What’s missing from America’s debate on race

A police officer guards a closed street along the West Florissant Ave, where protesters and looters rampaged businesses following the grand jury decision in the fatal shooting of a 18-year-old black teenager Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, on November 25, 2014. (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Jewel Samad — AFP/Getty Images

Over the past few months, conflicts between law enforcement and young men of color in places like Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, New York and most recently, Baltimore, Maryland, have placed the civil rights challenges America continues to face squarely on the front pages. As tragic as these events are, the dialogue they’ve sparked is nonetheless productive. Yet as our nation continues to grapple with the complexities of race in modern society, a critically important piece of the puzzle often goes unexamined: The plight of boys and young men of color in America is just as much a matter of economic rights as it is civil rights.

Among African-American and Hispanic males between 16 and 24 years old, a staggering 25% are considered disconnected from society – meaning they are neither in school nor employed. This might seem like an easy problem to ignore, but a single disconnected young man costs the U.S. $1 million over the course of his lifetime. Providing opportunities to better integrate these youth into our society through education and employment paths could grow the U.S. economy by as much as $2.1 trillion a year.

The private sector must be a part of the solution. While businesses are supportive, they aren’t sure how best to find the solutions. Now is the time for them to start taking action. Over the next few years, our economy will need 22 million new workers with post-secondary degrees, but the U.S. is currently on track to fall short by 3 million workers. In fact, projections show that 123 million high-skill/high-wage jobs will be available in 2020, but only 50 million workers will be qualified for them.

With the majority of Americans under age 18 set to be persons of color by the end of this decade, there’s no denying the fact that positioning African-American and Hispanic youths for success is an economic imperative. Today, 95% of low-income youth express a desire to go to college, but only 8% actually earn a degree by 24. Surely, we can do better.

Many existing programs are attempting to address this problem, yet the problem persists. Either we’re not doing the right things, or we’re not doing them enough. Likely, it’s a bit of both. That’s why we’re launching My Brother’s Keeper Alliance (MBK Alliance), a new, independent private sector effort to not only elevate the conversation, but utilize strategic, evidence-based interventions from community, private, and social enterprise partners that tackle the achievement gaps.

In catalyzing a national ecosystem of support to help boys and young men of color, MBK Alliance will support program interventions targeting the six key life milestones from cradle to career. To do this, we will disperse innovation grants to programs and organizations with proven intervention programs. The Alliance will also create a $15-25 million grants competition to reward up to nine communities with $3 million to build local infrastructure and capacity.

In addition, MBK Alliance developed a Corporate Playbook to serve as a comprehensive guide for mobilizing the private sector. The Playbook is a resource to help businesses know how, and why, they can get involved. Understanding how to best help boys and young men of color is more important than ever for businesses to build their brand, diversify their talent pool and provide recruiting and retention benefits.

In business, we constantly look for small, low-risk investments that can pay big dividends. Investing in boys and young men of color is exactly that kind of opportunity: a relatively small investment from business and community leaders can catalyze enormous results and rapid progress. We’re all in this together, and together we have an excellent chance to make a difference.

Lori Dickerson Fouché is CEO of Prudential Group Insurance and a board member of My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. Joe Echevarria is former CEO of Deloitte and chairman and CEO of MBK Alliance.

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