Off the Beaten Path: Why RWJF is Boosting Young Men and Boys of Color in Rural Areas

While young men of color are very much in the spotlight right now, the challenges facing urban youth tend to dominate discussion, especially after Ferguson. So it's significant that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is engaged in what it calls the "largest private investment in rural young men of color to date," with a focus on the South and Southwest, two parts of the country that are often shortchanged by national funders. 

One reason that these areas don't receive a ton of grant dollars is because the density of nonprofits applying for that money is lower than in other parts of the country. 

So identifying strong organizations to invest in these places takes a special effort. RWJF's strategy here is to shovel money to regional philanthropies, each of which then kicks in its own matching dollars and takes the lead in giving the money to local groups that work with young men of color. As program officer Maisha Simmons explained:

The only way we could make a difference for the young men in this region would be if we found the right regional partners to work with us. And they would need to be able to partner with local organizations, who in turn would work together with schools, social services, local government, and health providers in their own communities.

That makes a lot of sense, no group is better suited to manage the whole process than Public Interest Projects, the go-to intermediary for progressive foundations looking for help in doing big things. Last fall, RWJF gave the group a two-year $2.5 million grant for this effort, which is part of a larger initiative focused on boy and young men of color called Forward Promise that the foundation launched in 2012. 

After the initiative began, it became clear that it would take some extra leg work for Forward Promise to truly grow its national reach. As Simmons has said:

The simple truth is that the majority of organizations who applied for Forward Promise that had demonstrated success and were ready to expand were located in major cities. Few applicants were in the rural beltway that stretches across the Southern United States, from Alabama to Arizona. 

Now we're getting a taste of how things will play out in practice as RJWF works to get off the beaten path, with the foundation making four recent $415,000 "Catalyst Grants."

In the Southwest, money is flowing to First Nations Development Institute and Hispanics in Philanthropy, for funding new programs in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico to develop life and works skills for young men and boys of color. 

The main grantees in the Deep South are Black Belt Community Foundation and Foundation for the Mid-South, both of which will focus work in rural counties.

The program at First Nations Development is called "Positive Paths for Native American Boys and Young Men," and is targeted to middle school and high school age boys. The program put out a call for proposals to support proven strategies of drop-out prevention in middle and high school, as well as proposals for work to "elevate the importance of a caring adult to re-engage youth who may be disconnected from work or school."

Studies of Native American boys and men have suggested that they face challenges to developing leadership. Marginalized youth communities face problems with alcohol and drug use, violence, school problems, difficulties with law enforcement, and lack of jobs, to name just some of the issues.

First Nations was open for initial proposals for community projects until August 28th, and initial grants of $38-$50,000 are expected to begin October 1, 2014. They will be granting the money to catalyze programs that have already demonstrated success in reaching the target population to provide culturally based services and mentorship to help the boys and young men.

Meanwhile, the grant to Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP) will support efforts by Latino nonprofits in Arizona and New Mexico to "employ proven strategies for moving the needles on outcomes for Latino males."

HIP discusses the boys and young men initiative here. In the past, HIP has provided capacity-building grants to more than 100 Latino-led, Latino-serving nonprofits providing programs for Latino men and boys in the areas of mental health, physical health, education, violence prevention, and workforce development.

Programs HIP has funded in the past include Homies Unidos, which offers violence prevention and re-entry programs in Los Angeles.