Brooklyn Park program connects young men, male mentors - KMSP-TV

MY BROTHER'S KEEPER: Brooklyn Park program connects young men, male mentors

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An after-school program in Brooklyn Park is getting national attention for its results -- especially with President Barack Obama's new initiative called "My Brother's Keeper" that aims to help young minority men succeed.

Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeffrey Lunde recently returned from a mayor's conference where city leaders discussed ways to apply Obama's vision of helping boys and young African American and Hispanic men achieve their potential through collaboration with foundations and businesses.

The experience of an African American teen in America is often distorted by stereotypes about athletic performance, crime and fractured families -- and the Obama administration contends that on top of those perceived challenges, boys and young men of color are at disproportionate risk during their childhood and into the early stages of their professional life.

On the website introducing My Brother's Keeper, a few jarring statistics about academic achievement and safety set the stage for the new initiative. According to the data, African American and Hispanic young men are six times more likely to be murdered than white peers and they comprise half of the murder victims in the country each year.

Achievement is another large concern, both locally and nationally. Statistics cited on the My Brother's Keeper page claim 86 percent of African American boys and 82 percent of Hispanic boys read below proficiency levels by the time they are in fourth grade. By contrast, an estimated 54 percent of white fourth graders read below proficient levels.

"The worst part is: We've become numb to these statistics," Obama said while making remarks at the White House. "We're not surprised by them. We take them as the norm. We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life instead of the outrage that it is."

Obama signed a presidential referendum establishing a task force for the initiative to find out which approaches work best toward helping young men succeed, and one Minnesota program is already turning heads.

Zanewood Community Center is where 14-year-old Rodney Lee comes to get help with homework and enjoy after school activities that offer an escape from the city streets.

"You feel good," he said. "Like that little part of you, you just feel good."

In the process, Lee has taken more control over the narrative of his life, which includes a father who is serving time in prison.

"He shouldn't be there. He should be taking me to my basketball games, watching me, cheering me on and stuff," Lee said.

Dozens of other students turn to the community center for support after school because, like many urban communities, Brooklyn Park copes with its fair share of crime.

"Their mentors are kids who are in gangs, so what do they see in life? They see: My future involves prison, and that will allow me to get some street cred," Lunde said.

Yet, Lunde says a program at Zanewood is helping to reverse that trend by connecting young men with male mentors.

"It's not just a rapper or basketball star," Lunde said. "There are a lot more mechanical engineer positions out there. If you can stay in school, there are a lot more outcomes if you focus, and we are trying to get that."

Mentors like Anthony Bates regularly hang out with the students at the center -- but more importantly, the mentors let the students know they're always available.

"So that they know we care -- so they know the next day, we're still here for them," Bates explained.

Meanwhile, Lee continues to work toward his future with the knowledge that he won't have to do it alone.

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