As California Heals, So Should the Nation

Our future prosperity depends on all of our young people having a fair chance to succeed. But too many of our boys and young men of color (primarily African American, Latino, Native American, and Southeast Asian) disproportionately experience failing schools, disconnected neighborhoods, and limited job opportunities.

Indeed, when the President announced My Brother’s Keeper—a potentially transformative initiative for our nation—he recognized that, “by almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century in this country are boys and young men of color.”

This is particularly troubling because the population of boys and men of color is growing exponentially:  already, the majority of children born in this country are of color, and America is expected to be majority people of color by 2042. We need our emergent population of boys and men of color to have opportunities to work hard and innovate to keep America competitive in the global economy.  We must support their success, not just as a matter of fairness and equality, but for the economic strength of our country.

As the White House continues to shape its initiative, it should pay attention to California, where young activists and community leaders have been working for years as part of the statewide Alliance for Boys and Men of Color to address challenges and improve outcomes for boys and men of color – efforts that can help lay the groundwork and provide strategic guidance for My Brother’s Keeper.

A major focus in California has been to establish the imperative of healing—understanding and overcoming the unique trauma disproportionately faced by boys and men of color—as foundational to achieving success. Some of this trauma may stem from violence, poverty, and social marginalization experienced from an early age.

This was on full display through the community’s leadership last month during “Healing Generations,” San Joaquin County’s three-day Fourth Annual Boys and Men of Color Summit, where “healing circles” (a group technique rooted in indigenous, cultural practices), spoken-word performances, and a Heart and Spirit Run (where runners stopped at local shooting sites to honor victims of gun violence) intersected with a hearing of the California Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color, and a day-long training to develop the critical thinking and direct action skills of boys and young men of color.

One of many highlights at the San Joaquin summit was the depth of youth engagement. Jesse Esparza, a youth leader at Fathers and Families of San Joaquin (FFSJ), the community-based organization that leads the local boys and men of color campaign, gave stirring testimony on how healing helps him confront barriers he faces because of past mistakes. Stockton City Councilmember Michael Tubbs, a young man who participated in FFSJ programs and is now the youngest elected official in Stockton’s history, reflected on how it will take “progressive, New Deal-type thinking” on the part of policymakers to match boys and young men of color with the high-tech jobs of the future, including training and skill-building for detainees in juvenile hall.

A focus on healing has also played a central role in Monterey County, where the East Salinas Boys and Men of Color campaign had an important victory in April. The community-led coalition, supported by MILPA and East Salinas Building Healthy Communities, successfully campaigned the Monterey County Board of Supervisors to unanimously modify the design of a new juvenile hall to accommodate more space for programs based in restorative justice—a healing-centered technique which focuses on repairing harm and has been proven to reduce recidivism. California state and local boys and men of color campaigns have also promoted restorative justice programs in lieu of outdated and unfair school discipline policies, such as zero tolerance and willful defiance.

To explore the intersection of trauma and healing, the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color will host a legislative briefing entitled Trauma-Informed Community Health and Healing Practices on Thursday, May 29. Please join us at the hearing and on Twitter for a “Tweet Chat” on trauma-informed care on Wednesday, May 28, from 11 a.m. - 12 p.m. Pacific (follow @allianceforbmoc and use the hashtag #BmocHealing).

It will be essential for the White House to incorporate healing as a major facet of My Brother’s Keeper. We need our boys and young men of color to have the tools to face and overcome trauma in their lives. More and more, we will be relying on this growing population, and as FFSJ youth leader Angel Diaz reflected during his testimony, “if adults look at young people as assets to be developed instead of problems to solve, we can change the future.”

Rubén Lizardo is a PolicyLink Senior Director and Leader of Boys and Men of Color & Workforce Initiatives