Last February, President Barack Obama announced a set of ambitious initiatives called My Brother’s Keeper, a program designed to keep young men of color from slipping between the cracks. The program was seen as a key part of the Obama administration’s response to tragic incidents, including the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.
A lot has taken place in America over the last few years, I am sure you would agree.
Recently, My Brother’s Keeper brought together about 300 male teens in Newark for a panel discussion with Mayor Ras Baraka, police officials and church leaders in a laudable effort to create a constructive dialogue. However the name of one panelist stood out above the rest: Eric Garner Jr.
Garner Jr., the 19-year-old son of the Staten Island man who died after police put him in an illegal chokehold, sat next to Baraka on the panel at Central High School. Young Garner didn’t speak much, his eyes were often cast down. During audience questions, one brave teen came to the microphone and displayed incredible compassion. The young man simply asked Garner Jr. how he was dealing with the loss of his father. Garner Jr. looked up and responded: “I got a younger brother so if he sees me give up, he’s gonna want to give up.” He added, “You gotta take it one day at a time.” (See photos on page 9.)
Earlier in the forum, Eugene Schneeberg, Director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships for the U.S. Department of Justice, made a salient point: “Before you can abuse someone, you must first dehumanize them,” he said. Whether you think of the torture and abuse that took place at the hands of Americans in Abu Ghraib in Iraq, or the creation of separate lunch counters in Greensboro, N.C., such acts are rooted in the dehumanization of others. What begins silently in our minds, if left unchecked, can explode in violence.
My Brother’s Keeper, which I applaud Baraka’s team for championing locally, focuses on six areas: school readiness, literacy, high school graduation, job training, parent engagement and reducing violent crimes. But let’s not forget something even more basic and humane: compassion. In the words of a fatherless young man, it’s about what we do one day at a time.