My Brother’s Keeper: Stop Writing Letters, Just Do the Work

Your Take: Dillard University’s president talks about what should be done to focus on both black boys and girls without waiting for the president’s initiative.

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Over the past few days my Twitter feed has buzzed about the letter signed by 1,000 women and girls urging President Barack Obama to broaden his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. The letter and subsequent commentaries attack the president, accusing him of any number of sins for not including women and girls in this program. Yes, the issues facing women and girls of color are significant, and while ignored in research and programming as the letter states, they do deserve attention and focus.

And that’s my problem with the letter. In short, would this letter have been written if this initiative had never been announced? I mean, the hash tag #WhyWeCantWait is problematic because people have been waiting for years. When it comes to waiting, #YesWeCan! And did.

There wasn’t even a sense of urgency to ask for inclusion. This letter comes almost four months after My Brother’s Keeper was announced, and weeks after 200 men wrote to support inclusion of women and girls.

Black folks even waited to complain.

Simply stated, many are mad that the first black president has not been our messiah, righting every structural wrong in six years. Hosanna in 2008. Crucify him today.

When My Brother’s Keeper was announced, I was not fazed. I began doing that work as president of Philander Smith College a year before President Obama was elected. In 2007 we had horrific graduation rates for men (about half that of the women). A group of men and women came together on campus to study the issue and launch a Black Male Initiative. We read the numerous research articles and books on black male achievement and success. We engaged my friend Dr. Shaun Harper, who is the nation’s preeminent scholar on black men in higher education, and our work was in full swing.

We started making progress with very little money. Soon we noticed there were a number of foundations, like the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, who shared interests in this area and we received grant support. It was a great match of scholarship and action.

In 2008, while meeting with my chief student affairs officer, a black woman whose dissertation focused on the experiences of black women in academia, I asked her what were we going to do for the women? She suggested that the women were doing well academically and probably didn’t need a program. But I said there were other issues we need to address so that they were strengthened.

She created a unique program called Platinum by Design. It operated very differently from the Black Male Initiative but still was able to impact the women on the campus. Again, very little money, but a genuine desire and commitment to do the work.

In fact, the challenge with our programming for women was the lack of research on success of black women in higher education. We found no scholar who matches the volume and quality of work on black women in higher education as Shaun Harper provides for men. In addition, it was also hard finding grant programs targeting this population.