Is the MBK Alliance just another attempt to solve important minority issues simply by throwing money at it?

A few weeks ago, President Obama went to the boogie down Bronx to announce the “My Brother’s Keeper Alliance”. A foundation to take up his campaign to help minority young men by improving education, training and job placement in poor communities across the country. He wasn’t actually in the Bronx, he was on the campus of Lehman College which isn’t in the part of the borough that boogies.

But never mind. He was there to focus attention on places like the tougher parts of the Bronx, places like Sandtown in Baltimore, Englewood in Chicago, Strawberry Mansion in Philadelphia and other neighborhoods that are home to hundreds of thousands of young black men who face unemployment, racism, tensions with police, drugs, crime and uncertain futures.

There are a few things that bother me about the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. Its leadership is hardly a representation of the communities it purports to serve. It’s likely to siphon away large numbers of millions of dollars that could go directly to ongoing programs. And its declared six-point agenda sounds like we’ve done it before, sounds like an admission of failure on the part of government.

The chair of the MBK Alliance is retired Deloitte CEO Joe Echevarria. Joe and his wife stiffed their real estate broker when they sold their Irvington mansion on the side and didn’t tell her.

The honorary chairman is John Legend. John’s from Springfield, OH. He turned down Harvard to attend Penn. He did work as a management consultant with BCG. Alonzo Mourning went to Georgetown. Colin Powell was in fact born in the South Bronx and went on to a distinguished career, so maybe he is a good role model, if you like his description of My Lai as “these sorts of horrible things happen now and then.” Eric Holder was tapped to attend Stuyvesant HS, the city’s premiere high school and was an attorney at a major DC firm with clients like Big Pharma and the NFL.

You’d hope for some current community organizers on the board. You’d want to see a leadership cadre that would let neighborhood activists help shape an agenda for their own neighborhoods. You’d expect to see women in leadership roles, since women are heads of households in many (most?) of the families in the targeted neighborhoods. But hey, raising Big Money requires men, guys who hang out with Big Money. That’s just how it’s set up. The street crews in Sandtown could tell you that.

My Brother’s Keeper Alliance is manifestly about raising Big Money. A combined total of more than $80 million in in-kind and financial donations have been committed to the MBK Alliance, from companies like American Express, BET Networks, News Corporation, PepsiCo, Sam’s Club. Across the country there are hundreds of nonprofits struggling to maintain a toehold in tough inner-city neighborhoods. Many of them have “shovel-ready” projects for those millions.

My fear is that the Alliance will put itself in the way of charitable dollars that could go directly to existing programs. And what about the six “key life milestones” the Alliance says it’s going to address? We have a long history of trying to make headway on each of them, so perhaps the best thing the Alliance can do is assess our failures.

Entering School Ready to Learn (Early Childhood). It’s been a matter of faith for many years that early childhood education (ECE) helps prepare kids for school success. There are funded pre-K programs in 40 states. We’ve spent nearly $6 billion on early childhood programs. Are we doing it wrong? Are political factors getting in the way in some states or cities?

Reading at Grade Level by Third Grade (Middle Childhood). Aren’t schools the places where kids learn to read? How many studies, commissions, blue-ribbon panels and others have studied the problem of failing inner-city schools? Can MBK Alliance possibly come up with new variables that will affect reading performance?

Graduating from High School Ready for College and Career (Adolescence). Tutoring, mentoring, special classes, changes in class size, adjusting schedules, we’ve tried it all. Are there new dropout prevention pills? So much has been studied and analyzed and so many theories and pilot programs have been put forth to keep kids in school long enough to graduate. What now?

Completing Post-Secondary Education or Training (Adulthood Transition). For years, private and public resources have been directed at alternative models of post-secondary education and job training. What can MBK Alliance do to make a work-study opportunity at least as promising as a big score dealing drugs? What kinds of rewards for good choices and penalties for bad choices are possible?

Successfully Entering the Workforce (Adulthood). First there has to be a workforce. Jobs don’t exist in the inner-city neighborhoods that are the focus of MBK Alliance. Until and unless large-scale economic activity returns to these neighborhoods, the kids  wanting to enter the workforce will have to get out of town and go to where the jobs are. Maybe the MBK Alliance can address the problems of limited public transportation, white suburban resistance, competition for these jobs from older, seasoned workers.

Reducing Violence and Providing a Second Chance (Throughout Life). What are the causes of black male violence in low-income urban neighborhoods? Just to review: drugs, guns, police friction, poverty, learned macho responses to threats, gangs, turf. Does the MBK Alliance have some schemes and plans for pushing even one of these dominoes to begin a positive turnaround?

There is certainly nothing wrong with attempting a new order of magnitude in our response to chronic problems in low-income neighborhoods. I just wonder if a Big Money convocation of establishment leaders is the right tool. Lots remains to be seen.

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