Obama Lends Starpower as My Brother’s Keeper Grows

Obama Lends Starpower as My Brother’s Keeper Grows

May 5, 2015

Following days of racially-charged protests in Baltimore and cities around the country, President Barack Obama came to Lehman College in the Bronx to announce a new nonprofit aimed at closing the opportunity gap between young men of color and their white peers.

The My Brother’s Keeper Alliance is made up of private sector companies and organizations, with no further involvement from the President. It boasts impressive leadership nonetheless with former Deloitte CEO and Bronx-native Joe Echevarria at the helm and a team including singer John Legend, former NBA star Alonzo Mourning, and top executives at News Corp. and PepsiCo.

The White House described the new alliance as “the President mobilizing the business community.” It follows the White House’s on-going My Brother’s Keeper initiative, formed in February 2014 as a response to the 2012 death of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin. Some 200 cities, tribes and counties nationwide have since become “MBK Communities,” committing to having their youth reach educational goals, like reading at grade level by 3rd grade, and wider, economic goals like providing training and ensuring all youth out of school have jobs.

President Obama said the MBK Alliance will allow the initiative to grow and continue, even after he has left office. And while he remains officially separate from the Alliance, Obama suggested he might forge closer bonds after leaving office.

“This will remain a mission for me and for Michelle not just for the rest of my presidency, but for the rest of my life,” he said.

Despite such commitments, the announcement was focused on the present, with references to protests in Baltimore, Ferguson and New York. But Obama suggested the unrest was about more than just overzealous police officers.

“If we’re just looking at policing, we’re looking at it too narrowly.  If we ask the police to simply contain and control problems that we ourselves have been unwilling to invest and solve, that’s not fair to the communities, it’s not fair to the police,” he said.

Obama became intensely personal at times, saying he sees himself in the young men the Alliance aims to help. He called out one of those young men by name, the Puerto-Rican born Alex Santos. The President shared Santos’ story of growing up around violence in the Bronx and Brooklyn and dropping out of school. After a push from his mother who was earning her own GED, Santos is back taking classes and now hopes to go to college.

Following the speech, Santos said the shout-out from the President was the best thing that has ever happened to him. “It just inspires you to do better in your life and be somebody,” he said.

The Alliance was set to hold their first board meeting after the President’s speech, but its goals were already set, like increasing high school graduation rates by 20 percent and getting 50,000 more young men into post-secondary education or training.

Such goals would have economic benefits as well as moral, and the Alliance can already boast some $80 million in commitments. The President described it as an investment, quoting from the African-American novelist James Baldwin. 

“For these are all our children,” he said. “We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.” 

Jeff Coltin
Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.