Helping young black males succeed

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By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

What’s in a name? A lot, according to Michael Twyman, the executive director of OpportunINDY.

Formerly called Your Life Matters, OpportunINDY began as a directive by former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard to leaders of Indiana Black Expo and the Indiana Civil Rights Commission in 2014 to reduce the rising level of murders and violence that affected a high percentage of African-American males in Indianapolis.

At the time, 66 percent of the victims and 64 percent of the suspects were African-American males. Ballard asked Tanya Bell, president and CEO of Black Expo, and Jamal Smith, the civil rights commission’s executive director, to lead a violence prevention task force. Their team’s charge: Develop a plan to reduce crime by increasing opportunities for young people.

Twyman, who now leads the project, announced a name change earlier this year. The original name, copyright protected by Radio One, was on loan and was often confused with the national “Black Lives Matter” movement. The new name, Twyman said, reflects the project’s original roots to expand opportunities for African-American males ages 14 to 24.

“One of the interesting things that the task force did — that dovetails with the name change ironically — is to focus on how Indianapolis could begin to provide, create, incentivize and expand better opportunities for African-Americans to be successful,” said Twyman.

“It was a different prism from which to look at the issue. It really puts more onus on the community to say, ‘What are we not doing or not doing enough of perhaps that is leading to why this phenomenon seems to be tragically increasing?’”

Ballard’s other charge was to focus on the conditions that precipitated the troubling statistics.

“It was really a recognition that we’re not just going to look at symptoms, we’re going to look at root causes,” said Twyman.

Twyman came on board in 2015 when Indiana Black Expo took over the program itself. Two years earlier, he left his position as director of grants programs for the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust to become director of the Institute on Race and Ethnicity at University of Arkansas-Little Rock. He was returning to his hometown and to a position where he “could effect change at a level that he could really see.”

How to help OpportunINDY

OpportunINDY has a common agenda that allows anyone in the community to partner to join or work to improve conditions in their area.

So for example to meet the graduation goal, most school districts are represented at the table. There are nonprofits, too, including 100 Black Men, College Mentors for Kids, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Boys & Girls Clubs, the YMCA, and some of the community centers.

“A number of the usual suspects, but then there are some smaller groups, nonprofits, civic organizations, that have an interest in that area,” said Twyman.

Twyman suggests that there are many ways individuals can engage. Here are six that can help the initiative’s success:

  1. Provide financial support to OpportunINDY. Support the shared work of partners who are stretched thin in every industry as they work alone.
  2. Explore the four focus areas of its plan of action.How might you directly support one partner working on the shared outcomes in your own sphere of influence?
  3. Contact OpportunINDY’s Focus Area Leads.How can you help move the agenda of an entire focus area? Even a bit of in-kind support, a new policy or an open door to information could make all the difference on an outcome.
  4. Sign up for OpportunINDY updates. Remain updated, keep the initiative’s progress and challenges in mind, share what you know with others.
  5. Make a difference right where you are — at work, home, in your neighborhood, in your place of worship.

Consider these ideas: Ask questions. Learn from your own data. Review the stories you tell. Change how or where you conduct business. Review your policies. Think creatively. Engage young black men in planning, outreach and evaluation. Connect with groups, organizations or businesses you wouldn’t normally work with.

  1. Mentor. No matter your age, stage, position or ethnicity, there is a young black man who welcomes your counsel, your listening ear, your constant presence, your encouragement. It doesn’t take a degree or special training to actively care. You can start doing that today!

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The task force, according to Twyman, spent their short time together developing a plan.

“Indianapolis did it just the opposite of most collective impact models. They did the strategy first. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a different way,” he said.

“You have to have buy-in and true collaboration and trust among the players in order to say that you will commit to shared measurements, to being communicative across sectors and across organizations and across silos that you have now dedicated yourself to be part of a larger solution beyond your institution or organization mission,” said Twyman.

That strategy actually worked to the city’s advantage when the Obama White House got wind of the effort several months before the announcement of its own national initiative, My Brothers’ Keeper. White House staff came to the city to sit down with the mayor and task force before the national rollout.

“A lot of the other communities signed on to become a My Brothers’ Keeper community and then had to put together a plan. So having a plan first worked in our favor,” Twyman said.

Twyman said when major funding opportunities geared toward young men of color became available; Indianapolis already had a connection, a plan and work being done. He also quickly realized that there was no capacity organizationally or an infrastructure to manage the work.

Now with a staff of five, and more than two years deep into its work aimed at disadvantaged black teens and young men in its neighborhoods, schools and workforce, OpportunINDY just hosted a citywide conference – Your Mind Matters. The session was intended to plant seeds, and get more nonprofits and programs involved in the project’s overall mission.

Twyman is proud of making the transition from a task force report to hiring staff and developing a volunteer effort in less than two years.

“I think had this remained a program idea or initiative of a mayor or the city of Indianapolis, it would no longer exist. For it to have life and to begin to be worth its weight, it had to become community owned and driven. A lot of times what I say to people when, they say, ‘So what is OpportunIndy doing?’ and I’ll say, ‘What are you doing for OpportunIndy?’ Cause it’s we, it’s not us, we’re the conductor.

“I think that Indianapolis is a community and city that does a few things very well. We do pretty good working across the public and private sector divide and around issues that we care enough about,” he said.

The project serves as a collaborative umbrella to bring people and organizations to the table. OpportunINDY does not create new programs, but works to change conditions with current resources. Often, organizations operate in vacuums, improving their little corner of the world, but without a big picture.

Focused on four areas — education, employment, criminal justice and health/safety — the project has set goals to increase the rate of high school graduation rates among African-American teens; increase the employment rate for young black men; and decrease the rates of homicides, imprisonment and recidivism.

Each area has specific strategies. For example, education’s outcomes and strategy performance measures are:

All young black men will graduate from high school on time and enter the

workforce with an industry certification, enter the military and/or complete other post-secondary education by age 24.

There are three strategies with action plans that help accomplish this goal.

#1: Ensure that all Marion County high schools and alternative programs have positive learning environments that fully engage black young men through quality curriculum, instruction and support services.

#2: Ensure Marion County post-secondary schools have policies and programs that actively recruit, mentor, retain and graduate young black men.

#3: Increase the number of young black men ages 14-24 participating in self-discovery activities, career planning and exposure to high-demand/high-wage jobs.

Besides the focus on graduation in Marion County, there is a targeted neighborhood — the 46218 ZIP code, and even more specifically, two housing projects – Hawthorne Place and Beechwood. That initiative focuses on three primary outcomes: 1) participants graduate from high school; 2) attend college and/or pursue a career with a livable wage; 3) refrain from committing crime or becoming incarcerated.

“We have place/space strategy in 46218, and that came to us through an opportunity through the Department of Education with our linkage to My Brothers’ Keeper,” Twyman said.

Twyman believes that organizations like OpportunINDY can help bring resources into the community and identify things that are working well across the country.

“When you’re doing the work, you’re doing the work. You don’t have time,” he said.

How will the project identify success? One way the public can determine what progress is being made by comparing the gains made in the five goals is through an annual report card that the project will release in the summer of 2017. The report will be in the form of an infographic scorecard on its website and hard copies will be distributed publically.

While it’s early, according to Twyman, it appears that there will be a bump in high school graduation rates due to alternative discipline and restorative justice practices taking root, and even a slight decrease in the homicide rate.

“We cannot lose sight of the opportunity to not only maximize our individual work, but know that our individual work is only as good as it is in helping to solve a larger community problem,” said Twyman.

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