Cities United highlights ‘the fierce urgency of now’ for black men and boys

More than 300 mayors, city staff, community and philanthropic leaders, youth and others attended the Cities United national convening May 3–5 in Birmingham, Ala.

The theme of the third annual gathering was “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” echoing words from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Attendees shared ways to reduce violence and increase opportunities for African American men and boys across the country. Casey Family Programs is one of the founders of Cities United, a network of more than 80 cities working to improve outcomes for black men and boys.

Anthony Smith, executive director of Cities United
Anthony Smith, executive director of Cities United

Anthony Smith, executive director of Cities United, said the organization is sharing emerging practices, engaging philanthropy and working to change laws. “We are challenging the status quo and reshaping the narrative of our men and boys,” he said.

The gathering started with a “March for Hope” to the Civil Rights Institute, which is directly across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church, the fateful site of a 1963 bombing by white supremacists that killed four girls. Following in the footsteps of civil rights activists who had demonstrated in the same place years earlier, the Cities United marchers called for action to improve the lives of black men and boys now.

At a press conference following the march, Dr. William C. Bell, president and CEO of Casey Family Programs, urged the crowd to action. “The best way to stop a bullet is a job. We’ve got to change the way our young people view their future,” he said.

Youth at the convening shared experiences about the painful impact of violence on their lives. Kenneth Fells of Birmingham recounted how he had been shot in the leg in 2015 in a drive-by shooting that also injured an 8-year-old girl. Deeply affected when this younger person asked how he was doing, he decided to change his life. Through the help of the Dannon Project, which serves at-risk youth, Kenneth received job training and support and is now learning to become a phlebotomist, a technician who draws blood.

They paid tribute to Gino Nicholas, a recent college graduate and youth leader who was working to make life better for at-risk youth in Orlando, Florida, through My Brother’s Keeper when he was gunned down while sitting outside an apartment with young people.

The convening also highlighted the concrete efforts of cities and programs to support youth, strengthen communities and decrease violence.

These include:

  • The Save Our Sons program in Knoxville, Tenn., which has reached out to youth and the community through a summit to find out what supports kids need. Based on feedback that kids want safe places and activities, the city is partnering with foundations and other partners to build The Change Center — a community center with a skating rink, basketball court, music mixing studio, concert stage and more.
  • The Violence Reduction Initiative in Birmingham, a high-level collaboration between the city, foundations, the police department, nonprofits and judicial system leaders. They’ve broken down formerly siloed efforts and are working to change community norms about violence and provide a supported path to those who want a way out of street life. Additionally, more than 3,000 young people have signed the Hundred Days of Nonviolence pledge, an effort led by a Birmingham city councilman.
  • A Justice Department initiative that funds efforts to expunge the records of low-level criminal offenders who live in public housing, helping them to re-enter society and find productive work rather than relying on criminal activity.
Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell, Sr.
Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell, Sr.

The Rev. Al Herring helped close the convening, saying: “We’ve got boys and girls to save, and we’ve got a nation to heal and we’ve got buckets of justice to fill.”

Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell, Sr., then turned over the convening to next year’s host, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges. “I know that together it is possible to find a solution to the problem of violence perpetrated against the young men of color in our country,” she said.


Photos provided courtesy of Radcliffe “Ruddy” Roye