01/10/2014 12:38 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2014

Some Realities Behind the Trayvon Martin Tragedy That We Must Not Forget

I grew up on the same tree-lined street in Belmont, Massachusetts where Mitt Romney lived when he was governor. No people of color lived in Belmont when I was a child. I went to Harvard University when virtually no African Americans were there. I graduated in 1963, joined the Civil Rights Movement, and lived in Harlem, NY for the next 24 years. I moved back to Belmont in the '80s to take care of my mother who had Alzheimer's disease.

I can tell you from experience, what most people know in theory, that the world looks entirely different depending on whether you live in Belmont or Harlem and whether you are white or black in America. I am grateful that I have deeply experienced both worlds.

In Harlem, over and over I met young people born into poverty who had left high school without a diploma. Some had been in trouble with the law. In my white world I had often heard, "Once a criminal, always a criminal. Lock them up and throw the key away." But I saw the opposite. It didn't matter what bad mistakes they had made, or what trouble they had been in, every young person I ever met was eager to build a good life, and contribute to a better community.

I asked groups of them what they would do to improve the community if I could get the resources for them to do it. They said they would rebuild the abandoned houses to create homes for the homeless, but that they also needed to make progress in their own lives so they wouldn't end up poor and homeless themselves. So together in 1978 we started a program called YouthBuild to do just that -- give them a chance to resume their education while becoming part of a positive peer group of young people who build affordable housing for their neighbors.

It worked. They turned their lives around and became respected role models for the younger teenagers watching them build something important. Then, thanks to philanthropic and government support, YouthBuild spread around the country. 120,000 young people have now built over 22,000 units of affordable housing in 273 low income urban and rural American communities. (Sadly, we are still turning away two for every one accepted, solely due to lack of funding.)

Before they found YouthBuild, most of our students expected to be dead or in jail by the time they were 25. Virtually all of them have seen friends killed in street violence. In addition, most have seen friends become, or have themselves been, victims of racial profiling in which authorities assume the worst of them and mistreat them as a result. If they are black, every one of them identifies with Trayvon Martin, and believes, "That could have been me." Every black parent feels the powerless horror in their hearts of knowing, "That could so easily have been my child."

What does it say of us, America, when an unarmed, 17-year-old boy walking down the street carrying a bag of Skittles and a cell phone is profiled, followed, ends up dead and the perpetrator is found not guilty of any charges due to a state Stand Your Ground law? How would white America feel if an unarmed and innocent white youth on his cell phone was pursued by a black man with a gun and ended up dead and the perpetrator ended up free after being judged innocent by an all-black jury?

In the weeks right after the killing of Trayvon, we heard many black fathers and mothers explain that they all have to prepare their children, especially their sons, for the racial profiling and intimidation they are likely to experience from other citizens as well as from law enforcement. We find the same necessity for our YouthBuild students: we have to provide workshops on how to respond to law enforcement in a way that will save them from being charged with crimes they didn't commit.

The fact that African American men are arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced in disproportionately high numbers compared to white men gives African American families good reason to think that racial profiling is deeply rooted at all levels of the criminal justice system. The removal of black men from their families, communities, and in many states the voting booth as a result of nonviolent crimes, does untold damage to society.

Of course, let's be clear: black youth are much more frequently killed by other black youth than by police or community guards. The losses are enormous, and need to be addressed. Why does this tragedy occur? Shall we blame the young people? Call them "gang bangers," lock them up and throw the keys away? Spend taxpayer money to hire thousands more policemen to patrol the streets?

No, we must not blame the youth. This phenomenon could be ended through eliminating poverty. It could be dramatically decreased simply by increasing opportunity of several types for young people raised in poverty. Any additional investment in law enforcement should be more than matched by investment in opportunities for young people to overcome the obstacles they have faced, and to use their determined energy to climb out of poverty through education and employment. YouthBuild has proven that this approach works.

Our society has not taken seriously the constant loss of life in low income communities of color. It is seen as normal. There has been minimal effort to address the underlying causes. Worse, maybe the policy-makers don't care. Most don't know what it is like to be black and poor. In the words of one young leader in a recent meeting on gun violence, "As long as we are killing each other off, they don't care. They only began to care about gun violence when it happened in white middle class communities and produced massacres. But we were already dying by the handful every week."

Before we overlook another powerful reality in America, let me say clearly that white youth born into poverty, Native American youth born into poverty, and Latino youth born into poverty, all face a similar reality. Because they are poor, society is not addressing the causes of their misery and despair, their drug habits, the violence in their communities and families. They have been judged inferior and unworthy of investment. This is wrong. Their innate talents and goodness are equal to white middle and upper class youth. It is their negative experiences and minimal opportunities that diminish their life chances.

As a nation, let us go beyond compassionate conversation, and take comprehensive action to eliminate poverty and extreme inequality, for all people. Let us provide healthy and caring communities with ample opportunity for good education, meaningful employment, and means of serving others. This would radically diminish violence. It would be the ultimate expression of a compassionate society to empower all people to fulfill their highest potential and noblest aspirations. It would be a return to a collective commitment to the American Dream and to the Beloved Community named by Reverend King. The amazing thing is that we actually have the wealth and knowledge to do that. We have simply lacked the political and social will to use our collective resources for that purpose.

Imagine what we as a nation could achieve if we dared to change. Imagine if we acted on the belief that every young person of every race and ethnicity was equally worthy of investment. Imagine if every person who wanted job training and education could have it. Imagine the transformative power of hundreds of thousands of young people rebuilding their own communities and serving their neighbors in myriad ways all across this nation.

How many billions of dollars would this save us? How many lives would be saved? How many slain young people could be alive today and making positive contributions, taking care of their families and communities? How much pride would our whole society take in the achievement of this vision?

The August celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington made clear the profound energy and passion that is still aiming to achieve the Beloved Community. The recent attention to the legacy of Nelson Mandela, and the challenges that remain, remind us of the need for everyone to take responsibility to move society to the next level of excellence.

It's not just about Trayvon. It's about all of us. Now.