MIAMI — A two-year pilot program aimed at uncovering the efforts of black men working quietly to help their communities has proved so successful that the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is providing $3.6 million to launch the initiative nation-wide.
Trabian Shorters, the foundation’s former vice president of communities, spearheaded the program which is being turned into an independent Miami-based nonprofit called BMe — Black Male Engagement. The foundation calls it “a new network of inspired black men building caring and prosperous communities.”
The pilot program covered Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, gathering stories of men helping build their communities, connected them to one another and awarded several dozen of them grants to advance their work.
The recipients included an entrepreneur in Baltimore who started a nonprofit coffee shop to teach youth marketable skills, a Detroit man who spent most of his adult life in prison and is now leading an atonement project to stop a vicious cycle of violence in his city and a formerly homeless high school student in Baltimore who is now involved in a media project that teaches kids to make short films.
“There are millions of black men who are assets to their communities — men from all walks of life doing right by their families, professions and neighborhoods. BMe wants to engage them around the things they care about, and build community together,” Shorters said.
The foundation partnered with Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement, and with support from the Heinz Endowment, for the test program.
BMe will now seek to increase the presence and impact of engaged black men in the pilot communities and, later, nationally, by connecting them with one another, supporting their events and projects, telling their stories and inviting people of all races and gender to join in their movement.
“Over the past two years, BMe attracted support from a wide range of backgrounds and walks of life. The power going forward will be in staying true to the vision that black men and boys are community assets who, working together, can make our communities better,” said Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen.
Besides Shorters, BMe is governed by a board that includes outgoing NAACP President Ben Jealous, Donors Choose Founder Charles Best, and TIAA-CREF Senior Managing Director Stephanie Bell-Rose who is also a Knight Foundation trustee.
“What excites me about BMe is it gives the possibility of creating a network for other networks to connect into,” Jealous said.
BMe’s approach is not to identify problems to be addressed but to focus on men and boys doing good and amplify their impact by encouraging others to follow their examples. Shorters says BMe asks four questions about black males: Do they care? Will they lead? Will others join them? And what can we all do together?
The pilot program sought answers to those questions.
It found that black men do care about their communities. For more than a dozen weeks in 2012 and 2013, more than 3,000 black men from all walks of life submitted video testimonials about the big and small things they do to strengthen communities, usually without recognition.
It also found that black men are willing to lead. The black men in the pilot were asked what they would do if given funds to improve the community and hundreds of ideas were submitted. Among those, 70 received funding and provided services to more than 10,000 people in areas ranging from youth development to public health, stopping violence to helping former inmates, protecting the environment to community farming and spurring entrepreneurship to improving financial literacy. The foundation awarded $200,000 in each city.
As to whether the men would join others in a network for community building, dozens of responses were received from small businesses, houses of worship, elected officials and women and youth groups willing to embrace black men as assets to community.
BMe says the answer to the final question, what black men can do together, remains to be seen. But the pilot found black men feel passionate enough to lead on issues that people of all races and genders care about: youth, public safety and health, the environment, education and the economy. That’s a natural bridge for community building, Shorters says.
“BMe captures the imagination of cities and mobilizes people to be proactively and positively engaged in their communities,” said Shawn Dove, director of the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement. “There is no cavalry coming to save our communities but BMe reminds us that the iconic leaders we’ve been waiting for are already here in the form of thousands of black men who quietly and consistently make positive differences in the lives of others.”
BMe will formally launch this winter by telling the stories of inspiring black men nationally through the eyes of their family members, co-workers and friends. It will recruit those men and their friends into the network and provide opportunities for them to connect with others who share their enthusiasm and passion for building better communities together.