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Vernon Jarrett Senior Fellow Program 2008-2009: Statement of Purpose

As a Fellow at the Great Cities Institute from 1997 until his passing in 2004, Vernon Jarrett continued his lifelong commitment to social justice and education, particularly for African-Americans in urban areas.  As a journalist, he wrote hundreds of articles on these issues, and in his work as a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists, the creation of the ACT-SO academic competition for high school students, and the Freedom Readers program in the Chicago Public Schools, Jarrett saw the need to address the educational and development needs of young people. 

It is clear from his work and writing that Jarrett saw education as a tool for addressing the varied urgent challenges that young African Americans face as navigated their way through failing urban schools, neighborhoods suffering from disinvestment, and a social safety net that lacked adequate resources and key services to help poor families adequately support the development of their children to grow into healthy and productive citizens.  These issues were all prevalent during Jarrett's lifetime and he devoted his life and his work at the institute to addressing them.  These issues remain today in most urban areas and are a focus of the Vernon Jarrett program, which appoints a Fellow in Jarrett's name to take a lead role at the Institute in addressing such issues.

To effectively address these issues, however, the program must prioritize and focus programmatically.  The current Vernon Jarrett Fellow, and former President of the Chicago Urban League, James Compton is charged with setting this focus for the program.  He has identified the condition of the young African-American male as a central theme around which to focus the work of the Vernon Jarrett program.  Compton recognizes that as a group, this segment of the population is becoming increasingly disconnected from mainstream society. 

Evidence of this disconnect is apparent in a number of indicators.  Recent research done by the Urban Institute found that among young African-American men in the largest cities in the US, as many as half are unemployed; they have a 30 percent chance of having contact with the prison system; and they drop out of high school at a rate of 40 percent.  Among those who drop out, 72 percent are jobless, and drop outs have a 60 percent chance of contact with the prison system.[1]  This is clearly a problem worthy of immediate attention.

A goal of the Vernon Jarrett Senior Fellow Program for 2008-2009 is to move this theme into a broader arena of public discourse with regard to public policy responses.  There is a need to address this issue holistically and from a variety of vantage points.  Even more important is the need to engage a wide range of practitioners, academics, civic leaders, and policy makers in this discourse in a very constructive way.  The conversation should address the following questions:

  • What is the scale and scope of the disconnect of African-American males from mainstream society and what are the implications of this disconnect for broader society?
  • What new ideas about solutions or strategies to specifically address the needs of African-American men are being posed and/or tested?
  • What are the institutional and financial resources required to implement the new ideas, and how could they be focused on addressing the needs of African-American males?

There is a lack of serious debate and discussion on policy prescriptions for addressing the challenges faced by African-American males.  The 2008-2009 Vernon Jarrett Senior Fellow Program will create the space and opportunity for such discussion by:

  • Inviting experts and experienced practitioners to present in public forums at the university
  • Hosting panel discussions and workshops in which practitioners, academics, civic leaders, and policy makers share ideas.
  • Convening an advisory group to provide guidance to the program on the best ways to engage and support meaningful discussion and debate on strategies

Success for the Jarrett program in 2008-2009 will be defined by the creation of new thinking and ideas about the condition of African-American males and strategies needed to address the problem.  The longer term goal of this effort will be to get the issue on the agendas of policy makers for serious discussion about specific policy responses.  While the problem is significant, the Jarrett Program will use its position in the university and the visibility of its Fellow to draw new attention to the condition of the African-American male.