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Follow the Data Podcast: Investing in youth with My Brother’s Keeper Houston

In August of 2011, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg addressed a group of nonprofit and community leaders as he announced the launch of a landmark approach to tackling persistent problems facing young black and Latino men. The Young Men’s Initiative, he noted, would address “four areas where the disparities are greatest and the consequences most harmful: education, health, employment, and the justice system.”

Three years after the launch of The Young Men’s Initiative and heavily reflective of the program’s efforts, President Barack Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) Initiative, which aimed to address opportunity gaps among boys and young men of color (BYMOC) by offering new support from cradle to career through young adulthood. The initiative challenged jurisdictions to act to ensure that no matter who you are or where you come from you have an equal opportunity to thrive in this country and reach your full potential.

Houston, Texas was one of the first cities to accept the challenge. Bloomberg Associates – the international, philanthropic consulting arm of Bloomberg Philanthropies tailored for city government — was an early supporter of the MBK Houston work and this work in many other cities. With robust planning, a reliance on data, and evidence to guide decision-making, the program continues to make an impact in Houston.

Similar to other cities that accepted the MBK Community Challenge, Houston started with a relatively blank slate. It had no citywide effort focused on improving outcomes for BYMOC. Now, as one of the most advanced MBK sites in the country that has successfully navigated a mayoral transition, the work of MBK Houston is notable.

The success of the initiative is attributed in part to the many innovative, and collaborative partners in other government agencies, school districts, and the many nonprofit leaders who are on the ground in the community.

Niiobli Armah IV of Bloomberg Associates’ Social Services team spoke to both the Mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner and Asa Singleton, an MBK program participant. The Mayor discussed inter-departmental collaboration, his personal experience with the MBK program, and the long-term impact. Asa describes how he got involved with MBK, advice for others, and the opportunities he hopes to explore in the future.

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Full Transcript

KATHERINE OLIVER: Welcome to Follow the Data, I’m your host, Katherine Oliver.

In August of 2011, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg addressed a group of nonprofit and community leaders as he announced the launch of a landmark approach to tackling persistent problems facing young black and Latino men. The Young Men’s Initiative, he noted would address “four areas where the disparities are greatest and the consequences most harmful: education, health, employment, and the justice system.”

Three years after the launch of The Young Men’s Initiative and heavily reflective of the program’s efforts, President Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge — a nationwide public call to action that asked cities to implement local action plans focused on expanding opportunity for young men of color.

Much like the Young Men’s Initiative, the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, also known as MBK, aims to address opportunity gaps among boys and young men of color by offering new support from cradle to career through young adulthood.

The City of Houston, Texas accepted the MBK Challenge in 2015, and has been working with Bloomberg Associates to strengthen the program ever since. Niiobli Armah IV leads the MBK work for Bloomberg Associates – the international, philanthropic consulting arm of Bloomberg Philanthropies tailored for city government.

In these three years, Houston designed a series of programs in six key MBK focus areas, including, increasing access to quality education for all children and youth, improving health outcomes for residents, developing a well-trained workforce and making neighborhoods safer.

Houston’s program has seen tremendous success. To date, they have reached over 26,000 individuals with a campaign to address the skills gap during the first three years of life between socio-economic racial and ethnic groups.

To share more on how the city has leveraged resources for MBK programs, emboldened youth voices, and become a national model for other MBK cities, Niiobli spoke to the Mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, and to an MBK program participant, Asa Singleton for this episode of Follow the Data.

NIIOBLI ARMAH IV:  First and foremost, I want to thank Mayor Turner for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to us today.  Running a city, you don’t have breaks, thank you for joining.

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER:  Thank you for having me now. Every day is busy in any city.  The city never closes.

ARMAH:  Absolutely.  And so, we are in Houston, Texas today and we are talking to Mayor Sylvester Turner about the My Brother’s Keeper initiative in Houston. Bloomberg Associates has been working with you and your team for the past three years. I want to thank you for the partnership. Our entire team enjoys working in this city, and we know firsthand your commitment to young men and boys of color.

