The Money Behind a Push to Bolster Black Male Leaders Across the U.S.

Attention to race keeps growing in the United States, and that's true for a bunch of reasons. But for sure, philanthropy has played a role in elevating race to the top of the national agenda.

Well before the events in Ferguson last year, a number of top foundations were already investing in new work to address racial inequities and empower leaders of color. Most notably, 10 top foundations partnered with the White House in February 2014 to address the challenges facing young men of color. And nearly a year earlier, 26 foundations had come together in Chicago, pledging new work in this same area. As we've also reported, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation launched a big initiative focused on young men and boys of color, Forward Promise, in 2011. Looking even further back, the Open Society Foundations began its Campaign for Black Male Achievement in 2008.

(For a statistical look at funding in this area between 2003 and 2012, see a study that came out earlier this year. An overview of post-2012 funding can be found here.)

Another recent effort to empower men of color is BMe (Black Male Engagement). It describes itself as "an organization of over 12,000 men of all races" working to recognize and enhance the leadership roles that black men have already been playing, and to build on those roles to improve the wider community. Essentially, the idea of BMe centers around shifting the narrative for black men in America.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has been a key catalyst here, starting this work in 2011, in concert with OSF's Campaign for Black Male Achievement. 

In its early stages, the project provided funding to support networking events and community gatherings conducted by black male leaders. In 2013, Knight got behind this effort big-time, and announced a $3.6 million investment in BMe. With additional support from Open Society Foundations and the Heinz Endowments, BMe became an independent nonprofit that year, with Knight's former vice president of communities, Trabian Shorters, at the helm. 

This initiative has gone through an interesting evolution. What started as a project to engage black males quickly became an effort to recognize and further encourage the engagement already happening. BMe's website says,

Knight quickly discovered that black male engagement is not a problem. The majority of black men mentor—but do not subscribe to the practices of mentoring organizations. Black men are among the most likely to start businesses and are the most likely to serve their country in the military and to support charitable causes. Yet they are the least likely to be acknowledged as patriotic, enterprising and generous despite leading all men in those categories."

BMe also calls attention to another of its important evolutionary discoveries: that black men are "leading on issues that people of all races and genders care about; specifically youth development, education, economic opportunity, public health & safety, and the environment."

Recently, BMe awarded grants totalling $400,000 to 43 African-American leaders in grants in Akron, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Detroit. The candidates were chosen through a process of nomination by local residents. Candidates needed to show that they had already positively impacted the community in significant ways, and that they were ready to take a bigger role in advancing the public dialogue on race and community in the U.S.

These awards are part of BMe's primary strategy of recognizing and recruiting black men who lead by example. These identified leaders are charged with the mission of working with influencers of any race or gender in the community who share a common purpose with their mission. BMe leaders also work with "solutions-oriented journalists and storytellers to tell the stories of community building."

The other day, we wrote at IP that too few funders invest in social movements, which often are the biggest drivers of change. Well, BMe is an interesting example of a conscious effort to build a social movement with an eye on supporting the kind of people who often form the backbone of such movementsordinary people taking leadership roles in their communities. And while Black Lives Matter has commanded all the attention lately, it's important to recognize all the longer-term work that's been going on to elevate the issue of racial equity and create new grassroots momentum for change. 

BMe is governed by some big names including former NAACP President and Kapor Capital Partner Ben Jealous, Donors Choose founder Charles Best, and Participant Media Senior Vice President Karla Ballard.