Renaissance men: The future of America’s poor male youth


The saying goes, “boys will be boys.” But as this week’s lecture theme posits, that might not be enough anymore. Perhaps it’s time for the saying to change to “boys will be boys, then men.”

Monday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater kicked off Week Two on that very topic, combining both morning and afternoon lectures into an in-depth 10-part series. It has been a passion project for Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Education Chair Sherra Babcock since she joined the Institution in 2007.

The issue of masculine identity in the 21st century was at the core of the lecture delivered by speakers Robert Franklin and Joe Echevarria. Franklin joined Chautauqua Institution as director of the Department of Religion last year and serves as president emeritus of Morehouse College, the largest four-year liberal arts college for men in the nation.

Echevarria is the former CEO of Deloitte, the largest professional financial services network in the world, and current co-chair of President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. The program aims at providing intervention for young men of color trapped by their socioeconomic and educational circumstances.

Franklin spoke first, discussing why young men’s development is a pressing issue, what this week’s speakers will address and what he’s learned from his experience at Morehouse College.

“Strong institutions produce strong character and strong leaders,”  Franklin said.

He quoted a 2000 article from The Atlantic by Christina Hoff Sommers, an excerpt that is serendipitous considering yesterday’s victory for American women’s sports.

“It’s a bad time to be a boy in America,” Sommers wrote. “The triumphant victory of the U.S. women’s soccer team at the World Cup last summer has come to symbolize the spirit of American girls. The shooting at Columbine High last spring might be said to symbolize the spirit of American boys.”

In the early 2000s after the Columbine shooting, there was a proliferation of literature on the struggles facing young men in an effort to make sense of the tragedy.

Franklin showed many, including Sommers’ own The War Against BoysWhy Boys Fail by Richard Whitmire and Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax.

“When [this behavior] is found, maybe it isn’t just ‘boys will be boys,’ ” Franklin said. “Maybe it’s in our families or in our culture. Maybe this behavior is being socialized.”

If there is a crisis, the question becomes: How do we solve it? Franklin noted liberals will be the first to say, “It’s the economy, stupid,” pointing to the absence of jobs and the state of impoverished inner cities. On the other side, conservatives will say “It’s the culture, stupid,” citing secularization, narcissism and family disintegration.

Mass incarceration is another factor causing young men to fall behind. Since the 1980s, there has been a 200 percent increase in the number of prisoners in American prisons, the vast majority of whom are African-American and Hispanic men. The U.S. holds 5 percent of the world’s population yet has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners — the largest number per capita of any nation.

“We need to pay attention to the emotional turmoil of our young males rather than accept it as a norm,” Franklin said. “At Morehouse, we aim to train Renaissance men with a social conscience and a global perspective.

But in order to have a truly productive conversation about these patterns of male behavior, Franklin said it cannot be forgotten how women are affected, with growing rates of prescription drug abuse and susceptibility to religious extremism among young girls.

“Our narrative must be inclusive, balanced and complicated,” he said.

Far from being shy or demoralized, girls are currently succeeding in record numbers. They are more likely to earn A’s, to place in advance courses, and to study abroad or join the Peace Corps whereas boys are more likely to be suspended or drop out of school.

Despite the obstacles, there is hope. Franklin listed a number of successful ways to influence boys toward education and success, including finding mentors, attending ministries and improving literacy. He wants to see changes in school suspension rules, to see intelligence become “masculine and cool,” and teach respect for authority and women.

“Getting boys’ health right is a women’s issue,” Franklin said. “They are the ones who our daughters will be spending their lives with.”

What Franklin detailed in theory, Joe Echevarria embodies in practice. When My Brother’s Keeper launched on May 4, he remembered sitting in the Oval Office with the president, who said, “Joe, get this ready for when I leave the White House.”

“This is part of his legacy,” Echevarria said.

By his own admission, Echevarria is not a researcher or a scholar. He hasn’t written any books. But what he has done is live the experience of countless men of color and, with the help of the government program College Bound, was able to uplift himself from his bubble as a Puerto Rican in South Bronx to become a college-educated CEO of a major corporation and, now, an adviser to the president of the United States.

Despite his personal accomplishments, there are countless men of color living in poverty like Echevarria was. They are 10 times more likely to grow up in concentrated areas of poverty, to have a single-parent household and to have no access to qualified pre-K.

“Young men of color are 80 percent less likely to have a third-grade reading level by the time they reach that grade, which makes them 30 percent more likely to drop out of school before high school graduation,” he said.

Using himself as an example again, he didn’t pick up a book to read it until college. He was fortunate to be among 50 students chosen out of 4,000 to find placement in the College Bound Program. But he didn’t have the tools to make informed decisions. He chose not to attend Stanford and Cornell universities for aesthetic reasons. The reason he ultimately chose University of Miami? Palm trees and girls.

