Broderick Johnson, a former member of the Obama and Clinton administrations, along with University of Michigan professors and directors, spoke on engaging with students of color and promoting greater access to education and job placements at the “Innovative programs for youth and young adults” panel, part of the University’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.

During his time in the Obama administration, Johnson served as Cabinet Secretary and the chair of the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, which addressed persistent opportunity gaps faced by young men of color by connecting them to mentoring, support networks and the skills they need to find a good job or attend college. As of Monday evening, Johnson is also the newest member of the Ford school’s faculty. Public policy dean Michael Barr announced Johnson’s appointment as a Policy Maker in Residence in an email to students. 

At the panel, Johnson discussed how his motivation to create My Brother’s Keeper was strengthened by the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. He said the president wanted to create a strong program for African-American youth with the backing of the federal government.

“I had the opportunity to speak to the president right after the 2012 election campaign,” Johnson said. “He talked about how he really wanted to go big, to use the power and the reach of his presidency to better organize how the federal government established programs and use his power as a convener to bring people together across the public and private sectors in the United States.”

According to Johnson, Obama wanted the task force to produce evidence-based results and to assess the problems and the solutions with the same level of rigor that he demanded in everything else from the White House.

Within the last three years of Obama’s second term in office, Johnson, with the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, was able to identify six milestones in the lives of young adults that impact their levels of success and adopt an expansive and comprehensive approach to examine the data. The initiative also created the Second Chance Pell Grant, which was a collaboration between the Department of Justice and the Department of Education granting 12,000 Pell Grants to people incarcerated across the United States. 

Johnson said the Second Chance Pell Grant initiative helps incarcerated people across the country start their educational career while serving their court-mandated sentence.

“The route to jail and to prison is often times about economic and educational deprivation so an important way to stay out … is to help people get an education in prison,” Johnson said.

The Task Force’s recommendations also influenced President Obama’s executive order to remove the mandatory yes-or-no question regarding whether an applicant has been previously incarcerated. This practice of asking about a criminal record at the first step in the application process takes a particularly increased toll on applicants of color, who are disproportionately arrested, convicted and sentenced, according to Johnson.

Following Johnson, Brian Jacob, the Walter H. Annenberg professor of education policy at the University, discussed the regional programs created by Grow Detroit’s Young Talent, a city-wide summer jobs program that employs young adults in Detroit between the ages of 14 and 24. The program includes several hours per week of training on topics such as financial literacy and workplaces readiness. The younger participants work approximately 20 hours per week for six weeks. 

Jacob noted GDYT is different from other summer employment programs as it not only provides opportunities in community-based nongovernmental organizations, but also in the private sector. Private sector companies which partner with GDYT include Quicken Loans, Touchpoint Support Services and Blue Cross Blue Shield.

In reporting the effects of summer youth employment programs (SYEPs), Johnson admitted there were mixed results. A positive result was the large reduction of criminal arrests. In Chicago, violent crime arrests were reduced by 43 percent; however, these results cannot be attributed solely to SYEPs because the percentage also decreased in the winter. Similar decreases and limitations were seen in New York City, according to Jacob.

Luke Shaefer, director of Poverty Solutions at the University, discussed the SYEP created by the University to address socioeconomic inequality in the larger Ann Arbor community. One of the ways the University is seeking to address this is with the Go Blue Guarantee, a scholarship that promises Michigan residents with a family income less than $65,000 who are admitted to the University full cost of four-year in-state tuition covered.

Shaefer noted initially, students from low-income families were disproportionately opting out of applying to the University as they felt they couldn’t afford the tuition prior to the Guarantee.

While the effort to attract more students of color from low-income families to the University is appreciated, some students feel that the effort doesn’t continue once students arrive at school. Social Work student Jasmyn Tooles said the lack of follow-through on the University’s part does not help underrepresented students succeed in an academic environment they may not be accustomed to.

“As a student of color it feels like are a lot of programs … But I think there is a lot that (the University) doesn’t really address; like academic support or supporting in adjusting to the University of Michigan environment,” Tooles said. “There isn’t a lot of talk going on saying here are different ways that we can support you … or here’s a mentor for you. I think even for current U of M students that would be really beneficial.”

In an interview, Shaefer said the current program is working to improve its outreach to students once they get to the University.

“I, from Poverty Solutions, have been starting to talk (to University students and faculty) to get a sense of what’s going on,” Shaefer said. “My initial sense is … we could really continue to improve, and clearly I think it’s important and there is a voice of concern about it and I would like to build on what we have a do a lot more.”


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