By Molly Willms, NPC Guest Blogger
Jeff Roman was working in teen pregnancy prevention when he noticed something peculiar: program-wise,
half the equation was missing.
He saw multiple groups focusing on the health of young women, but none for young men, particularly men of color.
That gap, he said, is where the conversation started that led him to where he is today, at a time when the challenges facing men and boys of color are taking the national stage.
Roman is Benchmark Coordinator-Minority Male Achievement at Community Advocates Public Policy Institute and serves as Chair of the City of Milwaukee Equal Rights Commission.
A master facilitator, Roman in many ways is a “glue that holds together” Milwaukee nonprofits, foundations, governmental groups and grassroots agencies that work with boys and men of color. He is a lead organizer and spokesperson for the first-ever Boys and Men of Color Week in Milwaukee October 26-November 1 (see sidebar).
“What can we do together,” he asks, “to really get to bigger, scalable impact?”
In his role at the Public Policy Institute, Roman works with the City of Milwaukee, the Center for Youth Engagement, Milwaukee Public Schools, UW-Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Boys to Men Coalition and a number of other local agencies and groups.
Unlike when he first started, a dearth of agencies dedicated to this work is no longer the problem. “Our issue,” he said, “is we don’t know how to work together as well and as efficiently as we can.”
For Roman, this is not a crisis – it’s a perfect, urgent opportunity. Roman calls Milwaukee “ground zero” for the national movement to empower boys and men of color.
The black male unemployment rate in the city is 44 percent, and only 45 percent of black men graduate from high school on time, according to statistics Roman cited. Further, half of the city’s African American men under 40 have been incarcerated.
Boys and Men of Color Week coincides with President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which focuses on providing opportunities for boys and men of color across the country.
“The stars have aligned,” Roman said, “nationally and federally.”
The goal for the week is to unite every group and person working for men and boys of color in Milwaukee to create a coordinated effort.
The starting point, Roman said, will be gathering data, something the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee will assist with.
From there, he said, it’s up to the community to develop a shared vision, and combine it with the data to “create a roadmap for success in the future.”
Part of the solution is shifting the focus from the problems to the possibility of what can be.
Roman says that means looking at a man of color and seeing the potential of what he can achieve. Or looking at a Black man who has achieved all his goals and identifying to scale the causes of his success, while examining and addressing those that hinder others from reaching the same.
“What was different in his life,” he asks, “than that other young man who maybe took another path?”
“Looking at the resilience,” as Roman said, “while acknowledging the structural and personal barriers that impede success or achievement.”
There’s no question: there is no quick fix or single solution to the problems faced by men and boys of color, Roman said. The obstacles were created over multiple generations, so an overnight fix is out of the question.
But organizing is the first step, and the solution is worth the effort.
“This is worthwhile, lengthy work that is going to take years and years to accomplish,” Roman said, “but it can be accomplished.”
Part of what makes it worthwhile is that it has the potential to affect more than just Milwaukee.
“We will be the model for the country,” he said, “and that’s the opportunity.”