Valerie Jarrett defends 'My Brother's Keeper' focus on boys

Critics say President Obama's 'My Brother's Keeper' initiative addressing challenges faced by boys of color should be expanded to include girls of color.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Obama, speaks at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters on Friday in Washington.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior aide to President Obama, is clearly frustrated by the pushback he’s getting over his initiative to help boys and young men of color stay on the right path.

What about the girls? critics are asking. This week, more than 1,000 women of color signed a letter calling on the president to expand his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative to include girls of color.

“Today, many women and girls of color are under siege in the United States, and the myth that they are not must be challenged,” said the June 17 letter, whose signatories include author Alice Walker, law professor Anita Hill, and actress Rosario Dawson.

The letter cites statistics. For example, black girls are more than three times as likely to be suspended from school than white girls, and “disproportionately funneled through the juvenile justice system,” it says. For Latina girls, the four-year graduation rate from high school is the lowest among all girls. And economic insecurity is greater for girls than for boys, as they face wage and wealth inequality.

Ms. Jarrett rejects the idea that the White House is trying to help boys at the expense of girls – or that it’s ignoring girls in any way. At the start of Obama’s presidency, the White House launched a Council on Girls and Women, which Jarrett chairs.  

My Brother’s Keeper “is not an either/or, it’s a both/and,” Jarrett said Friday at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.

“This is what I would encourage our critics to do: Read the report,” she says. “The 90-day report that was completed a couple of weeks ago was a very rigorous interagency review of all the programs we have that touch the lives of boys and men of color. “

“You will see [in the report] that many of the recommendations in there benefit all Americans,” Jarrett says.

She lists some examples:

• Reading by third grade. Disproportionately, boys of color are not reading by third grade. “So let’s put in place programs to ensure that all of our children are reading by third grade,” says Jarrett.

• End preschool expulsions. Children who are expelled from preschool are disproportionately boys of color.

“No child should be expelled from preschool,” Jarrett says. “And so we are calling on school districts around the country to end that practice. That benefits every child.”

• Keep children out of the juvenile justice system. Disproportionately boys of color are suspended and expelled throughout school, and wind up in the juvenile justice system.

“Let’s figure out ways of keeping our children out of the juvenile justice system and in the classroom so that they’ll thrive,” says Jarrett. “Because if you’re in the juvenile justice system, the chances of your going into the adult penal system are greatly increased.”

Jarrett says she’s happy to meet with the critics, then goes back to her main point.

“If you’re in a family unit … and the boys are having a particularly hard time, the impact on the entire family is troublesome,” Jarrett says. “And so you’re helping the sisters, the moms, the aunts, the uncles.”

The letter from the 1,000 women of color was preceded in May by a “Letter of 200 Concerned Black Men,” also calling for the inclusion of women and girls of color in My Brother’s Keeper.

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