MAYOR TURNER:  Let me thank Bloomberg for the partnership on this end.  Look, you can’t do it by yourself, and many of the challenges that we’re facing in the city, cities are facing them all over the country.  It doesn’t make sense to try to reinvent those things that are working and working well.  So, by partnering with one another, I think we can come up with things that work, best practices, best ideas that can help benefit these young guys, men of color, and really help in many ways to enhance their lives, or turn around their lives, or expose them beyond where they are right now.

ARMAH:  Absolutely. Mayor Turner, MBK by design is focused on increasing opportunities and reducing racial barriers, and there’s a lot that can be said about what comes into that work. What is the role of local government, the city in particular, in eliminating racial disparities?

MAYOR TURNER:  Well, we’re closest to the people themselves, we deal with one neighborhood at a time, oftentimes many at one time.  But what happens on that street in that neighborhood in our city is critically important.  It’s not just about fixing potholes, you know?  And I’m talking about, you know, the streets. It’s also about fixing people’s lives, the potholes that exist in people’s lives.  And on the local level, local government, I think we know where the issues are.  We know where the challenges are.  We know those communities that have been overlooked, underserved, not just years, but decades. And those communities are directly impacting those families. So, we can get to them, we can reach them much sooner than anybody else.

ARMAH:  Oh, definitely.  And it seems that you didn’t waste any time in continuing this program.  It’s interesting.  Across the country we’ve see mayoral transitions, and sometimes the work continues and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m curious.  What about the MBK program, when you entered office, made you want to keep it part of your platform and continue to implement?

MAYOR TURNER:  Well, you know, when I became mayor, I said that I didn’t want to be the mayor of two cities in one, cities of have and have nots. I’m a native Houstonian. I grew up in one of those underserved, under-resourced communities that’s been ignored for decades. Low-income minority community. And I still reside in the same community in which I was born and reared. Even as the mayor, I’m still living in that same community, that same neighborhood.  My exposure was very limited. I didn’t pretty much leave outside of the community or the geographical area in which I was born and reared. Neither one of my parents graduated from high school. Dad died early. Mom was a maid. No car in the driveway.  Relied on public transportation. So, in many ways, my life kind of mirrors many of these same kids, young people, men of color that we’re reaching out through My Brother’s Keeper’s program. I recognize the importance of it, and I recognize the importance of my role in it, and making sure that I invest not only resources but my time in helping to make this program the best it can be in reaching those individuals that are in these communities, to help enhance their lives, give meaning to their lives, and make sure that they don’t miss the potential that they have.

ARMAH:  As I’m listening to you speak, Mayor Turner, I could tell that this work is personal for you.

MAYOR TURNER:  Yeah, this is very personal. And quite frankly, if it’s not personal you are not going to spend the time and make the necessary investment. That’s why I appreciate the partnership with Bloomberg. My Brother’s Keeper.  And I support, President Barack Obama’s initiative.  I think it was timely then.  It’s even more timely now.  But you have to get in these communities and you have to invest in, in this case, in these young guys’ lives, people of color, because there’s opportunity there.  But in many cases, they don’t see the opportunity themselves.  They don’t even recognize what they’re capable of becoming, or who they are, their own gifts because, you know, you can have a gift, but if it’s not nurtured, identified and nurtured, what does it mean? That’s why with this program, providing the resources, the mentorship, being hands-on, we can literally, we can turn around one person in one family, that turns around that community, that turns around your city for the better.

ARMAH: And you’re already doing it. Earlier, you talked a lot about we can’t do it alone. And so, do you want to just mention a few of the partners that are part of the MBK program that you’ve been working with since inception?

MAYOR TURNER:  Well, there are a number of them.  We’re working with the Harris County Juvenile Probation Services Department, the Harris County Child Protective Services, the Houston Police Department, the public library, parks and rec, the independent school districts, in this case, the Houston Independent School Districts, Texas Southern University, Rice University, the Houston Urban League, University of Houston, Houston Community College.  There are a number of partners that are working collaboratively, leveraging resources, expertise in order to really be as impactful on the lives of young men of color.

ARMAH: So, the program is early, and we know that the issues that the program addresses weren’t created overnight.

MAYOR TURNER:  Right.

ARMAH:  And so, there’s no quick fix to this kind of work.

