‘My Brother’s Keeper’ Gathers Momentum in San Antonio

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From left to right: CollegeVISTA founder/CEO Maria Fernandez, Alamo Colleges retention director Mona Aldana-Ramirez, and Jason Mims, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, discuss improving post-secondary education for young men of color. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

From left to right: CollegeVISTA founder/CEO Maria Fernandez, Alamo Colleges retention director Mona Aldana-Ramirez, and Jason Mims, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, discuss improving post-secondary education for young men of color. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

President Obama challenged cities, counties and tribes nationwide in Sep. 2014 to become what he called “My Brother’s Keeper” (MBK) communities where stakeholders of all kinds work together to develop a plan to improve the life outcomes of all young people, especially at-risk boys of color. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 25% of Bexar County males of color over 25 years of age have earned an associate’s degree or higher, compared to 51% of the county’s white population.

Mayor Ivy Taylor accepted that challenge, calling on local civic and business leaders, social service providers and educators, among others, to collaborate toward making San Antonio a My Brother’s Keeper community. A task force of more than 20 local practitioners, experts and community members met last October to refine MBK goals to address San Antonio’s specific challenges.

The task force came up with four overarching issues: High school students preparing for college or a career, post-secondary education or training, reducing violence and recidivism, and workforce development.

More than 100 local service providers and civic leaders gathered Thursday at Sam Houston High School to discuss these four issues, and the ways they and other stakeholders can best develop a long-term plan.

These are the beginning phases of a four-month process that will include a steering committee, overseen by the mayor, and working groups that will further address the four overarching issues. Participating nonprofits, school districts, non-governmental organizations and other agencies will continue to gather relevant data, all with a mission of developing a list of local indicators. Those indicators will be designed to help meet objectives defined under the My Brother’s Keeper initiative over the next few years.

The P16Plus Council of Greater Bexar County, which has partnered with local groups and schools, serves as the backbone organization and facilitator for My Brother’s Keeper San Antonio. P16Plus facilitated a variety of countywide data for the forum, such as a 2.09% drop-out rate among non-white high school students and a 2.14% drop-out rate among male high school students. Also, 6.7% of non-white males ages 16-30 are unemployed and out of school countywide.

Councilmember Alan Warrick II (D2) speaks with Adam Tutor of P16Plus Council of Greater Bexar County. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Councilmember Alan Warrick II (D2) speaks with Adam Tutor of P16Plus Council of Greater Bexar County. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

According to FBI data provided by P16Plus, San Antonio’s overall and violent crime rates – while having dropped between 2008 and 2012 – were still higher than statewide and nationwide rates in the same timeframe. The rearrest rate of people ages 24 or under in Texas, as of fiscal year 2006, was 71%, according to three state agencies. The rearrest rate for Texas African-Americans and Hispanics in the same fiscal year was 70 and 61%, respectively.

Ramon Vasquez, executive director of American Indians in Texas, said a better understanding of cultures would help many men of color who feel “disconnected” because of racism, discrimination, violence, poverty or inability to complete their education.

“As men of color, we carry a lot of pain, our fathers’ pain, even our grandfathers’ pain,” Vasquez said. “If our male elders are still struggling with their pain, how can we expect our young people to succeed?”

Vasquez encouraged a public conversation on growth and healing in such struggling communities, and noted that the discussion must involve a variety of people, from affected youth to local decision-makers.

From left to right, Urban Strategies project manager Marcus Primm, resident Roberto Torres and Edgewood Independent School District trustee Mary Lou Mendoza discuss ways to reduce violence and recidivism among young men of color. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

From left to right, Urban Strategies project manager Marcus Primm, resident Roberto Torres and Edgewood Independent School District trustee Mary Lou Mendoza discuss ways to reduce violence and recidivism among young men of color. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Ron Kelley, an education expert and motivational speaker, recalled how he went from being a music industry executive to teaching students about educational success in local inner-city schools. In 2006, Kelley, a San Antonio native, used his innovative ideas to found the National School Improvement Corp which aims to produce high-performing schools nationwide. He praised the MBK initiative as a way to centralize positive ideas for organizations, schools and other stakeholders and link them to the young men of color that need the most help.

“We’ve all been working independently of each other. We don’t know each other and what each of us is doing,” Kelley told the crowd. “We’ve got to bring it all together.”

Connecting and tracking at-risk youth from early on in their school years to their life in college or beyond was a key topic among the guest speakers Thursday. Mayor Taylor said San Antonio is a city on the rise, a common theme among local political, civic and business leaders, but those same decision-makers must help less fortunate individuals access the tools necessary to be successful.

“We have to help all San Antonians discover and refine their talents that provide them with opportunities so they can use that to create a rewarding life for themselves, their family and their community,” Taylor said. “My Brother’s Keeper is one of many intertwined initiatives that will advance this vision.”

One such initiative Mayor Taylor cited was the EastPoint program designed to help spur economic and positive community development within a four-square-mile area on the Eastside.

“The EastPoint Promise Neighborhood is providing wrap-around services, ranging from affordable housing, improving public schools, job training and partnerships with companies like Holt Cat,” she said.

Mayor Ivy Taylor speaks to a crowd of more than 100 people at the My Brother's Keeper forum. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

Mayor Ivy Taylor speaks to a crowd of more than 100 people at the My Brother’s Keeper forum. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

On a citywide scale, Taylor said the San Antonio Tech Bloc is an initiative that can, among other things, promote the importance of higher education for skills development.

“All of our residents should have a chance to climb that ladder of success,” she added.

Chris Herring, a Goodwill Industries consultant and chairman of the Texas Association of African-American Chambers of Commerce, echoed prevailing sentiment about closing gaps. He recalled growing up in New York State surrounded by poverty, and was once told that he, as an African-American youth who ended up a successful adult – educated, employed and free of violence – “was on an endangered species list.”

But entering the U.S. Air Force provided Herring a springboard to learn about leadership and other qualities and opportunities that helped him to eventually succeed in the business world. He said decision-makers, especially those in a variety of businesses locally, must be part of the long-term discussion of helping young men of color recognize from an early age that they have a chance at success.

“Our youth, when they come to you service providers, they don’t care if you have a PhD. They just want to work,” he said. MBK provides a framework for forming an actionable workforce development plan. “There’s so many young adults who don’t have options and they’ve never been approached about being able to work or improve their education.”

Within the next month, forum attendees who submitted contact information will receive an invite to take part in the mayor’s committee working groups to begin defining indicators and goals for the four aforementioned issues. More meetings and citywide summits could be among the results of such efforts, said Francisco Gonima, a local executive coach and strategist consulting with P16Plus. Closing gaps in communication and collaboration is vital.

“Let’s look at all the great ideas and see where we can really start to develop amazing opportunities for San Antonio and our young men of color,” Gonima said.

 

*Featured/top image: From left to right: CollegeVISTA founder/CEO Maria Fernandez, Alamo Colleges retention director Mona Aldana-Ramirez, and Jason Mims, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, discuss improving post-secondary education for young men of color.  Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

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