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By Katie VloetFebruary 5, 2016
President Obama was deeply and personally affected by the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Something had to be done, he decided, about the opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color.
And so it was, just a few months after the jury reached a verdict in the case, that My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) was launched, with Broderick Johnson, ’83, named chair of the organization’s task force. “That was my ninth day working in the White House,” Johnson recalled during a Feb. 1 talk at the University of Michigan that focused on My Brother’s Keeper, as well as his roles as Cabinet Secretary and assistant to the President.
My Brother’s Keeper is an initiative to help bridge the opportunity gaps faced by young men of color, and to ensure that all young people can reach their full potential, Johnson told the audience in the speech at the Ford School of Public Policy. The Obama administration has joined with cities, businesses, foundations, athletes, and others who are connecting young people to the mentoring, support networks, and skills they need to find a good job or go to college, and work their way into the middle class.
Doing so, Johnson said, is a necessity for the country to remain a global competitor—something that cannot happen without the active involvement of young men of color in the workplace. “We are compelled to act,” he said, “because there is an economic imperative as well as a moral obligation.”
My Brother’s Keeper has a three-tiered approach to reaching its goals:
1. federal policy, including new and expanded grant possibilities, as well as the President’s initiative to “ban the box” in federal employment—that is, following the lead of a growing number of states, cities, and private companies that have decided to eliminate the portion of a job application that asks about criminal history, allowing inquiries into criminal history to occur later in the hiring process;
2. place-based community engagement, which already has been highly successful with more than 200 communities in 49 States and 19 Tribal Nations across the United States hosting Local Action Summits (including many cities that have Republican mayors, Johnson pointed out);
3. private-sector action, including support from business leaders and other private-sector organizations to expand opportunities for all young people.
With all of these efforts, Johnson said, “I am confident that My Brother’s Keeper is making a big difference.” He said it is not clear, of course, whether the next president will assume MBK as a federal policy priority, per se. But the expectation is that by demonstrating new approaches that work, President Obama’s MBK approach will live on. And as for post-presidency, President Obama has said, “we are in this for the long haul. We’re going to keep doing our work at the White House on these issues. Sometimes it won’t be a lot of fanfare. I notice we don’t always get a lot of reporting on this issue when there’s not a crisis in some neighborhood. But we’re just going to keep on plugging away. And this will remain a mission for me and for Michelle not just for the rest of my presidency, but for the rest of my life.” Johnson added that he also plans to stay “engaged in this work for the rest of my life. … I can personally see that we are getting closer to a more fair and equitable society.”
Johnson also spoke about his role as Cabinet Secretary and assistant to the President, a high-ranking White House appointment in which he is the primary liaison between Obama and the heads of Cabinet departments and Cabinet-level agencies.
Johnson works closely with the President, and he highlighted his boss’s intellect and adeptness at getting things done. “It’s like he has a highlighter in his head,” he said of Obama’s ability to home in on the most important detail in even the largest stack of documents. The President also strongly discourages “small talk or happy talk,” on complex policy discussion, and “he doesn’t believe his Cabinet or staff should airbrush over the problems that they have.”
Many pundits and elected officials predicted the Obama administration would not be able to accomplish much, particularly after the Democrats fared poorly in 2014 midterm elections. The President saw things differently: The day after those elections, Johnson said, Obama told senior staff members that they were in the fourth quarter of the game, but that the game wasn’t over. Johnson pointed out how much has been achieved in the “fourth quarter,” citing continued job growth, a nuclear deal with Iran, the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, executive action aimed at reducing gun violence, and more. “We are looking for every opportunity to execute,” Johnson said, “just like they do in the Big House in better times.”
He spoke about the rigor of the educational experience at Michigan Law, as well as how he was strongly influenced during Law School by the “sense that you should commit to public service.”
Johnson shared personal anecdotes about bringing his family to Michigan. His late father first stepped foot on a law school campus when he visited for Johnson’s graduation in 1983. In 2011, Johnson brought his youngest son and his mother to visit, and he marveled at his then 10-year-old son having such an opportunity at a much younger age than the boy’s grandfather.
“These family legacies provide you with experiences that are priceless,” Johnson said.
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