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A Conversation with The President

Two lives profoundly changed by My Brother’s Keeper

A teenager in Oakland, California, and a software engineer from New Orleans talk about their experiences

In June, Luis Ramirez stood anxiously, waiting for his name to be called at his high school graduation. When the time came, Ramirez looked into the crowd and found his family smiling back at him. The two jobs that both of his parents worked and sacrifices they made to see this day happen made everything they’d been through worth it.

“They were extremely proud,” Ramirez said. “My half-brother grew up in Mexico and didn’t have the option to pursue a high school degree over there. It was the first time I’ve seen my dad cry out of happiness. It was [my grandparents’] second time in the U.S. [from Mexico] and they got to see me. I’m the only grandchild they have in the United States, so they got to see me walk the stage. It was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling — until I graduate from college.”

Ramirez, 18, grew up in Oakland, California, with parents who attempted to shield him from the harsh realities of the world. He grew used to a routine of going to school, seeing his father for 20 minutes and his mother for two hours a day before heading to his godparents’ home, where he spent school nights. His parents worked two jobs each to provide for him, and it was the only way they’d be able to ensure Ramirez would continue his education in a safe environment. Approaching high school, the routine sent Ramirez into a depression.

The group of seven students that lead the final panel of the day which they spoke about their experiences during the Summit for My Brother'

The group of seven students that lead the final panel of the day which they spoke about their experiences during the Summit for My Brother’s Keeper at the United Way of Greater Greensboro on October 10, 2016 in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Brent Lewis/ The Undefeated

“I started getting depression and anxiety seeing all these families on TV every day but I didn’t see my parents like that. They worked two jobs to support everything I did. The beginning of my freshman year is when I realized I needed a job, too.”

Before Ramirez could venture off on his own, he was introduced to the Latino Men & Boys program, headed by The Unity Council. The program aims to help children ages 12-20 with life skills and also partners with the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. In July, with encouragement from one of his mentors, Ramirez volunteered at the Invest in Youth: Pathways to Success Boys and Men of Color Career Summit hosted by the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a program established to oversee the My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative beyond the scope of President Barack Obama‘s term in office. While on his lunch break, Ramirez spoke to a representative from Starbucks who encouraged him to apply for a job. Volunteers even helped Ramirez spruce up his resume before he was interviewed on the spot. A short time later, Ramirez was offered a position.

“I’m working at Starbucks with someone who actually got hired at the career fair also, so it’s kind of cool knowing that we both got hired at the same fair,” he said.

Ramirez believes he might not have been able to achieve as much as he has, including graduating from high school and beginning his freshman year at San Francisco State University, if it had not been for the sacrifices of his parents and the mentors he’s gained through initiatives such as Latino Men & Boys and My Brother’s Keeper.

My Brother’s Keeper, a White House initiative established in 2014, works to ensure that young men and boys of color have the opportunity to reach their full potential while attempting to tackle issues that they may face in their lifetime. MBK partners with organizations around the world and has at least one MBK community in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and 19 Tribal Nations.

Washington D.C. - October 10, 2016: Broderick Johnson, Assistant to the President and Chair of My Brother'

Washington D.C. – October 10, 2016: Broderick Johnson, Assistant to the President and Chair of My Brother’s Keeper speaks about what he took away from the Summit for My Brother’s Keeper at the United Way of Greater Greensboro on October 10, 2016 in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Brent Lewis/ The Undefeated

“Among other things, the fact that there are MBK communities in every state of the United States, and D.C., and Puerto Rico is an indication that people are embracing this work,” said Obama’s Cabinet secretary and MBK chair Broderick Johnson. “It’s not like you just say, ‘We’re going to be an MBK community.’ You have to make certain commitments to the way you’re going to approach things. The infrastructures are being put in place long-term to sustain that work and that means an awful lot.”

Making connections and being able to help others through the program is something that 24-year-old Victor York has experienced in New Orleans. York, who works as a software engineer for GE Digital, appreciates MBK because of its diversity and ability to incorporate many different programs in order to push the initiative forward.

“I did a lot of work in education in New Orleans,” York said. “Because of that work, I was connected to the Executive Alliance, which is a partnership between several major foundations that usually donate to a lot of social justice causes. My direct involvement with My Brother’s Keeper was in helping shape that manifestation from those people’s involvement, specifically helping coordinate a lot of different organizations across the country that explicitly worked around youth and making sure their voice was heard when it came to applying the initiative.”

York found himself becoming more involved with different initiatives and programs that included the same principles as MBK, including Operation Spark, a nonprofit organization “that teaches the fundamentals of software development to low-opportunity individuals by presenting the fastest route to a career in software development.”

“[Operation Spark] works with getting high schoolers into high-paying software jobs, and that’s all around making sure disadvantaged youths have an alternative to college to get into these high-paying jobs. That’s because of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. They have a lot of cool avenues that are opening up just from that one idea.”

York said that he was initially hesitant about MBK, fearing that the initiative would remain stagnant and similar to the many other mentoring programs around the country. Since working with the initiative and seeing its growth, York is optimistic that the program will continue to expand and reach even greater heights than it has in its first two years.

Washington D.C. - October 10, 2016: Mark Aoston Jr. speaks about his experience during the Summit for My BrotherÕs Keeper at the United Way of Greater Greensboro on October 10, 2016 in Greensboro, North Carolina. The White House hosted the Summit for My Brother'

Washington D.C. – October 10, 2016: Mark Aoston Jr. speaks about his experience during the Summit for My BrotherÕs Keeper at the United Way of Greater Greensboro on October 10, 2016 in Greensboro, North Carolina. The White House hosted the Summit for My Brother’s Keeper Communities in North Carolina which brought together the groups of My Brother’s Keeper from across the state to think of ideas to further the program and listen to students ranging from eighth grade to freshmen in college.

Brent Lewis/ The Undefeated

“I’m really excited to see some of the things President Obama plans to do outside of his term when he actually leaves the White House and how he’s going to be involved with that,” York said. “Particularly as a software engineer, I’m excited to see how people in that particular community try to manage those ideas. I’m seeing a lot of cool things in New Orleans with upward mobility with people of color and they all correlate to My Brother’s Keeper. I’m excited to see the different organizations that are heeding the message and trying to bring something out of it.”

The initiative has been beneficial in the lives of thousands of young men and boys of color. Ramirez hopes to increase his involvement and see more opportunities with MBK in the future.

“There should be more opportunities like this more often because my whole high school career has been the way it was because I grabbed opportunities and never let go,” Ramirez said. “I feel like these activities and programs are hidden gems in a way. We need more outreach to people who need it.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.