It’s Eboni Wells’ (MPP ’13) penultimate day at the Skillman Foundation, located on Detroit’s bright riverfront. She’s tying up a two-year public policy fellowship that, for the last eight months, has tasked her with supporting Detroit’s response to the My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) Challenge President Obama issued to U.S. cities.
The title of a March 2014 Detroit Free Press op-ed, penned by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Skillman Foundation CEO Tonya Allen, sets the stage: “Young African American men are not only part of Detroit’s turnaround, they are the key to it.” Wells couldn’t agree more.
“Detroit is not a blank canvas,” she says. “Legacy Detroiters need to have a piece of the pie, too.”
Wells’ parents are legacies. “They stayed in Detroit when many others moved away,” she says, “because they loved the city and wanted to see it thrive.”
But legacies also include Detroit’s young men of color, who have been largely left out of the city’s renaissance. Wells, who grew up with three brothers, takes that personally.
After earning her bachelor’s degree at U-M, Wells worked at the all-male Frederick Douglass Academy on Detroit’s west side and has nothing but admiration for the young men she tutored there. “They were respectful, they listened,” she says. “They were into sports, and into academics, too.”
Wells remembers walking into school every day just before the final class had been dismissed. “You could hear a pin drop,” she says. When the bell rang, the boys filed out in impeccable uniforms—navy blazers, khaki pants, and striped ties.
Wells contrasts those memories with common stereotypes about young black men. “How they’re viewed in society just breaks my heart,” she says.
When Wells came to the Ford School to earn her graduate degree, she hoped it would give her an opportunity to do more, to have a larger impact. So when President Obama issued the My Brothers Keeper Challenge, and the mayor asked the Skillman Foundation to pull together stakeholders to shape the city’s response, Wells was thrilled.
The questions were, which programs and policies were working for young men of color? Which weren’t? And how to move forward?
Wells helped Skillman convene focus groups with young men of color, to ensure that youth voices were part of the conversation from the start. Then she gathered data, facilitated early conversations, and sharpened recommendations for three committees tasked with reviewing policies, surveying programs, and refining the city’s plans.
On September 22, Wells watched as the city unveiled its MBK plans at a public summit in Detroit. The first few rows at the event were blocked off for young men of color; the Western High School Latin Ensemble sang the national anthem; then the commitments to support the work began, and continued, and continued some more.
The program ran over by 45 minutes, but Wells stayed to the end. She walked away feeling great about the city’s direction, she says. “Not because we’re perfect, not because we have every black male engaged, but because we’re putting in place the necessary items to prayerfully and hopefully move the needle on black male achievement.”
By Erin Spanier for State & Hill, the magazine of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy
Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Fall 2015 State & Hill here.