Still, it all worked out. For four years, he was the CEO of Deloitte, a position he held until August 2014 when he retired to pursue public service. From experience abroad and at home, Echevarria said what makes America special is people come here to be American.

“If you move to Japan, you don’t become Japanese,” he said. “America is the only greatest country on the planet because people come here for opportunity.”

His own children don’t identify as Hispanic, but first and foremost as American.

“My perspective as Puerto Rican from South Bronx is that I was one of those kids that the data suggests should not be standing here in front of you today,” he said.

Q & A

Transcribed by Ryan Pait

Sherra Babcock: I’m going to let Dr. Franklin ask the first question. Dr. Franklin, would you like to start?

Robert Franklin: Joe, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and three of the important influences that were really turning points, made a difference in my life: number one were caring parents. And we did have some books in the house. My mother read from the Bible. The importance of hearing words wash across the neurons was incredibly important. The second was a few extraordinary teachers, so I was very interested in hearing your Ms. McGillicuddy story. And I had some teachers like that. One further in my career that made me think, ‘Gee, I could become a scholar and earn a Ph.D.,’ is seated right here on the front row: Father Ed Braxton, Bishop Edward Braxton, who is our weekly chaplain. So I brought one of my teachers to Chautauqua, and he’s providing extraordinary messages every morning at 9:15 from his pastoral letter on the racial divide in the United States, and I invite you all to hear that. The other was a congregation — a church that became a village — that celebrated academic excellence. And my real question — I use that as a prefatory comment to ask you — in this alliance that is coming into existence, who’s missing? And who needs to step up? I wonder, for instance, as a leader in the faith community — and Chautauqua has interfaith, religious roots — are faith communities stepping up? Are there folks who you’d like to see step up and respond to helping and supporting young boys and men of color in the case of this initiative? This is clearly a broader conversation about all of our sons, all of our boys, not simply boys of color. Who would you like to see step up now?

Joe Echavarria: That’s a great question, and I thank you for that. We’re in — and again, I apologize, I have a business framework when I speak — we’re in day 60 of our existence. The president launched MBKA (My Brother’s Keeper Alliance) — the spinoff of, if you will, of the White House — on May 4. So everybody’s missing. [Audience politely laughs; somewhat confused] In the scheme of the United States, we’d take everything right now. So, individuals — really what’s missing is the fact that everybody sees the issue, everybody sees the challenge. If it was easy to solve, it would’ve been solved for already. It’s not easy. So we’ve got to do a better job of figuring out how to bring the power of the people in this room, the faith-based organizations — you pick it. What we want this to be different is that we don’t have any skin in the game. What I mean by that is that there’s lots of groups who have been around a long time that are very vested in it. They’re vested in the training. We’re not invested in any of it. We’re just invested in outcomes. So getting everybody to be willing to contribute and go in the same direction is the biggest challenge, quite frankly. It’s not about wanting to participate, it’s wanting to participate in a new way. That’s the challenge. That’s why I encourage everybody here, with your respective audiences and organizations that you join — ask them about this. Ask them are they participating in MBK. Ask them if they know what it’s about. Whatever it is — faith-based, community-based — it doesn’t matter. The big corporates. We’re really involved. So thank you for that question.

SB: I have some questions from the audience. What will MBK do for children who are not the 50 smartest in the school?

JE: That’s a great question. My sense is that MBK is not processing through what your aptitude is, its criteria is the demographics, which doesn’t include your aptitude. Different than when I got picked. I got picked under a different program, apparently. This is all about, are you living in an area of concentrated poverty, are you a young man of color? If you click those two boxes, you’re going to be in MBKA. You can get there other ways, but that’s the starting point on the one end. And at each intervention point, it’s the kids who are falling out of the system that are the target. So it’s not likely to be necessarily those with the highest aptitude at all. Probably the opposite, in terms of raw skills.

SB: To both of you: How is your program, Joe, and Robert, how does your work focus on the issue of sexuality? In other words, what’s in place to support young men of color who don’t fit the heterosexual paradigm?

JE: It’s a great question, particularly in these days. There’s no labels ascribed, other than the labels I gave you. The only label is, ‘Are you a boy or young man of color?’ There’s no orientation label, there’s no notion that there’s exclusivity. Having said all that, you’re working against a society that has its own norms and standards. Which makes things more complicated. But there are so many things to solve for in this country. Again, I keep coming back to this: we’ve just got to get started. And if we try to solve for too many of them at the same time, we’re just not going to make any progress. We think the net is pretty big by just saying are you a boy or young man of color and do you live in concentrated poverty. If you answer yes to those things, we want you. And whatever it takes to get you in and move you along the curve is what we’re committed to doing, regardless of all the other things that could be out there, good or bad. It’s a tough issue.

