Last February, President Obama sat in a classroom in Chicago’s Hyde Park Academy High School with a group of African-American boys working to overcome their circumstances and navigate the dangers of the city’s South Side. The president listened and then shared his own story with the young men, quickly blowing through his schedule to continue the conversation.
The president was profoundly affected by their discussion and inspired to take action today to tackle a deeply personal cause: helping minority boys succeed.
“I explained to them that when I was their age, I was a lot like them,” the president said at the White House today, recounting his conversation with the boys. “I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.”
Opening up about his history in a way he rarely does publicly, the president explained “I could see myself in these young men. And the only difference is that I grew up in an environment that was a little bit more forgiving. So when I made a mistake, the consequences were not as severe. I had people who encouraged me… They never gave up on me. And so I didn’t give up on myself.”
Many of those young men, who are part of the “Becoming A Man” program, were at Obama’s side today as he announced a new signature effort aimed at building opportunities for young men of color. The president’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative will bring businesses and leading foundations together with the federal government to help disadvantaged men and boys have “the chance to reach their full potential.”
Adopting a stern tone, the president said the nation has become “numb” to the statistics.
“Fifty years after Dr. King talked about his dream for America’s children, the stubborn fact is that the life chances of the average black or brown child in this country lags behind by almost every measure and is worse for boys and young men,” he said. “If you’re African-American, there’s about a one-in-two chance you grew up without a father in your house — one-in-two. If you’re Latino, you have about a one-in-four chance. We know that boys who grow up without a father are more likely to be poor, more likely to under-perform in school.”
“We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life instead of the outrage that it is,” he said to applause. “But these statistics should break our hearts. And they should compel us to act.”
The president urged parents to “turn off the television and help with homework,” but he also had tough talk for young men across the country.
“No excuses,” he said. “We all have a responsibility to help provide you the tools you need. We’ve got to help you knock down some of the barriers that you experience. That’s what we’re here for. But you’ve got responsibilities too. And I know you can meet the challenge, and many of you already are, if you make the effort.”
The boys were equally inspired by their time with Obama last year, many surprised to find they had more in common with the president than they thought.
“[His background] was very similar. Him going through a lot, you know, family-wise and everything,” 19-year-old James Adams told ABC News recently of the president, who, like him, was raised without his father present.
High school senior Christian Champagne said, “He’s an African-American male, I’m an African-American male. And that gives me motivation to do better and stop like, being on the corner, selling drugs; to get more other African-American males to do better with their lives, to motivate them also.”
The president was so impressed with the young men and touched by their raw conversation that he invited them to celebrate Father’s Day at the White House in June, a day many of them had never marked. After a formal Father’s Day luncheon, Obama reportedly brought the group back to the Oval Office and even showed them his private study just off the famous office.
Adams credits the B.A.M. empowerment program with teaching him not to lash out. “I was the type of person that would always be mad about any little thing,” he told ABC News. “I take deep breaths and sit there and think, ‘Why am I mad? Why did this thing make me so upset?’”
The White House is hoping to encourage similar mentoring programs across the country through the president’s new initiative.
“Most kids are not going to be into it when they first start, but if they keep going and going and going, they’re going to be right. They’re going to become what I am right now,” Champagne told ABC News.
His simple message for the president today: “Thank you. Thank you.”