"...Mark, if you please, the fact, for it is a fact, an ominous fact, that at no time in the history of conflict between slavery and freedom in this country has the character of the Negro as a man been made the subject of a fiercer and more serious discussion in all the avenues of debate than during the past and present year. Against him have been marshaled the whole artillery of science, philosophy, and history; we are not only controlled by open foes, but we are assailed in the guise of sympathy and friendship and presented as objects of pity."
Speaking at the 27th anniversary of the abolition of slavery on April 16, 1889, Frederick Douglass defined with great clarity the central questions that were raised in that day, and which, more than 100 years later are being raised again. It so happens that these questions are framed today around the issue of African-American men and boys who are not a part of either the recognized economic structure, or the body politic, of the country. Nor are they in community with their own ethnic group. Rather, they pose a critical problem of interpersonal violence on the corridors and thoroughfares that all Americans must cross.
The question Douglass sought to answer in the late 19th century, and that must be answered now in the late 20th century, is this: How does one protect a group from public dissection as if it existed as a mere aberration in the society, and how does one create for that group a group concept so that it is able to sustain itself as a selfrespecting minority group within a majority society?
In early 1995, Ambassador Andrew J. Young delivered a nationally televised sermon on the Rev. Robert Schuller's Hour of Power. Ambassador Young found his text in the Book of Isaiah, chapter 58:9-12:
"Then you shall call and the Lord shall answer; you shall cry and He will say, Here I am. If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness. If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in darkness and your gloom shall be as noon day, and the Lord will continually guide you and satisfy your desire with good things. You shall be like a water garden, like a spring of water whose waters fail not, and your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt. You shall raise up the foundations of many generations and you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in."
Ambassador Young's message was powerful. It said, in several ways, that the only way to recreate community is to become a repairer of the breach, a restorer of safe streets to dwell in. It is the underpinning of the holistic approach to helping boys who are in trouble move from trouble, to engage their families, and to build citizens.
A National Response
In March 1991, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation consulted with numerous individuals with first-hand knowledge of the issues facing certain African-American men and boys. These were individuals actively engaged in making a difference for young men in their respective communities. From these discussions, and subsequent national dialogues, came the recommendation to establish a National Task Force on African-American Men and Boys.
The purpose of the Task Force was to provide ideas that organizations and individuals can use to transform communities, thereby assisting families and boys. Always in the forefront was the desire to create a long-term structure for sustained intervention for boys who are in trouble. The emphasis was on systemic change that brought together a multiplicity of ideas to reduce violence and crime, and make America's social life whole again.
On face value, many would have assumed that this Task Force would have taken shape around the issue of violence. However, that was not the case. Because violence has been painted with a broad brush in this society in which African-American men and boys are seen as the face of that violence, it was a momentous decision by the Task Force to pull back from such simplistic approaches and stereotypes in their work to assist young men.
The Task Force understood violence to be a symptom of a more pervasive problem. Its members also understood that trying to cure violence would not, in itself, cure anything. The Task Force realized that there needed to be a broader discussion of community and society.
The question goes far beyond African-American men and boys, and yet it is directly related to these young men and their participation and development within the body politic of the nation.
Mindful of these broad concerns, the National Task Force sought answers to several questions.
First, how do we bring relief and assistance to communities and families that are experiencing the great hurt and harm of violent behavior?
Second, how do we find a way to reestablish community and make inroads into violent behavior, the major social problem of the day?
Third, how do we expect to engage this large number of young men in constructive participation within American society while, at the same time, refurbishing the image that now has been unfairly placed upon the entire population of African-American men and boys? These men and boys suffer as a result of media and political shortsightedness and stereotyping, and the actions of those who commit violent acts without regard for society.
This Task Force sought to frame a public response to our difficult public policy issues while laying the groundwork for sustained approaches to putting these issues to rest. This, members felt, could be accomplished by repairing the many breached relationships in our community, our nation, and our families. Members of the Task Force recognized that we each have a role to play.
Three public ideas were presented to the Task Force. These ideas came from the broad parameters within which the group sought to bring to light ideas that could transform communities.
First is the idea of the human condition and human development. These closely related ideas surfaced the idea of common good as a working principle, and connects human to human. The ideas embraced fair play and expanded opportunities, and the necessity for each person to be able to contribute to society.