MAYOR TURNER:  No, there is not.

ARMAH:  But there are early signs of success. I’m curious.  Of those early signs, what is interesting to you, and what are you tracking and thinking about in terms of when you say impact?

MAYOR TURNER:  Well, the question is, where are we losing many of our young people, or what’s missing? Where’s the disconnect?  Where are the sources of tension in many of these neighborhoods from which these young men are coming? Education is critically important, but you have to be in school in order to get it.  We’ve seen there were way too many suspensions that were taking place.  So for example, at one elementary school, Bruce Elementary School, after MBK intervened or stepped in in that environment, just in one year, the suspensions were reduce by 60%.  That’s significant, okay?  That’s significant.  And you can directly tie that to the My Brother’s Keepers program, and to the intervention, and people being hands-on. 82%, for example, of the participants were able to get their records expunged or sealed, or their identification restored. If you’re walking around and for example, if you’ve got a record or something, it makes it very difficult for you to advance, to move forward.  So, we’ve seen some significant results there.  Over 26,000 individuals were reached in terms of establishing the gap that exists with these kids.  And so, you had that hands-on approach.

And then, there’s a tension, for example, even with law enforcement, with police.  We have about 5,200 police officers. They too are going through programs, training sensitivity programs on how to interface, interact with people in these particular communities and neighborhoods.  And that becomes very important because it’s not just touching the lives of those young men.  It’s also touching the lives of those who are interfacing with these young men.  It has to be on both ends of the equation. So, you could look at the stats and you see the positive results.

But I’ve also interfaced with people who have gone through the program themselves, and literally young guys whose lives have been changed for the better. They were already gifted and talented, okay, but the program helped to identify for them their gifts and their talents.  I just had my back to school program. It’s the mayor’s annual back to school program.  The University of Houston participates, but it was at the George R. Brown Convention Center for us downtown.  About 25,000 kids that come through their back to school program.  And one of the guys who was very helpful in that program was one who was touched by the My Brother’s Keepers program.

ARMAH:  Wow, wow.  Fascinating.

MAYOR TURNER:  And let me tell you.  Articulate, okay.  If you met him before he was involved with the MBK program, you might have seen someone who was on the wrong track heading in the wrong direction, for example.  But after the mentorship, the involvement with the My Brother’s Keepers program, I am witnessing and seeing someone who is a future leader. No telling where he will end up in a positive way, but I saw firsthand how the program literally, literally has changed the trajectory of a young man who was heading in the wrong direction and now is heading in a very positive direction, and is an excellent ambassador in reaching others in his community or in communities like the one in which he currently lives.  I’ve had him up at the mayor’s office, sitting down talking with me, and I told him, I said, “Man, hey, I am impressed.  I’m impressed.”  So, we’re talking about My Brother’s Keepers not just about stats.

ARMAH:  Real lives.

MAYOR TURNER:  Real lives are being changed in a positive way.  And if you change one, you’ll impact that family.  If you impact that family, you’ll impact that neighborhood.  If you impact that neighborhood, you’ll impact the city.  And you’ll do it in a very positive way.

ARMAH:  Absolutely.  Well, Mayor Turner, I can’t thank you enough for your time.  The work in Houston is alive and well, and we’re going to continue to partner with you.  And we’re really looking forward to seeing the long-term impacts. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.

MAYOR TURNER:  Thank you.  The future is even brighter.  I’ve seen what has been done up to this point, but we haven’t even fully realized the potential of the My Brother’s Keepers program.  And quite frankly, I would tell you that even with what the city has done, it’s just been on the surface, okay?  We need to invest more.  We need more partners to invest more. And what I would say to people, if you make a serious investment, we literally will improve the lives of so many of these young men of color, and you will be looking at your mayors, your professors, your engineers, your doctors, your construction workers because to me, it doesn’t matter what path one may be on, as long as it’s a positive one.

ARMAH:  Absolutely.

MAYOR TURNER:  And so, this program has the opportunity of doing this. I salute the My Brother’s Keepers program, but I also want to salute those at the city, for example, especially in my health department that has taken leadership because it hadn’t been the mayor.  It’s been those who have really taken the leadership to really propel this initiative forward.  And the goal for me and for those of us here is to make the My Brother’s Keepers program in Houston the poster child of what it should be, can be, and will be.

