The $130 Million Question – What Will It Take?

August 15, 2011 at 2:15 pm Leave a comment

The $130 Million Question – What Will It Take? 

Several days ago, Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City, announced a large-scale multi-million dollar program designed to maximize the success of disenfranchised Black and Latino boys and young men in New York.   Many of us, surprised by the definitive acknowledgment of the issues impacting our young men of color, watched with bated breath as the details of his plans were laid out.   True to American skepticism, the announcement begat questions of its validity and potential impact.  Would it simply scratch the surface of a deeply rooted dilemma or would the funding facilitate our ability to answer the fundamental question: What in our society has led us to where we are now —where 1 in 3 Black boys and 1 in 6 Latino boys are likely to be jailed in their lifetime?[i] 

Recently, I read “Leadership On the Line” by Ronald Heifitz and Marty Linsky.  In it, the authors recalled the story of the New England Aquarium and its struggle to attract people of color (visitors, youth and staff) to the organization. The authors postulated that there were two questions that needed to be addressed at the aquarium—the technical question and the adaptive question.  The technical question would address their need to increase the number of  people of color who visited or worked at the aquarium.  The adaptive question—the one that many organizations find most challenging—focused on the role that the organization’s values played on those who visited the aquarium.   The technical question was not difficult to address – they created an internship program for young people of color, resulting in a steady increase in diversity at the aquarium.  The adaptive question, however, was left unanswered. With no one present, willing to answer the question:  “What about our organizational culture inhibits the population we are most trying to target from joining our ranks?”, they came up short of their true objectives.

Having worked with young people most of my life, I started asking myself the adaptive questions:  What will it take for our society to embrace all of our youth in a manner that not only places our youth at the core of our vision, but also at the forefront or our policy goals?  What will it take for us to recognize that this non-voting population will only be as strong as the sincerity of the attention and love we show them and the desire to assist them in cultivating their gifts?  Are our young Black and Latino boys destined to disenfranchisement, to travel through the cradle to prison pipeline that exists in our society?  What will it take for all of us to reconsider how the work we do impacts the lives of young people for generations to come?

These questions, though challenging, must be considered in any initiative that focuses on our youth.  We can no longer rely on the number of kids attending a “program,” or the number of kids involved in pro-social activities to tell us how well we are doing.  Rather, we must began to ask ourselves (as adults), what is it about the policies we set, the words that we speak, or our very actions that prevent our youth from seeing our positive institutions as a way forward?  How we answer that, if we choose to, will determine just how much progress we make with our young people. 

Mayor Bloomberg, his administration and his partners should be applauded for their efforts.  But let us not lose sight of the fundamental questions that must be answered to move us toward the future we envision for our children.

Chisara N. Asomugha, MD, MSPH, FAAP
Vice President, The Asomugha Foundation


[i] Children’s Defense Fund Website. Accessed 8.10.11

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