Ladders of Opportunity: Making the American Dream a Reality for Boys and Young Men of Color

Ladders of Opportunity PanelBoys and young men of color, regardless of socioeconomic background, are disproportionately at risk throughout their journey from preschool to college and career. For instance, large disparities persist in reading proficiency: 86 percent of African-American boys and 82 percent of Hispanic and Native American boys reading below grade level by the fourth grade, compared with 58 percent of white boys. In addition, the disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic young men who are unemployed or involved in the criminal justice system is a perilous drag on state budgets and also undermines family and community stability. (Pictured left to right: Kenneth Ward, Brian Smedley, Andrew Ujifusa and Darren Woodruff)

On June 3, 2013, the American Institutes for Research, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and College Bound convened a panel discussion about the Obama administration’s initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, which is bringing together leading foundations and organizations to design and develop “ladders of opportunity” for boys and young men of color. This work builds on many of the findings of the 2006 Dellums Commission Report, which studied the emotional, physical, and social factors that contribute to the health and well-being of boys and young men of color. The Honerable Ronald V. Dellums, Former Member of Congress, provided opening remarks. Panelists included Brian D. Smedley, Vice President and Director of the Health Policy Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies; Kenneth Ward, Executive Director of College Bound; and Darren Woodruff, Principal Researcher in the Education program at AIR. Education Week's State Policy and Politics Reporter, Andrew Ujifusa, served as moderator.

Highlights from the event are provided below.

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Opening Remarks

Former Rep. Ron DellumsFormer Congressman Ron Dellums (pictured at left) talked about the Commission as he began the day’s discussion at the National Press Club: “In this building, on this floor [in 2006] we issued nine reports across a wide range of areas–health, education, workforce and economic development, child development, justice, and media…looking at the plight of young men of color. It was thorough, but we lacked resources.”

In what would become the central points of the day, Dellums said there were two reasons for focusing on boys and young men of color. First, because “we live in a world where facing challenges requires universality–we are battling issues that require us to work as a community of the human family. Second, we live in a nation that is becoming increasingly multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural. That’s the future of this country. So to leave a significant percentage of our nation out is insanity writ large.”

“If I have one lament, it’s that [the Dellums Commission] wasn’t able to muster the resources to put all the necessary recommendations into place. I’ve been asked to reconvene the Dellums Commission and, at 78 years of age, I said, ‘OK’.”

“This is a moment pregnant with potential,” Dellums told the crowd. “You now have the President of the United States having embraced this issue. Use the bully pulpit to reach into the philanthropic and corporate community. Exploit the moment. It’s ultimately in the best interest of us all.”

The hour-long panel discussed a range of perceptions, expectations, and structural barriers that affect boys and young men of color. Overall, panelists agreed that we need to change the way we view young men of color, the expectations we set for them, and the support we offer them.

Perceptions and Expectations

Brian Smedley"For far too long, boys and young black men of color have been seen as a problem rather than a valuable resource [for our country]. The challenge is the public will. We will reconvene the Dellums Commission not to understand what is needed to do—we know what is needed— but to learn how we build the public will [to do what is needed].  We all have a stake in this."- Brian Smedley (pictured at right)

"Our boys and young men of color are different. Sometimes they dress, talk, behave differently. Those things are not deficits. Like [different kinds of music], we need to treasure it, value and support it. Just because they’re different, it’s more on us and our schools and other agencies to see them as strength." - Darren Woodruff

"Even some teachers see boys and young men of color as a threat. If you are afraid, how can you teach? ...I was in Dakar (Africa) with one of our College Bound students, Mike.  A young man came up to him and asked, 'What kind of gun do you have?' Mike doesn’t own any guns. Mike’s ‘gun’ is a book. ...Some of our College Bound young men are 6'2" or 6'3", and people come up to them say, ‘Are you going to play basketball?’ They don’t ask, ‘Are you going to be an engineer?’ We have to help our youth see themselves differently. You can be more than a basketball player or a rapper."- Kenneth Ward

"Any child will live up to expectations. They expect these young men of color to be in entertainment and sports. They see the perp walks of these boys and young men. The public has to put pressure on Hollywood and newsrooms to change the images. Change the social media content. There’s too much talent there, too much value to our society to not allow them to flourish." - Brian Smedley

Structural Barriers

"We have to address the structural problems that go with segregation, that have allowed separate but unequal systems in our society. …We must de-concentrate poverty and invest in schools and communities, in housing, in safe places to play, in food and nutrition. We can’t do this piecemeal." - Brian Smedley

"Schools are as segregated now as they were 50 years ago, only then they had teachers who understood and believed in them.” - Kenneth Ward


Ken Ward"We need mentors. Someone to provide authentic experiences for youth and bring resources… [At College Bound we tell our mentors,] '…as much as you think you’re changing the life of a child, you are changing your life.'"- Kenneth Ward (pictured at left)

"We know what works… Among other things, enriched Pre-K programs for all kids, but particularly for at-risk kids. We have to [give] support, but without the proper role models, without hope, we drain these young men of their talent. If we’re still sending kids to schools where a large share of students live below the poverty line, we will be repeating structural inequities." - Brian Smedley

"In our attempt to maximize the outcomes for boys and young men of color, we are focused on 'fixing them.' I’m convinced that is not the right way to go. …The bottom line now is test scores. We have to show how best practices lead to outcomes that the people are focusing on. Show how mentoring, counseling and interventions and other supports can lead to those outcomes." - Darren Woodruff

See Creating Opportunities for Young Men of Color for further information and resources on this topic.

Event Information

June 3, 2014
9:30 AM - 11:00 AM