By Tony Allen, Head of Corporate Reputation for Bank of America and Darryl L. Chambers, Executive director of the Youth Empowered to Strive and Succeed Program
There is an old adage adapted from the Bible that many black families - indeed all of us - know well: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” In the case of African-American men throughout the country, the adage is as compelling for a black executive fighting to keep his authentic self while navigating the corporate ladder as it is for a young black male who is often burdened by the nagging feeling that while he is indeed filled with talent, power and undeniable potential, the inertia of a debilitating set of life circumstances constantly overshadows him.
These men, and countless others, see up close the realities of a system that feeds generational cycles of poverty. They can make bad choices under equally bad circumstances, struggling to achieve or revive their dreams. Like so many young black men before and after them, they are at a disproportionate risk for run-ins with the law. The difference in their potential trajectories emanates from what and to whom they are exposed, the stability of their home life, the quality of education they receive, and the economic and employment opportunity they experience. But of all these variables, the greatest among them are grace and mercy - which carry no known statistics.
When we were 13, we went to the same middle school and joined the basketball team. Our life stories and its challenges were similar in many of the tragic ways that plague many young black men. Our families were not of means; our fathers were not involved. The assumed correlation between academics and achievement was something we saw little proof of in our own experiences. One of us was a uniquely gifted athlete and treated with the adoration that comes to a young sports star. The other was known for his academic ability. He was made to think that he was special and somehow insulated from a fate that would befall so many of his black peers.
As we moved from middle to high school, we lost touch and would reconnect two decades later. The basketball star was a middle-aged black man recently released from prison and the other was a middle-aged black man working at a bank. As we talked, we discovered that the roads we traveled did not come as a result of being inherently delinquent or law-abiding. Both of us faced defining life moments, often without the necessary tools to make the right choices. One of us was broken by the weight of those moments; the other was pulled from the fire by a helping hand. Statistics did not define those moments for us - it was grace and mercy.
Realizing this, we began to define our next moment, deciding that we would no longer allow moments to define us. Driven by stories similar to ours, and at our urging, Bank of America provided a foundational grant in 2006 to establish the HOPE Commission as a permanent fixture in the Delaware community — a coalition of community members, behavioral specialists, corrections professionals and ex-offenders, largely black and brown, seeking to reduce the incidence of violence in the lives of people of color, specifically men, cycling in and out of the criminal justice system. Through a partnership with Kappa Alpha Psi, one of the largest and oldest historically black fraternities in the country, it runs an 11,000-square-foot facility in Delaware, the only integrated service provider for 1,200 formerly incarcerated individuals.
One of us was among the first beneficiaries of the HOPE Commission’s work and now serves on its board. The other was one of the commission’s first chairs and is an advocate for Bank of America’s support of re-entry programs throughout the country. We are both blessed. We both recognize that the same grace and mercy that shaped our respective life paths has now united us, and it stands as a testament to what is possible for any one of us seeking a second chance in life.
There is an important national conversation on these issues being driven by the National Urban League (NUL). On May 17, the NUL released the 40th edition of the “State of Black America,” a timely and incisive compendium of perspectives and insights from leaders in politics, non-governmental organizations, academia, popular culture and business on racial equality in America across a range of areas: economics, education, health, civic engagement and social justice. Our story of “Grace and Mercy” was included in this year’s report.
Cy Richardson, Senior Vice President for Economics and Housing at the League, notes in this brief video “Building Pathways” that there are any number of “boosts and blocks” to economic progress. This year’s report points out that, since 1976, black unemployment has consistently remained about twice that of the white rate across time, regardless of education. And, despite progress for black America, there has been much less progress toward economic equality with whites, especially in education. Money alone will not increase the “boosts” and help people overcome the “blocks” - it takes partnerships. In 1956, Bank of America first partnered with the NUL. Over the years, the bank and NUL have collaborated on many initiatives together - all with the aim of building pathways towards shared success. And we are proud of our role as a title sponsor of the 2016 National Urban League Conference in Baltimore this August.
Lack of economic mobility - especially for young people of color impacted by disproportionate unemployment and incarceration rates - is a defining social justice issue of our time. Through innovative partnerships and programs such as the HOPE Commission, we have a chance to build stronger communities, stronger economies, and a brighter future, one defined by grace and mercy.