04/15/2012 03:11 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2012

Empowering Our Black Boys

We need to put fire to the idea that the best way to ensure the health and safety of our black boys is to throw them in prison. Despite Masters degree candidacy at our nation's highest ranked public health graduate school, one of the most well informed, eloquent and effective communicators, and overall supreme teachers of social justice under which I have ever been taught is Andres.

Andres is an 18-year-old male with two quarter-sized patches of pink flesh tattooed across the left side of his black face. Unfortunately, at the time of this publication, Andres is now behind bars -- a victim of a penal system that throws one in three black boys on the cradle to prison pipeline.

It's well understood it takes a village to raise a child, but as illustrated through Andres' narrative, I am strongly of the opinion not only has our village abandoned our black boys, our country is actually deliberately and permanently keeping these males at the bottom rungs.

I currently serve on Baltimore, Maryland Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake Supper Club Initiative, a mutual mentorship program where professional adults and youths involved in the justice system meet twice a week, over dinner, to gain glimpses into the other's life.

The theme of tonight's conversation was to discuss a personal injustice. The youths particularly assigned to me, like many youths, tend to be boisterous and light-hearted jokesters, often speaking above the other for attention. However, Andres' gentle, yet assertive demeanor commands attention and respect. When Andres speaks, everyone -- youths and adults alike -- shuts up.

Andres recounts an evening, several weeks ago, when he and a friend were walking in downtown Baltimore. With a previous misdemeanor under his name, two police officers confronted and searched Andres and upon finding a significant amount of money in his wallet, the officers demanded Andres hand over what they surely thought he had -- drugs. Andres insisted he had none, so the officers took him to an alley. Despite pounding after pounding, Andres smiled at the officers -- his defense mechanism for withstanding the pain. Interpreting this as instigation, one of the officers threw Andres and forced his face to the scum of the ground. This is why I can see the pink flesh under Andres' black skin. Not able to find any drugs, the officers take Andres to jail and allegedly slip a couple of pills with his money to paint him guilty.

When I asked Andres why he didn't file a report, he replied, "They're not going to believe me. They're never going to believe me. They always side with the officers." The counselors, social workers, previous offenders, and other community leaders at the dinner table (all of whom work with youths in the justice system) nodded in agreement. Not only did they believe Andres, they had heard and even themselves experienced his story many times before.

Most impressive about Andres is he doesn't lament in labeling himself a victim. Rather, he discusses that although his alleged crime may be fabricated, there are other youths who are indeed perpetrators. He argues the 'black boy' stereotype should not be generalized, but exists because of similar circumstances many black boys are born into. You hear this as he discusses the reality of broken education systems. He not only shares reasons for high high school dropout rates, such as the additive effects of single parent homes, absent mentors, and the appeal of quick hustle, but also offers solutions for fixing the system:

"First, we've got to get more men role-models to serve as mentors for our students and encourage us to come to school. That's the greatest hurdle right there -- just getting students to come to school. If we know that someone actually cares about us and is asking about us and is looking for us when we don't show up, you'll find more and more students coming to school and ultimately graduating. School is important, but when all your homeboys are making it seem cool to go after the cars and the watches, we need role models to show us how to get out of this mindset. The fact that you're sitting here right now, listening to me, that's important. We all want somebody to listen, to give us attention. It makes us feel like we're actually worth something. That's just one way to fix this education system."

For almost an hour, Andres spits knowledge on how not only his district, but troubled districts nationwide can transform their education systems. I am uplifted by his dialogue and begin brainstorming ways Andres can be engaged as a motivational speaker to both leaders and fellow peers in the community. But quickly am I brought down to Earth as I remember a corrupt penal system saw handcuffs as the most fitting accessory to complement his levelheaded insight.

"My biggest dream is two months away. I want to graduate high school. Everyone thinks I'm not going to, and I can't wait to prove them wrong, " Andres told me. If it weren't for the fact that the system recaptured Andres with an adult warrant, I have no doubt that this summer he would hold a high school diploma. I share Andres' narrative to illustrate the extent to which our country holds back our youth.

