frederica-wilson_web.jpgHalf a century after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, one aspect of the Dream is still far from fruition: African-American men and boys still face rampant discrimination and a dearth of opportunity. It’s not just the very public tragedies like the killings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis; it’s the everyday injustice.

Forty-two percent of Black students attend schools that are under-funded. Young African Americans are 10 times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than young whites — in spite of studies showing that white youth are as likely or more likely to abuse drugs.  According to a report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, more than two-thirds of African-American male dropouts are expected to serve time in state or federal prison.

As a mother and an educator, I can attest that the crisis is real. My own son, and nearly all of the young African-American men I know, have been stopped by law enforcement, at least once, for no apparent reason. I’ve seen the ways that such discrimination breeds negative self-perception. 

It’s well past time for serious action to address this national shame. Thankfully, we have a president for whom this issue is personal.  Last Thursday, President Barack Obama reflected on his own experiences growing up as a fatherless black male in America and committed to a serious action plan to address the iniquities that such life circumstances tend to entail. The president announced the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, a partnership with businesses, nonprofits and philanthropies to address disparities in education, career opportunities and criminal justice.  With private investments upwards of $150 million – and another $200 million over the next five years – the initiative will seek to scale-up best practices in addressing the challenges facing minority men. 

In my career as an educator and school principal, I gained a keen sense of what can make a difference in the lives of struggling young men.  Twenty years ago, I founded the 5000 Role Models of Excellent Project, an in-school comprehensive drop-out prevention and mentoring program that has had extraordinary success in saving minority boys from drugs, destitution and the criminal justice system.

There are 8,000 boys, aged 9 to 19, in the program, who take part in tours of colleges, courtrooms and prisons, as well as seminars on anger management, relations with law enforcement, respect for women and conflict resolution.  They receive continuing guidance and support from respected professionals in the community, as well as college scholarships after successful completion of the program.

I was honored to attend President Obama’s White House address announcing the “My Brother’s Keeper initiative.” I was especially delighted when the president offered up the 5000 Role Models Project as an example of “what works” and asked me to stand and be acknowledged. I look forward to building on the success of the Role Models project and helping the president implement his vision on a nation scale.

But there’s a long road ahead.  While the federal government and national organizations can play important roles, building programs like the Role Models around the country will require local school districts to make serious long-term commitments, much as Miami-Dade has made, to addressing the opportunity gap.  Local leaders around the country must step up in order to make change happen.

The challenge President Obama identified on Thursday is complex and multifaceted.  But it’s a challenge that’s central to civil rights in the 21st century.  We know what’s effective when it comes to empowering young minority men to improve their circumstances.  Let’s turn this knowledge into action.

I’m onboard.  Will you join us?

Congresswoman Frederica Wilson is a Democrat representing the 24th Congressional District of Florida. She wrote this commentary at the request of South Florida Times.