Bessie Smith Cultural Center



Another forum is scheduled for January.

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A forum focused on ways to help address the challenges faced by black boys and men launched the public part of the effort Thursday to make Chattanooga a “My Brother’s Keeper” city.

President Barack Obama challenged cities and counties across the country in September to join his initiative and recently announced that about 100 municipalities had so far accepted.

Those cities each have 120 days to create action plans for how to address key issues defined by the White House related to the disadvantages faced by black boys and men, such as being born into poverty, having low high school graduation rates and limited access to jobs, and receiving second chances from a criminal lifestyle.

About 50 community members met at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center to discuss Chattanooga’s challenges. To show the need for the initiative, the United Way presented data to highlight how black boys and men are at a disadvantage across the county and city:

• Black males are twice as likely as white males to not have high school diplomas.

• Up to 40 percent of black men in the East Lake community don’t have a high school education.

• Janitor and cook are the top occupations for black males with or without a high school education.

• In the Hamilton County Jail, black males are nearly three times more likely to be repeat offenders.

Mayor Andy Berke, who left the summit shortly after his opening remarks, called this initiative one of the greatest challenges across the nation and one that will take everyone in the community to address.

“Too many of us are isolated and we work in silos,” Berke told the crowd.

Attendees discussed four of Obama’s six challenges:

• That children enter school prepared;

• That young people have post-secondary training;

• That youth out of school are employed;

• And that young people are safe from violent crime and receive second chances.

Two other goals for My Brother’s Keeper, getting all children to read at grade level by third grade and graduating all young people from high school, were not discussed.

After two hours of brainstorming about these problems across the city, several people who attended the meeting acknowledged that it will take years of consistency from the city and the community to make lasting changes.

Vinnie Malveaux, with the local grassroots initiative Build Me a World, said he’s seen many city leaders come and go who present the same ideas packaged with a new name, and that’s not enough.

“Is the city going to stay consistent or is this just something to stroke the beast?” he asked.

Police Sgt. Daniel Jones said discussions like Thursday’s aren’t enough. It’s going to take officers, community members and grass-root leaders like Malveaux and other ex-convicts, who have seen success by changing their lives, to convince other teens to change.

Still others were surprised that they were absent from the discussion.

Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith said that, while he supports this city initiative, he wishes he had been invited to the meeting.

“It’s going to be dependent on education as fundamental to success,” he said.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at 423-757-6659 or