Secondly, the ancient idea of polis says that members in a society have to honor both their rights and responsibilities. We cannot have one without the other.
The last of the ideas was public work, or the important contributions everyday people can make to the commonwealth by telling stories of common work, and celebrating our common life and our work toward creating citizenship.
From these public ideas emerged the themes around which the report is framed. They are believed to be the keys to strengthening families, restoring our streets to safety, and rebuilding civil societies in our communities. These themes should be embraced by communities, expanded upon, and put into practice to create safe havens for all of our children. Themes detailed in the report include polis and the common good, mentioned above. In addition, civic storytelling, grassroots civic leadership, and restoring community institutions are emphasized.
The Task Force is confident that these themes can be accomplished if civic, social, religious, and professional organizations, as well as business, government, and the philanthropic sector, work together.
From this organized approach, the Task Force appealed to individuals and organizations to join in the effort. A National Conversation ­p; Dialogue on Race was agreed to by Task Force members. This is seen as a major tool for assisting these young men, since public opinion is vital when attempting change. We can engage each other by learning to talk to each other and finding common cause. This Conversation will take place over the next several years.
An internal dialogue with the African-American community also will take place beginning in Spring 1996. These facilitated discussions will begin with Task Force members talking to neighbors, friends, peers, and others in homes, town halls, and the workplace.
Boys and Men
In the final analysis, boys and men in trouble, or headed toward trouble, must decide for themselves that they wish to change. Using a momentum similar to that created by the Million Man March, these men and boys must assume personal responsibility and be held accountable for their actions. Parents also must decide to parent, in order to give these young people a chance.
It is within this light that the Task Force sought to cast its recommendations and responses. It is hoped that this new way of looking at how to bring violence under control, to be the repairers of the breach and the restorers of the streets, has with it a spiritual, a practical, a pragmatic, and a political element, all of which must work together if we are to create a better society for these boys and their families, as well as for the entire nation.
An Integrated Plan of Action
The loss of a social center in some neighborhoods, towns, and cities requires that our civic, social, religious, and cultural organizations begin immediately to plan, from the local to the national level, to study their individual areas jointly, to combine their efforts in programming, to cooperate in long-range planning, and to develop a sense of organized companionship toward the goal of restoring our social and economic future.
Agenda building and planning must take place in and around a general discussion of the goals, missions, and aspirations of those affected. If our civic, social, religious, and cultural organizations can develop themselves into a working network, this would give rise to a new national dialogue adding voices to existing civil rights organizations. This dialogue would focus on the bridges that must be built; it would be based on study and a sense of community mission.
The African-American Men and Boys Task Force has made a number of major recommendations. However, there are three overriding recommendations that were made at various points throughout the 18 months the Task Force worked together. These recommendations include:
• The establishment of a national think tank/work group to continue the work of the Task Force during the next five years.
• The creation of an endowment and/or trust to support other significant recommendations of the Task Force.
• The facilitation of a national conversation on race relations.
These recommendations form the foundation for the Task Force's work in the future and are called Project 2000. Project 2000 recommendations require action by AfricanAmerican citizens, Americans of good will, businesses, and foundations. They must be achieved within the next five years to effectively lay the foundation for the second portion of the plan, the Generations Plan.
Details about these and other recommendations can be found in the full Task Force report. The complete Task Force report contains 61 detailed recommendations. A select group also has been included in the Executive Summary.
Toward the Future: Polis
Discussion of these issues is meant to introduce the concept of polis, a comprehensive idea regarding the values, manners, morals, and etiquette needed for structuring public life on both a social and political level. This is a broader and tougher vision of the old concept of community. Community seems to be a word overused, with little meaning. It does not have the kind of force of intent that is now needed to rectify and restore innercity neighborhoods.
This concept gives African-American men and boys much more room to fashion their participation in American society. They are not alienated from something that their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents helped to build and develop. It allows for a discussion about how one becomes a whole individual and citizen participating in American society under the rubric of both polis and community, and the dependent social contract that polis implies.
To begin to address the many issues surrounding African-American men and boys in today's society, public policy and activity must become aligned with repairers of the breach and restorers of the streets.
WKKF Publication Number 513
Dec. 20, 2001