My Brother’s Keeper: Stop writing letters and start doing the work

Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough
Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough

Over the past few days my Twitter feed has buzzed about the letter signed by 1,000 women and girls urging President Barack Obama to broaden his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. The letter and subsequent commentaries attack the president, accusing him of any number of sins for not including women and girls in this program. Yes, the issues facing women and girls of color are significant, and while ignored in research and programming as the letter states, they do deserve attention and focus.
And that’s my problem with the letter. In short, would this letter have been written if this initiative had never been announced? I mean, the hash tag #WhyWeCantWait is problematic because people have been waiting for years. When it comes to waiting, #YesWeCan! And did.
There wasn’t even a sense of urgency to ask for inclusion. This letter comes almost four months after My Brother’s Keeper was announced, and weeks after 200 men wrote to support inclusion of women and girls.
Black folks even waited to complain.
Simply stated, many are mad that the first Black president has not been our messiah, righting every structural wrong in six years. Hosanna in 2008. Crucify him today.
Barack Obama
President Barack Obama laughs as he is introduced by Christian Champagne, 18, a senior at Hyde Park Career Academy in Chicago, during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, to promote his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

When My Brother’s Keeper was announced, I was not fazed. I began doing that work as president of Philander Smith College a year before President Obama was elected. In 2007 we had horrific graduation rates for men (about half that of the women). A group of men and women came together on campus to study the issue and launch a Black Male Initiative. We read the numerous research articles and books on Black male achievement and success. We engaged my friend Dr. Shaun Harper, who is the nation’s preeminent scholar on Black men in higher education, and our work was in full swing.
We started making progress with very little money. Soon we noticed there were a number of foundations, like the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, who shared interests in this area and we received grant support. It was a great match of scholarship and action.
In 2008, while meeting with my chief student affairs officer, a Black woman whose dissertation focused on the experiences of Black women in academia, I asked her what were we going to do for the women? She suggested that the women were doing well academically and probably didn’t need a program. But I said there were other issues we need to address so that they were strengthened.
She created a unique program called Platinum by Design. It operated very differently from the Black Male Initiative but still was able to impact the women on the campus. Again, very little money, but a genuine desire and commitment to do the work.
In fact, the challenge with our programming for women was the lack of research on success of Black women in higher education. We found no scholar who matches the volume and quality of work on Black women in higher education as Shaun Harper provides for men. In addition, it was also hard finding grant programs targeting this population.
But we did something anyway, and saw a graduation rate that was some 24 points below the national average for Black students in 2010 move to 5 points above the national average four years later, a remarkable accomplishment with a population overwhelmingly low-income and first-generation.
My Brother’s Keeper will disappear as soon as President Obama leaves office. So in three years we will be back in the same place, maybe with a little money spent for some programs, but with no agenda.
And waiting.
I agree, we can’t wait. So let’s go to work. At Dillard University we are revamping our program for Black males to find new ways to engage men. Simultaneously we are partnering with the Hip-Hop Sisters Foundation for some exciting initiatives for the women on campus. We are also expanding programs for children in our community, like a new summer sports camp.
In all of our communities we can make a difference. As a member of the African-American advisory board for Big Brothers and Big Sisters I hear about the long waiting lists filled with children of color, and how the organization struggles to get us to do something about it. While we have been waiting, these children have been waiting—on us.
Let’s not write any more open letters, op-eds or tweets. Instead, write grants for studies on Black girls and women, or to support existing programs like Black Girls Rock or Black Girls Code. Write Black mayors, whom we never challenge on anything, and ask them to fund specific initiatives. Write plans for community action. We need to develop an agenda and act on it.
We can do this! Stop waiting and start working.
(Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough is the seventh president of Dillard University in New Orleans. He is in his 10th year as a college president, previously serving seven-and-a-half years at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. You can follow Kimbrough here on Twitter.)

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