In comparison to white children, black children are more than seven times as likely to be persistently poor, seven times as likely to have a parent in prison, four times as likely to be placed in a juvenile correctional facility, and just as likely to use drugs, yet more than seven times as likely to be placed in residential placement for these same drug offenses. Mass systematic incarceration of poor people of color is a fact and there is an obvious, urgent need for reform of our criminal justice system. (Look at the Black and White Report).

We need to be more particular in choosing honorable men and women to protect our streets and stop preying upon the visible, low-hanging fruits of our communities, while ignoring root causes of crime. Furthermore, when we understand criminal records have lifetime penalizations for these children and when it is three times more expensive to send a child to prison over school, we must reevaluate whether national priorities are to open or close doors on our youths' future.

Federally, the need for policy reform is necessary. However, locally, more deeply, and separate from this unjust criminal justice system, our community and school leaders must address other influences that keep our youths out of school.

Youths (but for the specific subject of this post, black boys) are a brilliant source of insight. In a way that adults have lost as a result of the weariness of time, they have the resiliency, tenacity, and courage to transform their own lives. To capitalize upon their assets, school and community leaders must provide them with a supportive environment.

  1. Bring out of class discussions into the classroom. For example, let us recognize that rap was an ancient African oral tradition, continues to be, and will forever be an integral part of this nation. Instead of attempting to censor hip-hop and rap out of our communities, be honest. Teach them the negative influences the industry has on popular culture, but also expose them to how they can use it to positively transform communities.
  2. Stop acting like our kids live in Disney World. Curriculum must be honest and more reflective of the environments where our kids grow. Many urban schools have bars on their windows and yet the conversation of how/why those bars are there (or more importantly, how to remove them) is never had with the students. Schools have become idealistic bubbles where we teach what could, not what actually happens on our planet. Multiple studies indicate abstinence only education does not decrease teenage pregnancy and curriculum that teach safe sex, in addition to abstinence, do not promote earlier first sexual interaction, but may actually reduce teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Why are we still not teaching it?

    Similarly, gang violence, poverty, and the effects of single parent homes are present in many young men's lives. Why aren't we offering both short and long-term ways our boys can cope with these challenges? When we're honest with our youths and acknowledge their circumstances, they become more likely to accept what insight we have to offer.

    This curriculum reform idea is not radical. Because when a black boy (who is five times as likely to be killed by firearm, in comparison to a White boy) is worried he'll have a glock pulled on him on his walk home or is concerned whether his mom will have dinner that night, that boy can easily fail to recognize the importance of how many electrons are in a Helium atom (look at the Black and White Report).

    We must build an education system that works for everyone -- not just those who come from well-resourced and connected social networks.

  3. Provide comprehensive history courses to eliminate institutional despondency. Share the facts of injustice, but also show that our ethnic minorities have historically economically, socially, and scientifically contributed to our nation's development in profound ways. Promoting a positive cultural identity moves beyond labeling Blacks as victims and establishes a perception where youths feel comfortable and even motivated to set higher goals for themselves.
  4. Schools must integrate music, arts, and more socially focused courses into their curriculum. These disciplines promote innovative ways of thinking and influence behavior change and social norms. More over, these subjects keep youths in schools, as they realize vocation and intelligence exists and is utilized in numerous ways.
  5. Schools must treat parents/guardians as extension of the student. Many want to academically support their children, but this is difficult for those who are not educated themselves. Exposing households to resources such as Eight Steps to Help Black Families Pay for College will lighten the stress and burden upon both the student and the family, as both feel supported.
  6. Match each young man with a mentor he can admire and emulate. When 71% of high school dropouts come from fatherless homes, this proves particularly imperative. Principal Baruti Kafele of the predominately black and Hispanic New Jersey Newark Tech High School is convinced of this holistic view of the student. Every week, he hosts male empowerment sessions where leaders from the community and senior students meet for one on one interactions to model confidence and achievement to their mentees. Apparently, this simple idea works. In a school where 85% of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch, 100% of its students graduate.
  7. Promote global citizenship. Black married-couple families have a median income of about $65,000 a year, but the median income for a black woman headed family is only $26,000 per year. When 72% of our black children are born to an unwed mother and 66% continue to live under one income, it's easy to comprehend the economic circumstances under which many black boys live. Simply the result of these circumstances, black boys are more likely to enter failing schools, more likely to dropout, more likely to be unemployed, and more likely to themselves be single parents -- reinventing the cycle.

