President Obama on Monday launched a private-sector program to promote opportunities for men and boys of color, decrying the “sense of unfairness and of powerlessness” that fuels such violent eruptions as the Baltimore riots and pledging to make equality a cause of his lifetime.
The nonprofit organization, My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, is built on an initiative Obama started last year to highlight and close the gap between minority students and their peers in school performance, higher education and career trajectory.
“We are in this for the long haul,” Obama told a crowd at New York’s Lehman College in the Bronx. “Sometimes there won’t be a lot of fanfare. I notice we don’t always get a lot of reporting on this issue when there’s not a crisis in some neighborhood.
“But we’re just going to keep on plugging away,” he said. “This will remain a mission for me and for Michelle, not just for the rest of my presidency, but for the rest of my life.”
The alliance, a spinoff of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, shows Obama using the power of his office to convene community and business leaders to work on social problems. It’s a strategy he has turned to repeatedly in the waning years of his presidency to make up for an inability to start new government programs or win funding from Congress.
Monday’s pledge came just days after Obama spoke with clear frustration about the circumstances that led to the rioting in Baltimore — not just the mortal injury to a young black man in police custody, but the broader issues of poverty and lack of opportunity that dot urban areas around the country.
They are problems for whole communities to solve, he said, and it will take sustained effort to make a difference.
Many of Obama’s predecessors left the White House with a desire to make changes they couldn’t effect from the Oval Office. Former President Carter set a new standard of activism with his Habitat for Humanity and global peace work, and former President George H.W. Bush runs the world’s largest organization devoted to volunteer public service, the Points of Light.
In their footsteps, former President Clinton dedicated his Clinton Global Initiative to projects he left pending, such as the fight against climate change and the campaign to improve healthcare worldwide.
There’s a strong impulse on the part of former presidents to finish the work they couldn’t do in office, said James A. Thurber, a professor of government and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
“Rather than just establishing a library that shows what they did, they want to continue the work,” Thurber said.
Obama, he said, might be more effective on his chosen cause after he leaves office.
“He can address racism and poverty, two things that are very closely linked, in a very effective way,” Thurber said. “These are big problems in America, and he is in a special position to get people talking about them.
“He’s likely to be more effective in that way than by trying to pass legislation in trying to deal with them,” he said.
Obama has been gearing up his effort for years, said Joshua DuBois, the former head of Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Obama worked on healthy families and fatherhood measures in the Senate and started a fatherhood program shortly after becoming president.
“There’s a through-line of concern for men and boys of color that started long before he was in the White House and will last long after he’s closed the doors to that building for the last time,” DuBois said.
The effort took on more urgency after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, when Obama began to talk publicly about the importance of helping men and boys of color thrive.
In conversations with staffers, Obama has repeatedly returned to the idea that the real problems require a concerted, lasting effort, DuBois said.
“He talks about how we tend to ignore these communities unless it’s a time of crisis,” DuBois said. “This is the opposite of that. This is him paying attention to those issues not just in the moment but in a sustained way.”
The new organization aims to build “a national ecosystem” to help boys and young men of color, primarily through educational initiatives and intervention programs designed to close what Obama called the “opportunity gap,” boosting education and employment rates that lag behind those of their peers.
On Monday, Obama argued that most Americans shared the belief that everyone deserved an equal shot.
“There’s a tragic history in this country that has made it tougher for some,” he said. “And folks living in those communities, and especially young people living in those communities, could use some help to change those odds.”
He also said that addressing explosive situations such as those in Baltimore and last year in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City’s Staten Island, where the deaths of black men at the hands of police set off unrest and waves of protests, needs to go beyond improved law enforcement strategies.
“If we ask the police to simply contain and control problems that we ourselves have been unwilling to invest and solve, that’s not fair to the communities. It’s not fair to the police,” he said.
My Brother’s Keeper Alliance is being led by Joe Echevarria, former chief executive of consulting firm Deloitte, who helped coordinate private-sector involvement in the president’s initiative since it was launched last year. Musician John Legend will serve as the honorary chairman, heading a board and advisory council that includes more than four dozen current and former elected officials, pro athletes, celebrities and business leaders.