.
Edwards says the Portland community will be moving forward no matter what.
"When I spoke to people about this, they said they would want to do this whether or not we were chosen."