Healthy Choices

Sierra Health Foundation CEO describes “a moving moment” at the White House

The nationwide statistics are brutal: By fourth grade, 86 percent of African American boys and 82 percent of Latino boys are reading below proficiency levels. (That compares to 54 percent of white fourth-graders.)

And African American and Latino young men are more than six times as likely to be victims of murder than their white peers. The two groups make up almost half of the country’s murder victims each year.

Needless to say, public health experts see a crisis here. So, too, does President Obama, who last week announced a new initiative to work with leading foundations and businesses to turn these statistics around.

“My Brother’s Keeper” is designed to help break down barriers to improve the lives and overall health of boys and young men of color. It’s still in the developmental stage, and will depend on philanthropic funding and the input of many community leaders nationwide.

Among leaders participating is Sacramento’s Chet Hewitt, president and CEO of the Sierra Health Foundation. Hewitt joined the foundation in 2007 and focuses on bridging health disparities, building health equity and improving the well-being of vulnerable youth.

Hewitt was present in the East Room of the White House as Obama talked about building a broad coalition of backers to work on empowering young minorities.

“It was very moving,” Hewitt said. “It was an historic moment. You had the first African American president actually coming out and making a statement about men and boys of color.”

Hewitt noted that a lot of work has already been done in schools, in particular, to break the cycle of suspensions and expulsions based solely on a teen’s display of “willful defiance.” That kind of zero-tolerance punishment in schools has been shown to disproportionately affect young men and boys of color.

“California is in a good position and is at the top of the pack to make a difference.” Hewitt said. “It goes beyond individuals and relates to our entire society.”

Already efforts are under way in California to reform the juvenile justice system. In addition, public health programs, such as those aimed at reducing obesity in youth, are making a difference.

As for the need for the latter, Hewitt pointed to a study called “Ready, Willing and Able to Serve” that concluded 75 percent of American youth were not qualified to serve in the military because of a combination of factors: they did not meet fitness requirements, had criminal histories or lacked education. The health equity push addresses all three challenges.