Obama tells young minority men: "You're where I was" as a kid

President Obama speaks about the about My Brother's Keeper initiative at the Walker Jones Education Campus on July 21, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Mark Wilson, Getty Images

"When I look out at some of the young men who are here -- you're where I was 40, 35 years ago," Mr. Obama said Monday at a town meeting-style event at a Washington, D.C. education center, where he took questions from Washington-area youth.

The event was staged to roll out new commitments tied to the "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, which aims to unlock the full potential of young minority men and boys. As in the past, Mr. Obama framed the issue in very personal terms.

In his conversation, the president spoke about what how he became a father without one of his own to serve as a role model and the "unbelievable" challenges his mother faced as a teenage mom. He also spoke about the goals he set as a young person, broadening the horizons of young African-American men, and dispelling the notion among African-American youth of "acting white."

"When I was in my teens, I didn't have a father in the house, it took me a while to realize I was angry about that, and I acted out in some ways," the president said to kick off the event. However, he said, he grew up in a forgiving environment where he was given second chances.

The Brother's Keeper initiative is designed to give more young men a forgiving support system, Mr. Obama said. The White House on Monday announced various commitments that several organizations have made to the cause.

For instance, AT&T will give $18 million this year to support mentoring and other education programs. A group called the Emerson Collective, founded by Steve Jobs' widow Laurene Powell Jobs and others from Silicon Valley, will spend $50 million collaborating with educators on a competition to design better high schools. Additionally, the NBA, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) and the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) have announced a five-year commitment to educators and mentors to help boys and young men of color.

When asked about the goals he set as a youth, Mr. Obama gave a basketball analogy: "You can't make a shot if you don't aim," he said.

He acknowledged that he wasn't completely "serious" about his future until he was about 20 years old, remarking that when he was young, "a lot of my goals revolved around basketball."

The president later said that the My Brother's Keeper initiative should help young men of color get exposure to other passions to pursue, such as graphic design or engineering. "Often times they only thing they see to be passionate about is basketball or rap," he said.

Mr. Obama also said it's time to change the "notion of 'acting white'" that exists in some African-American communities -- in which a young man may be teased, for instance, for "reading too much."

"The notion that there's some authentic way of being black, if you're being black you have to act a certain way... that has to go," he said. "There are a whole bunch of different ways for African-American men to be authentic."

Mr. Obama spoke about his own experience growing up, remarking that he spent about a month with his father at the age of 10 and then never saw him again. The president said while visiting a group of teenage moms in Minnesota recently, he thought of his mother, who was 18 when when he was born.

"I just looked at them and I thought, 'You're just children!'" the president said. "I thought about my mother and how she ever managed that, it's unbelievable."

While he didn't have a father, Mr. Obama said he learned to be a good parent from his mother. "The values my mother taught me, I thought to myself, those are values that any parent should have," he said. "It doesn't matter whether you're the dad or the mom, loving your child, being responsible for your child... those weren't just values for moms to teach."

Mr. Obama said he's also committed to simply "being there" for his children. Mentorship, he said, is a key component of the Brother's Keeper initiative.