ARMAH:  You won’t have to work too much harder to do that.  It’s already happening.  Thank you, sir.

MAYOR TURNER:  Thank you now.  Appreciate you.

ARMAH:  I am super excited about our next guest.  We spoke with the mayor and we talked a lot about impact from a quantitative perspective.  But we’re actually going to get to hear from an MBK participant next, which is going to bring in that qualitative perspective, which is equally important when we talk about outcomes in the work around My Brother’s Keeper.

Mr. Asa Singleton is joining me this afternoon to talk about his experience.  Asa, I actually just want you to start off by introducing yourself.

Niiobli Armah IV and Asa Singleton

ASA SINGLETON:  I’m Asa Singleton.  I’m 18.  I currently go to Excel High School. I was born and raised in Houston on the south side, Yellowstone and MLK, very popular streets.

Really, I wasn’t really introduced to politics until about 14.  I was 14 and I had an internship for two years with Councilmember Nguyen and then the following year, I had an internship with Councilmember Boykins.  And that’s when I just knew that politics was my thing.  I couldn’t see myself living in a world that I couldn’t understand, let alone recognize the problems, and that I actually get to give back and help, it’s amazing.

ARMAH:  So Asa, I’m curious how you got involved in MBK Houston.  What program did you participate in that introduced you to what MBK Houston was?

SINGLETON:  Okay.  So, let’s backtrack a little bit. When I completed all of my internships, I kind of got involved in a little bit of street life and the gang activity, some pretty bad, deep things.  And I actually got into a school fight.  And normally school fight, normally people don’t get arrested for it, but I did.  That’s when I met Carlton. That’s my mentor, as well as the person who worked me through ReDirect, which is the My Brother’s Keeper program.  And they gave me a lot of different avenues and things to pull from to distract myself from my own anger and my own defeats.  So, I did boxing, I did swimming, we took vacations when we could, we always went to lunch.  He just really became that father figure that I never had. That was really how I got introduced to the program. But once I completed my deferred adjudication that was given to me by the enforcement, I guess you could say, I completed it. And that’s when Mayor Turner offered me the position to be a youth ambassador for Houston.

ARMAH:  ReDirect is important.  Redirect is a diversion program and it’s youth center. It’s focused around the youth needs, and it’s a community-based effort, and actually stops young people from going into the juvenile justice system, and they work outside of the parameters of being confined to turn around their life.  And I have not seen a better example of what the program embodies.  ReDirect is not just a City of Houston partnership.  Harris County, district attorneys, a lot of the system-level players in the city have actually created an option where you were deferred from placement.

SINGLETON:  Right.

ARMAH:  So, you were able to stay in the community and take advantage of some of the programs that you just mentioned?

SINGLETON:  Right, right.  Well, with ReDirect, we have a lot of partners.  We have a lot of people that we could ask.  But it’s really more based around the youth and what that youth would like to do for himself.  If he wants to box, we have people we can take him to boxing.  If he wants to swim, I used to swim for HCAP.  It’s no problem to go talk to some people and find out exactly what the problem is for that youth.  Rather than just being a parent, and throwing him in everything and finding out what he likes, just ask him.

ARMAH:  And the time that you spent in boxing and swimming, what impact did that have on you, versus where you could have been?

SINGLETON:  Oh, man. I completely made a 180.  I can sit here and honestly say that if I didn’t go through the program, I would probably be incarcerated at the moment.  Just being honest. I didn’t have anybody to look up to or to speak to about my problems and my issues. It started out with cutting myself, then I started writing music.  I’ve had moments where I knew I was going to kill myself.  And I could call Carlton and talk to him on the phone, and he would just turn it all around in a matter of five minutes.  So, I mean, just having somebody that could hold me accountable and let me know that I am needed.  I wasn’t here for just anything; I’m here for a reason, and that just made me feel good.  So, it turned everything around. As far as the sports, I was always athletic, but I never planned on making it my go-to.  That was just something I was good at.  I never knew I could get my anger out that way.  Getting mad and hitting the punching bag, that made me feel good.  That way, as soon as I leave the gym, I’m feeling like a new man.  Swimming, I could go down there, I could sit underwater for three minutes, hold my breath and chill.