    Children born into isolated, poor communities rarely encounter a person or idea starkly different from their own. Exposing them to the bigger concerns and ways of the world will encourage them to think and set bigger goals for themselves, even when their environment provides them with more of the same.

  8. Promote entrepreneurship. In 2007, all of America's black-owned businesses contributed revenues less than 1% of America's total GDP. Teaching financial literacy and encouraging innovation fuels economic empowerment and leadership from within the black community. Enabling a community to help itself is the most effective strategy to ensuring sustainability of progress.
  9. Sparingly use "when I grow up." This reaffirms our boys' self-perception as effects of their environment. Engage them in leadership and service projects that help them realize they are now hugely influential in bringing about change. Hold them accountable -- now. For many of these boys, they'll for the first time consider their actions have effects on those around them. They'll realize their own power.
  10. Appoint them public speakers. Similar to how youths can pressure each other into drugs and violence, they can serve as positive motivators. Place them in engagement roles, where not only they realize their voice is important, but also where others -- in similar circumstances -- hear and consequently are more likely to follow them.
  11. Establish a demographically representative youth council in every city. I have stumbled upon no research that indicates Black adolescent males are not capable of speaking on behalf of themselves, so why have they been kept out of a national conversation that discusses their own state? Our young people understand what keeps them away from schools and on the streets better than any one else because, well--they live it. With their consultation, social change leaders don't have to speculate as to what may be the problem and what could be the solution. They'll know. Black boys must be consulted and fully involved in policy design and implementation, not as side effects of our policies.

    In addition, placing young people in the teacher role, we show we have respect for them. This is dignifying them in a way that is likely foreign to many youths.
  12. Schools must provide more hands on learning to stimulate interest and attention. Rote memorization offers little appeal for the student.
  13. Invest in smaller classrooms where our teachers actually have time to support this agenda.
  14. Exhaust community-based participatory research. This emerging public health research field is an equal partnership between trained academicians and community members, where all members involved are appreciative of what other members bring to the drawing board and dedicate their skills to a well-defined goal.
  15. Community conferencing. An alternative to juvenile incarceration, this is a safe and effective way to prevent and resolve conflicts. This technique allows both the young person and the victims to share their perspectives and collectively resolve the crime. By building empathy, this technique averts incarceration and prevents subsequent crimes. For example, the Community Conference Center of Baltimore, Maryland has helped settle 95% of over 12,000 conflicts using a written agreement created by, agreed upon, and followed through by all conference participants. Even more encouragingly, according to a Maryland juvenile justice study, 97% of the offenders diverted from the juvenile justice system through community conferencing are minorities and are 60% less likely to re-offend.

Young black males are not inherently immoral beings, contrary to how our justice system targets them. They are victims of classism, racism, and ageism. They are also humans who make mistakes, as we all do, and are often born holding unlucky cards with which the majority of our society could not even begin deciding how to play.

Conversations of how we can support our black boys need to happen at all levels, especially at a criminal justice level. But until we engage these young men in academic and community settings, they will remain the largest untapped resource in challenging the cradle to prison pipeline epidemic.

By 2025, census estimates that minority children will be the new majority and if this rising majority continues to struggle with incarceration, poverty, unemployment, and dependency, not only will our country economically suffer, but we will also lose the productivity contributions of a majority of the American people.

And as we seem to be great at coddling, let's recognize it's most economically, politically, and socially strategic to coddle the big men just a little bit less and boys like Andres just a little bit more.

Lamees El-sadek is a public health Masters student in Social Factors in Health at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. She focuses on the social and economic structures that contribute to ethnic health disparities. She aspires to serve in an avenue that integrates the influences of policy, education, and healthcare to preserve human dignity.