Last week I spent time with a man I’ve grown to love and admire, a white brother who is among the nation’s foremost advocates for the children suffering so on our watch. During the course of our conversation, he said something that will stay forever in my heart. “Susan, I can love African American children. I can teach and mentor African American children. But as a white man I can never show them that their community cares for them.” In 30 seconds, Michael Piraino—CEO of CASA, a national network of 946 local community programs comprised of court-appointed volunteers who support abused or neglected children in the quest to find them safety, permanence and the opportunity to thrive—capsuled what I have been saying for many years, and most pointedly since I first read the terrible wave of statistics reporting that some 86 percent of black fourth graders read and do math below grade level; that homicide is the leading cause of death for black boys; and that our girls lead the nation in new cases of HIV infection.
This is another fact that grips me: When the call goes out for mentors, white women and men respond first, and black women and men respond last. It is my mission, and the mandate of the organization I founded while still chief editor at Essence magazine to replace these dream-crushing statistics that are our children’s realities, with the ones our ancestors sacrificed their lives for—and by that sacrifice, demanded that we, too, ensure the following generations’ wellness.
When we began the National CARES Mentoring Movement, the vision was to put a call out to and structure a place for African American mentors. We sought to recruit men and women from our communities who could and would stand in the gap for the millions of black children living in the corners and shadows of this nation asking that someone see, hear and help guide them. Working through our nearly 60 CARES Mentor-Recruitment Affiliates across the country over the last seven and half years, we have recruited and deployed more than 125,000 adults to youth-serving organizations that are in desperate need of black men and women volunteers. But with 15 million children still waiting, the ones deployed are not nearly enough. Guiding the work of CARES is the push to understand what has kept us from mentoring at the levels we need to, and then putting in place the programs, systems and supports needed to correct the current course. It is to help create what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. devoted his life to: rebuilding the “beloved community.”
Research we conducted in 2010 and 2011 found that while black adults care deeply about our children, often we are burdened by so many stressors—many of them borne of a society still grappling with structural racism—that our ability to offer ourselves as mentors is challenged. In response, National CARES convened a Brain Trust of some of our nation’s finest minds to develop a healing protocol. A New Way Forward: Healing What's Hurting Black America is designed to support African American mentors by providing them with the user-friendly information needed to instill wellness in body, mind and spirit as they work to support and sustain our under-resourced children.
In January, as those of us in the youth-support field acknowledge National Mentoring Month, National CARES is taking our healing protocol and expanding it to include and embrace young people directly. CARES staff and I began King weekend this year on Chicago’s South Side meeting with our Windy City CARES Affiliate and students, faculty and administrators at a school that is working to reclaim children from trauma and violence. Across the nation, our CARES Mentor-Recruitment Affiliates are hosting mentor mixers—large scale gatherings that introduce potential mentors to those organizations that so need us to stand in the gap. In Washington, D.C., Capital City Area CARES held a vibrant March for Mentors on Saturday, January 19th, to galvanize the community and encourage more adults to join the movement to mentor and restore our children. And on Justice Sunday, January 20, in partnership with The National Alliance of Faith and Justice, selected local CARES Affiliates served as the mentor-recruitment arm of the initiative by collaborating with faith-based institutions and community organizations.
Ultimately though, it’s not what happens this month or next month. It’s about what we commit our hearts to every day—including our own health and healing—so that each child within reach of our collective voice knows that the black community is speaking, at last and together, these words: We will not let you fall. We will not let you be lost. Not on our watch. We care.