A Job Fair for Men of Color Vies to Change Corporate America

Photo by Jeremy Portje—PortjePhoto

On Thursday at the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump shared a dark, terrifying vision of an America in decline, with hordes of “illegal immigrants with criminal records” who were “tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.” The presidential nominee offered a law and order manifesto short on specifics but long on declarative statements. “I have a message for all of you: The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon, and I mean very soon, come to an end,” he said.

Also on Thursday, a young voter heard a different sort of message: That he was smart, valuable, and, most importantly, employable.

“I’m good with people, from all walks of life,” Chris Johnson, 18, told me. “I’m a really good communicator and I’m very ambitious.”

Johnson was one of hundreds of young men of color, ages 18 to 29 mostly, who had visited a unique job fair called the BMOC Summit, in Oakland, Calif. on Thursday. It was the first in a series of similar events supported by the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance (MBKA), which is an independent, corporate sponsored, non-profit group that looks to find creative ways to help African American and Hispanic boys and young men find a clear path to jobs and a happy life, among other things.

MBKA is born of, though independent from, the federal initiative called My Brother’s Keeper that was launched by President Obama in 2014 after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. (The President spoke at the MBKA launch and has indicated that working on these issues will be a big part of his life after he leaves office in January.) But the two groups are related in a couple of important ways. First, it focuses on the unique issues facing boys and men of color (that would be the “BMOC” in the summit’s name). And it uses data to develop strategies to remove barriers to their success.

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“We now know so much about the disparities that affect boys of color,” says Broderick Johnson, assistant to the president and cabinet secretary, and chair of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force. Johnson was part of the original team that queried federal agencies for research that could determine specifically where boys and men of color were being lost in their communities and a biased education system. It’s complex, but here’s one data point: black and brown boys are less likely to read proficiently by third grade, which puts them on a permanent path for disproportionate punishment, suspension, and expulsion. What kind of programs need to be in place to address the problems kids face from birth to third grade? And then beyond?

The data offered a blueprint for hard choices. “We knew we had to evaluate what we were doing, see about scaling things that worked, and getting agencies to collaborate where possible,” he said.

Today, after spending some $600 million on programs that target this population – not to mention a billion more in private sector financing—there are local community MBK programs in all 50 states, D.C, Puerto Rico, and various tribal lands.

The federal version of the program focuses on six primary areas: early childhood health, reading proficiency by third grade, high school graduation, post grad job training, entering the workforce, violence reduction, and rehabilitation for incarcerated people. But the MBK Alliance, the private sector version, has chosen to focus only on helping young men find jobs, at least for now.

Here’s where the data gets really interesting.

Johnson cites a May 2015 report from The President’s Council of Economic Advisers that presents the opportunity cost associated with not having millions of young men in the workforce in stark terms. “If you were a black baby boy born 25 years ago,” he says, “you would have only a 1 in 2 chance of being employed today.” Early death and lack of education are key reasons for this. But closing the education and experience gap faced by working-age men of color, for example, would boost their aggregate annual earnings by $170 billion; average weekly earnings among U.S. workers would rise 3.6%; and total U.S. GDP would increase by 1.8%, according to the report.

“So you can see where corporate America has been with us on this from the beginning,” he says.

Marcelo Claure, the CEO of Sprint, joined the board of MBKA when it launched in May 2015, initially committing $2 million and subsequently an additional $3 million worth of in-kind donations from Sprint to expand the availability of broadband resources in some MBKA-related classrooms.

“We really have to fix the structural disadvantage that men of color have in this country” Claure says. “I’m Hispanic and I’ve built businesses and I know where the barriers are,” he adds. “It continues to be shocking and I’ve been very vocal about it, even getting into trouble a couple of times.”

Claure sent dozens of representatives to the Oakland event to mentor, support, and hire participants. “Of course it’s good for our business, we have a huge percentage of African American and Hispanic customers, and that’s reflected in our employees in our stores as well,” he said. To demonstrate his commitment, he says, “We invited AT&T to be part of the Oakland event, and that’s good. We in corporate America have to lead by example.”

Blair Taylor, former senior vice president and chief community officer at Starbucks, joined MBKA in April 2016 as CEO. He says that one of the most important things the organization can do is help recruiters and leaders understand the hidden strengths that are buried inside complicated lives.

“When you get these young men to tell you their story – ‘I watched my brother die in my arms, I take care of my younger sister, I work two jobs after school, my mother is in prison,’ you see what they’ve gone through to get to that point.” A typical recruiter sees these stories as a lack of success. Taylor says these are stories of ambition, achievement, and resilience. It’s what happens, he says, when you have an overwhelming white executive cohort looking to attract and retain frontline talent.

“We help recruiters, who don’t usually know people like the young men here today, to ‘shift their prisms’ from the deficit model,” seeing only what is missing from resumes, “to the asset model.”

For young men like Chris Johnson, it’s a welcome change. He is smart, soft-spoken, direct, and earnest, and he wants you to know that he stays out of trouble.

He’s from Los Angeles originally but has lived mostly in foster care in the Bay Area. He hasn’t finished high school. In fact, he hasn’t been enrolled in a while. “I move around a lot,” he says. “Foster care … it’s hard to keep up with your transcripts.” And school wasn’t really his thing.

Johnson earned the chance to attend the job fair after he took a three-hour interview prep class at an organization called Downtown Tay, where he spends quite a bit of time helping other “marginalized youth,” as he says, find their way. “Make sure you mention Downtown Tay,” he says, spelling it out for me.

Once Johnson got to the Summit, he received a free tie (and tying lesson) at the tie bar, a quick style check, and had opportunities to talk to mentors and recruiters, including Kaiser CEO Bernard Tyson and former Seattle Seahawk Marshawn Lynch, who majored in social welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. “They told me to smile more,” he says of the best advice he got from his mock interviews.

Johnson received two job offers on the spot, one from Macy’s and one from Starbucks. He’s thinking of taking them both. The Macy’s gig, which involves stocking and presenting clothes, is particularly appealing. “I love fashion,” he says. “I love clothes and I love to draw.”

The first thing he did after he received the offers was text his mother. She lives in LA, and moves around a lot, too. “She said she was really proud of me.”

When she’s not writing about the world’s greatest rock star-leader, Ellen McGirt is busy working on Fortune’s raceAhead, a newsletter about race and culture.

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