A Look at the Latest Effort to Improve Outcomes for Young African American Men

Recent events in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas have once again placed a spotlight on relations between police and African Americans in particular, and on the challenges faced by African American men in general. Young African American men account for a disproportionate share of the nation's prison population and are unemployed at far higher rates than their white counterparts.

Meanwhile, African American boys are far more likely to drop out of school, be diagnosed with learning disabilities and referred to special education, and far less likely to attend college. Achievement gaps in standardized tests between African Americans and whites have persisted — and widened in some cases — with African American boys trailing whites and African American girls.

These depressing facts explain why a who's who of foundations came together a few years ago to launch My Brother's Keeper in collaboration with the White House. Since then, we've reported on some of the work they've been doing. 


Lately, though, we haven't heard much about new philanthropic dollars flowing into this space. So we were intrigued by the news last week that a North Carolina-based funder is investing nearly $3 million in grants to various schools and organizations around a shared goal: improving educational outcomes for young African American men and boys in the state of Kentucky.

The grants come from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, based in Chapel Hill. Kenan awarded the funds to school districts, colleges, and other organizations that have demonstrated a commitment to improving opportunities for boys and men of color in Kentucky.

Kenan, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has was established in 1966 by a bequest from the estate of chemist and industrialist William R. Kenan Jr., a Wilmington native who died in 1965. The trust awards grants for a variety of causes, but especially K-12 and higher education, consistent with Kenan's belief in the value of education to improve people's lives.

The Kenan Trust's 2015 annual report indicates that it gave more than $19 million to K-12 and higher education activities in 2015, accounting for more than two-thirds of its grantmaking activities for that year. A review of past grant recipients suggests that the funder is especially interested in North Carolina projects, but does not appear to have a specific geographic focus otherwise.

The largest of the Kentucky grants awarded by Kenan is a $400,000 gift to the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, a national organization that provides capacity-building support for groups dedicated to improving outcomes for young men and boys of color. The grant supports the campaign's efforts in Kentucky. Another recipient, Kentucky State University, is developing a middle school-to-college pipeline for young black men in Frankfort, the state's capital, with a particular emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math.

Other grant recipients include Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, Kentucky; Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville; Transylvania University; Lexington Leadership Foundation; and Metro United Way in Louisville.

While nobody claims that $3 million in grants will solve all of the challenges facing young African American men in Kentucky or elsewhere, the actions by the Kenan Trust are encouraging, as a funder takes up this difficult work in a single state. It's also notable that education is front and center with this grantmaking as a means to bring about change. Education costs far less than incarceration and is one of the best poverty prevention programs in existence. Considering the magnitude of challenges facing boys and men of color, Kenan is right to focus its resources here. However, as we've noted in previous reporting, funders still seek the absolute best interventions to boost the life chances of these young Americans. 

Meanwhile, as we've repeatedly stressed, funders shouldn't ignore young women and girls of color, as many have come to realize lately.