RF: I’ve been focusing on the following phrase: ‘Change the tone at the top,’ as we seek to change the culture of the institution, the organization, the society. Change the tone at the top. And I think that working with leaders, college presidents, pastors, rabbis, leaders of organizations where you have a multiplier effect to provide safe space for gay men to experience healthy development and all the supports required for their pathways to success is exceedingly important at this time. And so I challenge us all to think about the messages at the top and how supports throughout the organization, throughout the culture, throughout the congregation can be more friendly, respectful and supportive of diversity.

SB: [Should] we change education reform to supporting teachers who want to educate all children?

JE: These are tough questions.

SB: Mmhmm.

JE: You know, it’s always been shocking to me that the very infrastructure that shapes and forms most of our children’s lives and thinking — certainly in the early days — are some of the least paid roles in this country. [Applause] And so I think we just have to start fundamentally with reorienting what matters, which is easy to say, hard to do. But they do it in private schools, they do it in higher ed, but we all have to be willing. And ‘we all’ is all of us to make that mind shift. Without that, it’s a tough battle. In my firm, we were paying somebody $70,000 right out of college. That’s real money. There’s no way you’d get that teaching right out of college. And I can assure you what the teacher was doing is far more impactful than what that young person was doing when they started with us. After my first year of college I made coffee. And I thought to myself, ‘I just can’t wait until I do something that matters. Imagine how much I’ll get paid.’ That’s the problem that we have. And you can take that to be law enforcement, fire — you take all those roles. In the value proposition, somehow we’ve gotten a little too far away from it. And we’re focused on making a buck versus making a difference. And I think that matters.

SB: Joe, this question comes from a neighbor of yours: ‘I too grew up in the Bronx projects.’ And this person wants to know any suggestions as to how to break the cycle of children growing up in a single family household with absent fathers?

JE: You know, when I was sitting with the president at the launch, he said something that was very powerful to me and I hadn’t even processed it the way he did. When he was talking to those boys — boys 14 to 20 —they asked him ‘What does it take to be a good father?’ Without even a hesitation, he said, ‘You have to learn to respect women.’ [Clapping.] That’s the number one thing you have to learn. Without that, it all falls apart. As I processed that, it didn’t even occur to me, because I had all these other answers in my head. But I think that’s the single biggest change that would have to occur in this population of kids. The notion of being a husband, a boyfriend, whatever the words are, and the respect level has to be somewhat different from what it seems to be in those populations, including me, when I was a kid. That’s what I would say. Again, these are great questions — but there is no easy answer.

RF: Let me just build on that and throw out another phrase: We all can participate in promoting a culture of healthy relationships in our communities. I served as a consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and they looked at the issue of healthy dating in communities and people living in poverty. And what we found is we interviewed in focus groups what the young people thought about what should happen on a date. We suddenly realized parents, adults, no one in their lives was talking to them about appropriate behavior, healthy expectations for healthy dating. And to the extent that you have not had that conversation with a teenager, you’re participating in a culture of dysfunctional dating and relationships among adolescents. And so we interviewed them, and we asked them. And they all thought sex was an appropriate part of the first date. So instead of blaming our kids, we’re going to have to participate in changing the culture and the scripts. That you can go to a movie, houses of worship — that you can do these things — sex doesn’t have to be a part of it. And we’ve got to build that culture of healthy relationships that lead toward healthy marriages and healthy families. [Applause.]

SB: We have a lot of people who are interested in either their community or their company connecting with My Brother’s Keeper. So they’d like to know what the six intervention points are and how they can get involved.

JE: Sure, happy to do it. And let me start with — 240 communities, and communities are loosely-defined to be geographies or native or tribal areas — have signed up for it. So your community may well be signed up. There’s a website. If you just Google “My Brother’s Keeper Alliance,” it’ll take you right to it. The six intervention points are — the first one is words. I talked about number of words. That’s an intervention point. The second one is ready to enter school, which basically asks, are you literate in reading? That’s the next intervention point. The next intervention point after that is, if you don’t enter ready to learn, how do you close that gap so that the kids get caught up and can get out of high school? So that’s the next intervention point. The next intervention point is creating an awareness around moving those kids from the 50 percent who actually do graduate high school and targeting a college that they would go to. Because they don’t have a path that takes them to college. So even the ones that graduate don’t necessarily go to college. That’s the next intervention point. The next intervention point is making sure that in college, they are taking classes around that which prepares them for the jobs of the future. Not necessarily the jobs of the past. They have to be as directed with what courses they take as going to college. We put so much energy in getting them to college, we kind of declare victory when they’re in college. But if you don’t graduate with a certain set of skills, you’re not likely to be employed in the future. So that’s the last piece. And the final piece is interested in the reform of the criminal justice system. And there’s all sorts of interventions around that. All sorts. That’s the last piece. And there’s sort of a drop-down that takes you to the six pieces, you click in which one you’re most interested in, and we would get you aligned with a community — if that’s what you want — or a national effort, if that’s what you’re more interested in. Like I said, we’ve got 18 months to change the lives of a quarter of a million young boys and young men of color and make sure that this ready for the president and the first lady to do good work.