ARMAH:  Oh, we should go to the pool after this.

SINGLETON:  Absolutely.  No problem.  But that was just amazing to me.  It completely turned everything around for me.

ARMAH:  So tell me. Now you’re a youth ambassador, you are employed by the City of Houston, MBK. What is your job description?

SINGLETON: As of right now, I work with Senate Bill 30. That’s what I work with, as well as My Brother’s Keeper. So, Senate Bill 30 was a law passed on September 1st basically saying that in order to obtain your driver’s license and graduate, you have to go through a law enforcement class with proper interaction between teens and law enforcement.  So, what I do is, I the curriculum is already being implemented.  What I do is I basically remodel it to where, depending on the audience we’re speaking to, the younger generation, they’ll understand it and retain the information, rather than just be sitting there and not hearing anything we’re saying.

ARMAH:  Oh, wow.  So, now you’re spending time working with young people, demystifying what it means to engage with law enforcement, how to show up and be involved in the community, etc.

SINGLETON:  Right.  I pretty much provide the voice where I need.  For instance, I go to a few coalitions, like the Coalition for Youth Violence Prevention.  I go to the Coalition of Hate.  Wherever, whenever they’re having discussion, I normally just sit in the background and listen, from a child’s perspective, until I feel that I need to say something, like nah, that’s not what a kid would want.  That’s not what a child would need.  And just give advice where it’s needed.

ARMAH:  Absolutely.  Okay, so you’re 18, right?

SINGLETON:  Yes, sir.

ARMAH:  Let’s go back to when you were 14.  Having the knowledge you have now, what would you tell 14-year-old you to keep you on the right path?

SINGLETON: You’re not alone.  A lot of people go through life feeling like they can’t talk to their parents, or they can’t talk to really anyone that can understand what they’re going through, let alone somebody else that really can help you that’s going through the same thing. I just say you got to keep patience.  You got to trust in God and keep faith, and just keep holding on because you can only live a day at a time.  Just thinking about the things that could happen could cause anxiety, depression, all types of things.  And I know because I went through it.  But you can’t give up.  You just can’t quit. It’s people out here that genuinely care about you.  You just have to keep searching.

ARMAH:  Absolutely.  I think some young person is going to need to hear that. Asa, I want to close by asking, I’m curious about what are your future plans?  Where do you see yourself five years from now, or three years from now. What motivates you to get there?

SINGLETON:  I honestly don’t know.  I just have a lot of different ideas.  For instance, right now, if I could say I was going to college tomorrow, I would major in political science and minor in public speaking.  That’s just how I feel because I love politics.  I love being able to support, help, and understand what’s going on in my community, my city, and my world. However, I still have a lot of different things that I have up my sleeve, like, I’m an Eagle Scout.  So, as far as going to scouting and doing things like that, I hope one day I’ll be able to have my own troop, let alone go back to my troop and support as much as I can.  I’m very good at swimming.  I’ve been a lifeguard for over four years. I love teaching swimming lessons.  Swimming is fun for me.  It’s something I get to do.  And a lot of people that would like to go swimming, nine times out of ten don’t really know how.  They just want to go get in the water just because it looks fun, but it’s a lot better knowing how to swim. I made all region choir three years in a row.  I love singing.  That’s just a passion for me.  So, I used to write music.

ARMAH:  So Asa, you’re just an all-around Renaissance man.  You pretty much can do anything.  So, you should actually mentor me.  Asa, thank you so much for taking the time to come by.  Thank you for joining, and looking forward to your bright future.

SINGLETON:  No problem.  Thank you so much.  Appreciate it.

OLIVER: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data. Many thanks to Mayor Turner and Asa Singleton for joining us. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data podcast.

This episode was produced by Electra Colevas, Niiobli Armah IV and Ivy Li, music by Mark Piro – special thanks to David Sucherman.

As our founder Mike Bloomberg says, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So until next time, keep following the data. I’m Katherine Oliver, thanks for listening.