How Mentorship Can Break Down Racial Divides
*This post was originally published on February 11th, 2021. It was updated for National Mentoring Month in January 2023.
When did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?
For me, it was elementary school, in Topeka, Kansas, when I declared, “I want to be a television reporter!”
Maybe it was because I liked to talk — a lot — and ask questions. No one in my family was familiar with that career choice: my father was a high school principal, my mom was a teacher, and my favorite aunt was a nurse…but television?
And when I told someone outside my family about my dreams, they said ‘…pick something else; little Black girls don’t grow up to be on television’.
That was long before Oprah.
What was meant to be a deterrent motivated my parents and me. I received a full academic scholarship to Jackson State in Mississippi, a historically black university with an accredited journalism department. My professors took a chance on me and found a television internship that turned into a full-time reporting gig, all while juggling classes during my senior year.
A Life-Changing Relationship
I made a point to find mentors — other Black reporters and anchors I still call on for advice today. And I made sure to kick the door wide open at every television station I worked in over my 16-year career, so others who were told they don’t belong would feel welcome. It’s funny to think, my life could have taken a different turn had I believed that person. You’ve heard the saying, ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’
I had always been an informal mentor, but when I moved to Florida, I joined Big Brothers Big Sisters as a volunteer, a ‘Big Sister’. Meeting my mentee (we call them ‘Littles’) changed my life. My Little Sister, Sharmel, was seven years old and full of energy. She loved cheerleading (so did I!) but did not like reading books.
Wise beyond her years, she was more aware of the injustices in the world than I was at that age. When Sharmel talked about possible careers — attorney? Fashion designer? — I went out of my way to find those in that field that looked like her. I know what it’s like to be that little Black girl who didn’t see any representation in front of her.
As we celebrate Black History Month, Big Brothers Big Sisters will shine a spotlight on the contributions of African-Americans. Nationally, 71% of the youth we serve are Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), and Black History Month is a chance to show youth how to overcome barriers, so they can see the possibilities, and have a sense of pride.
Fostering Understanding & Breaking Down Barriers
It’s also an opportunity to educate: more than 68% of the volunteer mentors are white or non-Black. One of the most powerful tenets of our one-to-one mentoring program is how we pair caring adults with youth, age five to young adulthood, who may come from completely different walks of life. And that’s what makes our program special — and eye-opening.
One way to break down barriers and strengthen relationships along the racial divide is to have candid conversations and spend time learning to understand and celebrate our differences. We’ve seen how social justice and unrest have pulled our nation apart. Wouldn’t it be nice to see how to rebuild that, through open dialogue and listening?
These important voices are amplified even more this month: recognizing the first Black Big Brother in East Tennessee, still connected to his Little Brother 50 years later; the focus on JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) training for Bigs, Littles, Board of Directors, and staff; and telling the story of Artis Stevens, the first Black President and CEO for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America in the organization’s 110+ year history. Decades from now, Bigs will reminisce with their Little, ‘…remember when Artis Stevens was the first?’
Sharmel made such an impact on my life. Fourteen years ago, I left television after an amazing experience that I wouldn’t change one bit! But now, as the Director of Marketing for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, I have the privilege of telling stories of empowerment and resilience. And maybe inspire more young people to change the narrative, ‘if you can dream it, you can be it.’
Learn more about how Big Brothers Big Sisters is fostering life-changing relationships during COVID and beyond. And read more about how you can honor Black history throughout the year.
De Anna and Sharmel are still connected today! “Just wanted to thank you for being a positive influence in my life and let you know that I love you and I appreciate everything you’ve done for me,” Sharmel recently told De Anna.
Sharmel now has a love for reading and is the first in her family to graduate from college. She works in the medical field supporting COVID-19 patients. There are 230+ Big Brother Big Sisters agencies located in 5,000 communities in all 50 states. You can follow the Black History Month celebrations throughout February on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. To learn how you can volunteer and get involved in your community, visit www.bbbs.org.
About the Author
De Anna Ward
Director of Marketing & Communications for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America
De Anna has a passion for telling compelling stories that inspire people to find their purpose. In 2002, De Anna’s life changed when she began mentoring 7-year-old Sharmel through Big Brothers Big Sisters, while working at WTSP-TV, the CBS affiliate in Tampa. The experience made a profound impact on her life; she decided to leave television and join the mentoring movement. She currently serves as the Director of Marketing and Communications for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. But her journey to the nation’s oldest one-to-one mentoring organization began decades ago when she started out as a television reporter, while completing her senior year at Jackson State University, in Mississippi.
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