Groundbreaking network of inspired black men to launch
with Knight Foundation funding
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced a $3.6 million investment in a new network of inspired black men to build caring and prosperous communities. That’s the mission of BMe, which takes a fundamentally different approach from traditional philanthropy.
“Number one, we recognize black males as assets to society,” says Trabian Shorters, Knight’s former vice president of communities and now founder of the independent nonprofit BMe. “So we aren’t trying to fix anyone or focus on any deficits. Instead we are engaging people around the things they care about and building community together. We shine a light rather than just curse the darkness.”
Over the last two years, working in close partnership with Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement and with support from the Heinz Endowment, Knight tested its “black men as assets” approach in Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Building on that success, BMe will now increase the presence and impact of engaged black men in the pilot communities, and later nationally, by connecting them with each other, supporting their events and projects, telling their stories and inviting people of all races and gender to join in this movement.
“Over the past two years, BMe attracted support from a wide range of backgrounds and walks of life. The power going forward will be in staying true to the vision: that black men and boys are community assets who, working together, can make our communities better,” said Knight Foundation President AlbertoIbargüen.
In addition to Shorters, BMe is governed by a board of field-leading innovators, including former NAACP President Ben Jealous, Donors Choose Founder Charles Best, and TIAA-CREF Senior Managing Director Stephanie Bell-Rose, who is also a Knight Foundation trustee.
“What excites me about BMe,” said Jealous, “is it gives the possibility of creating a network for other networks to connect into.”
BMe’s asset-approach fundamentally changes perceptions and opportunities by answering four sequential questions about black males, Shorters said. “Do they care? Will they lead? Will others join them? And what can we all do together?”
The answers from the two years of field-testing are inspiring.
Do black men care? Over a dozen weeks in 2012 and 2013, more than 3,000 black men—from all walks of life—submitted video testimonials about the big and small things they personally do to strengthen communities. They do these things commonly without any recognition or fanfare. Black men care.
Will they lead? BMe asked these everyday black men, “What would you do if we gave you funding to improve the community?” Hundreds of ideas were submitted, and 70 of those men received funding. They then provided services to more than 10,000 of their neighbors on issues ranging from youth development to public health; stopping violence to helping former inmates; protecting the environment to community farming; and spurring entrepreneurship to improving financial literacy. Black men will lead.
The surprise during the development of BMe came at the response to the third question: Will others join in? BMe attracted dozens of enthusiastic local partners including small businesses, houses of worship, elected officials, women and youth groups who all seemed eager, even hungry, to embrace black men as assets to community. Others are willing to join in.
The final question, “what can we all do together,” is the one that remains to be seen. BMe’s data shows that the issues that black men feel passionate enough to lead on are the same issues that people of all races and gender care about: youth, public safety and health, the environment, education and the economy. That’s a natural bridge for community building, Shorters said.
“BMe captures the imagination of cities and mobilizes people to be proactively and positively engaged in their communities,” says Shawn Dove, director of the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement. “There is no cavalry coming to save our communities, but BMe reminds us that the iconic leaders we’ve been waiting for are already here in the form of thousands of black men who quietly and consistently make positive differences in the lives of others.”
BMe will formally launch later this winter by telling the stories of inspiring black men nationally, through the eyes of their family members, co-workers and friends. In doing so, BMe will recruit those men and their friends of all races and gender into the network and provide opportunities for them to connect with others who share their positivity and passion for building better communities together.
“What I enjoy about the BMe Community,” said Shaka Senghor, a BMe Leader in Detroit, “is that it’s not this missionary mentality. We don’t need to be saved; we just need resources to do the work.”
“Ultimately, BMe is about identity and community,” Shorters said. “Who do you think we are and what kind of world do you want to live in? If you want to live in a world of inspired people from all walks of life who are active and optimistic about building better communities, then BMe is your network—inspired by black men.”