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Foundations reach out to black males

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Ninth-grader Rothus Stewart has his mind set on three things: studying engineering in college, playing basketball for Duke University and a better life for his mother.

"My mindset is to get my mom out the hood," the 15-year-old Detroiter announced to a roomful of his peers at Don Bosco Hall, a Detroit community center, where 32 male students from Cody High's Academy of Public Leadership met for their weekly "Survival, Success and Leadership" program.

Student Rothus Stewart, left, discusses his options for college with Cody High Academy Principal Jonathan Mathews.

Preparing young men of color for life's challenges, supporting them to graduate high school and creating a path to higher education are among the goals of this male responsibility program, funded by a local foundation and nonprofit organization working to improve the lives of black males in Detroit.

Foundation funding for programs like this, which benefit black youths and young men, is on the rise across the nation and in Michigan.

In the United States, philanthropic investment totaled $64.6 million in 2012, up from $40.4 million in 2011 and continued an upward trend. In Michigan it reached $14.9 million in 2012, up from the $8.9 million invested in 2011.

The data, which represents grant-making by foundations to programs and organizations working to improve the life outcomes of African-American males, came from a report released last month by the Foundation Center and the Campaign for Black Male Achievement.

Two Michigan foundations ranked in the top eight for U.S. investment: the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Skillman Foundation. Both are led by African-American women.

Based in Battle Creek, Kellogg, which granted $12.6 million in 2012, has a national focus on promoting racial equity and addressing structural racism. Skillman, a Detroit-based foundation, mandates that many of its grants serve a minimum of 50 percent black or Latino youth. It granted $1.335 million in 2012, report data showed.

According to the report, Quantifying Hope: Philanthropic Support for Black Men and Boys, both the number of grants and total grant dollars designated for black male achievement have trended steadily upward since 2003, reaching a total of 1,791 grants and nearly $246 million over the 10-year period, with more than half the grant dollars distributed in the last three years.

The research was released against a backdrop of national attention to the highly publicized killings by law enforcement of black men and youths, the birth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the launch of My Brother's Keeper, a White House initiative to improve the outcomes of boys and young men of color, in which Detroit is participating.

At Skillman, where all grant making focuses on driving up graduation rates in Detroit, the foundation invested nearly $2 million in 2014 alone, with 14 grants. One grant for $750,000 will support local implementation of the agenda of My Brother's Keeper and support the campaign for Black Male Achievement.

Kristen McDonald, Skillman's vice president of programs and policy, said the foundation in 2006 launched its Good Neighborhood Initiative, a 10-year, $100 million commitment to six Detroit neighborhoods: Brightmoor, Chadsey Condon, Cody Rouge, Northend Central Woodward, Osborn and Southwest Detroit.

"We did a lot of sitting and talking to parents in these six neighborhoods. What we we're hearing overwhelmingly from mothers and grandmothers was: 'Can you help us do something for our boys?' It really raised our awareness of the crisis the boys were facing in Detroit, almost from the moment they are brought home from the hospital," McDonald said.

Skillman officials began more research and found that across the country and in Detroit, men and boys of color simply don't have the same opportunity as other people, from graduation rates to unemployment.

So starting in 2008, Skillman sat down its grantees and had a talk: Grants must serve a minimum of 50 percent African-American and Latino youths.

Jamonica Harris, left, and Vontrell Rambus listen to a talk on the justice system as part of the Survival, Success and Leadership program.

"To change things, you have to be intentional about who you targeting," said Robert Thornton, Skillman's senior program officer and leader of My Brother's Keeper work in Detroit.

Skillman grantees such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit, Black Family Development, Don Bosco Hall Inc. and others either complied or were already doing that type of work. Their programs focus on leadership, youth development, college acceptance and violence prevention.

Poverty is a driving factor in most of the issues that face men of color, Thornton said.

"We have a lot of disconnected youth, not involved in programs or going to school. They don't have proper support. They are homeless. They are trying to survive day to day," he said. "We need them to feel safe, feel supported to help them gain skills so they can become full participants in society. So they can graduate on time and have employment to be entrepreneurs and walk whatever life path they choose to do."

Skillman is seeing results: Graduation rates have increased 15 percent at its Detroit high schools and faster than the rest of the schools in Detroit, foundation officials said.

In 1992, Kellogg created the African American Men and Boys initiative, with other major foundations doing the same over the years. In 2013, more than two dozen foundation CEO's and presidents formed the Executives' Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color. Then in 2014, President Barack Obama launched My Brother's Keeper.

In 2014, Kellogg committed $1.3 million over three years to Wayne State University to establish the Detroit Equity Action Lab, or DEAL, which works to address issues of structural racism in Detroit in the areas of education, health care, food security, safety and housing.

"Our focus is racial equity in society and how it shows up in the community and in systems that were put in place to serve people and children," said foundation President La June Montgomery.

Five years ago, Kellogg launched its America Healing Initiative and has made sure its work on racial equity is reflected in its grant making, she said.

"This has been a journey. We have learned ... how our work can be more impactful. We've increased our investments. Due to the collaboration that has come out of the Executive Alliance, we know what works. We can get the more done on the ground," she said.

Kellogg's funding around law enforcement and policing issues has been some of the most effective funding provided, Montgomery said, because it allows grantees to understand the difference between a person who was arrested and never charged from one who was charged with a crime.

"Some systems look at arrests to make decisions around employment. Through our grantees, we've highlighted this issue and said you are affecting a persons ability to gain employment by data that is inconsequential," she said.

Montgomery, who grew up in Detroit, said men and boys of color need for people to believe in them and see them as contributing members of society. They require more than anything, a fair chance, she said.

"We will continue on this trajectory. The time is now," Montgomery said.