Reporter’s Notebook: Fate of African-American Boys in Oakland ‘Not Just a Story About Race’

Nequwan Taylor practices tying a tie during a June session of the 10th grade manhood development class at Oakland High School. (Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle)
Nequwan Taylor practices tying a tie during a June session of the 10th grade manhood development class at Oakland High School. (Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle)

Oakland’s African-American male students have a disappointing high school graduation rate, their efforts often dragged down by poverty, crime and too many absences. More than half of African-American boys now in middle school are at risk of dropping out of high school.

Oakland Unified is fighting back with something school districts usually leave to community groups and nonprofits: its own mentoring program pairing black boys with black men. It’s called the “Office of African-American Male Achievement.”

Recently I spent some time with the men who are helping boys with great needs and great potential.

Why should a well-off white person living, say, in Menlo Park care about what is happening to a poor black kid in Oakland? A cold question, I know, but it was one of my first when we started discussing how to report this story for television and radio.

I took on this reporting assignment knowing that the plight of black youths like those I met in the course of this project would be close to my heart — I see so much of myself in these young men that it makes me grateful to have had a strong support network while I was growing up. My family in West Palm Beach, Fla., was working-class but not poor, and I was fortunate to have had some excellent community influences to rely on.

Listen to the story: Oakland Schools Reach Out to Most At-Risk Population

Still, even people of good conscience must prioritize the things they put their energies into, and there are many worthy issues out there. So why should this particular issue — the challenges facing black boys in Oakland — matter so much to people throughout the Bay Area and beyond?

I’ve heard African-American males described as an “endangered species” — a population plagued by almost every imaginable societal ill. The problem is well known, but the solutions are far less evident. Our coverage in “Even Odds” is a chance to talk not just about what’s wrong, but about what could help make it right.

It surprised me how challenging it was to interview some of the people involved with the initiatives we reported on. Part of the art of interviewing is asking the right question in the right way to put people at ease, to get to their hearts as well as their heads.  I found that some of our interviewees wanted to hedge their opinions about the plight of black kids, concerned about ruffling feathers or drawing ire. But that’s exactly what I needed to know: why these educators care about young African-Americans and how committed they are to helping them.

The result is not just a story about race. It’s about the future of the Bay Area, an economic anchor of a state that’s more diverse than most. It’s about whether we are committed to restoring a sizable portion of our future workforce to employability, or to willfully allowing it to languish and turn into a liability. It’s about living up to our reputation as a region that celebrates diversity, respects minority interests and strives to make opportunities for all.

Most of all, it’s about our common humanity, our shared future and our survival. That, in the end, is why all of us should care.

This documentary video, reported by Joshua Johnson and produced by Nicole Atkinson Roach, will broadcast on This Week in Northern California 7:30pm Friday, August 23rd on KQED-9. It is part of the Even Odds series, a collaboration between KQED and the San Francisco Chronicle, which for the past year has been documenting efforts to address the daunting challenges faced by African American males in Oakland. Partial funding comes from the American Graduate – Let’s Make it Happen – a public media initiative supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities address the school dropout crisis.”

KQED Public Radio’s “Forum” will also devote a segment to the topic Friday morning.

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