One of my most influential mentors, Tufts University History Professor Gerald Gill, always reminded his students that Black History Month should not only be an occasion to celebrate the most prominent leaders in the struggle for equality — we must also highlight a more complete account of the African-American experience that too often gets overlooked. Gill wanted his students to understand there were many unsung heroes who promoted progress for African Americans and never became famous. He directed students toward independent study projects to research community based initiatives, and to learn about the people behind the scenes in the movements to abolish slavery and promote civil rights. We learned that the victories won in the struggle for equality have been as much about the actions of people whose contributions were not recorded in history books as they have been about the leaders whose accomplishments we remember each February. So in following the example of Professor Gill, this February I want to highlight some of the people today whose contributions in the continuing struggle for equality might get overlooked – mentors.
For African Americans born today, perhaps the greatest challenge to be faced is overcoming structural barriers to achieving upward economic mobility. African American children not only start behind their white peers economically, but they face obstacles that make it less likely to be able to catch up. Black households have only 10 cents in wealth for every dollar held by white households and earn 61% of the income the median white household earns in a year. Compared to all other racial and ethnic groups, African Americans are 40% more likely to attend lower performing public schools due to living in racially segregated, underfunded school districts. Black students have greater difficulty affording college with an estimated 86% having to borrow federal student loans compared to 59% of white students, and throughout their childhood are impacted by a criminal justice system that incarcerates African Americans at 6 times the rate of their white peers.
Just as with slavery and civil rights, promoting economic mobility for today’s youth will require both leaders who can address the policy issues that create inequality, and everyday Americans who also step up to address the opportunity gaps we already have. Mentors in programs like CPE address these opportunity gaps every day, and while they do not volunteer in order to get recognition, their efforts produce results that should be celebrated and emulated.
For the past 18 years I’ve witnessed hundreds of mentoring success stories with adults volunteering their time to consistently support and coach their aspiring mentees as they navigate their path toward economic mobility. Most volunteer their time for the same reasons that drew me to CPE’s mission, a recognition that much of their own achievement is a direct result of mentors who had invested in shaping their success. They want to give back, or pay it forward to the next generation.
Take for example a CPE mentor named Ted who credits his interest in mentoring to a neighbor who took the time to mentor him after his father died by helping him develop his self-confidence in academic, social, and professional settings. Ted recognized when he moved to D.C. that too many local boys did not have other men in their neighborhood or school to offer them guidance, so he decided to seek a program where he could formally mentor a young man who grew up just like he did. Research shows these mentoring relationships make a big difference to young people. A study published by The National Mentoring Partnership reports young adults with mentors are 55% more likely to enroll in college, 78% more likely to volunteer regularly, and 130% more likely to hold leadership positions.
Unfortunately, one of the most pernicious aspects of the income divide is the corresponding gap in access to mentors. Just as Ted noticed in his new community in D.C., too many African American kids throughout the U.S. today lack exposure to mentors like the one who stepped in and mentored him when his dad passed away. Mentoring researchers have noted that low-income youth are half as likely to have had informal mentors in their communities, and almost twice as likely report wanting one, so formal mentoring programs around the country like CPE play a critical role in helping young people discover their potential. These volunteers will never get the recognition that many of the heroes who are typically honored every February during Black History Month, but they are just as critical to the struggle for equality.
So as we approach the last few days of Black History Month in 2019, let us salute the hundreds of CPE mentors who volunteer their time to promote equality in our community, and the millions of other mentors doing so around the country. Future history students may not learn about their contributions in generations to come, but I’m not the only one who thinks that these mentors are worthy of our esteem. We can look to the opinion of the most celebrated person during every Black History month, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King preached about a better framework for recognizing accomplishments rather than fame, and offered us the wisdom that I see acted out every day by volunteers in our program, “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”
-Khari Brown, CEO