Contrary to what many people believe, our jails and prisons are full of intelligent, creative and talented human beings. Unfortunately, their potential was arrested long before they were.
Too often, the shared experience that connects this population derives not from the commission of their crimes, but the omission of a strong, constructive influence when it would have made a difference. They are missing mentors. Mentors are good listeners, reliable friends and caring guides who help unlock their mentees’ potential and bolster their self-esteem at a time when they need all the positive reinforcement that an adult can provide.
I believe in the power of mentoring. As Sheriff and a member of the Board of the Mass Mentoring Partnership, I know the difference it makes. On Oct. 1, I used one of my fundraisers to highlight the need for more mentors and celebrate success stories. My friend, Chris Gardner, a truly inspirational figure whose powerful “rags to riches” story was featured in the film The Pursuit of Happyness, was our keynote speaker. With Duane Jackson, another MMP Board member, we showcased The Mentors of Color Campaign, which was recently launched by MMP, the statewide umbrella organization for mentoring programs in the Commonwealth. The goal of the campaign is to recruit 1,000 mentors of color by the year 2012.
In poignant and frequently hilarious ways, Gardner told of several mentors who influenced his choices, guided him to good decisions and changed his life. At the end of his remarks, he promised to return next year and challenged the crowd to return and bring with them a young person they had mentored for at least a year.
We also heard from two young men that night, both of them attending with their mentors. Benjamin, 10 years old and adorable in his three-piece suit, addressed a room full of adults, mentor Terry by his side. He spoke with confidence about trips to museums, ball games and some of the other activities he shares with his mentor. Benjamin’s favorite thing about Terry is that he is “there for me.”
Terry spoke about the tremendous satisfaction he derives from having Benjamin in his life and what being a mentor has taught him about himself. Jelani, a self-assured 19-year-old, spoke about his relationship with his mentor Shawn. Shawn and Jelani were paired three years ago, when Jelani was on a path that easily could have led to involvement with the criminal justice system. Today, he attends community college and teaches in the Boston Public Schools. Shawn, who runs his own mentoring program, has had such a tremendous impact on him that Jelani has become a mentor to two young people.
In Massachusetts alone there are 3,000 young people on waiting lists for mentors. Currently there are about 20,000 youth in Massachusetts involved in formal mentoring relationships with programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters. Seventy-five percent of these are young people of color, but only 25 percent of mentors are adults of color.
This is a critical gap we must address. It is not acceptable that Black and Latino mentees outnumber Black and Latino mentors three to one. This level of need is deeply troubling and already at the crisis point. Mentors are something our community can provide. We can and should be well represented among the caring adults eager to bring their life experiences and diverse history to the kids who need them. And any mentor will tell you that the power of this work is transformative for them as well.
There are too many children with incarcerated parents and too many young adults headed there themselves. There are too many kids waiting for someone to care, and too many of us to justify that wait. Do something about it. Become a mentor. If you can’t mentor, be a resource for those who do. Contact the Mass Mentoring Partnership, find a mentoring program and volunteer some time. Offer your place of business to mentors and mentees for a tour and a talk about what you do and how you’ve achieved your goals. Perhaps a group of artists could adopt a local mentoring program and sponsor an “Art-a-Thon.” Lawyers can donate office space, volunteer to be advisors and sponsor a mock trial competition. Teachers can help tutor or give classes on creative writing. Ask how you can donate gift certificates for plays, museums, films, concerts, anything that will help a mentor expand their mentee’s knowledge and open their world.
Do whatever you can whenever you can. It will make a huge difference in the life of every child you help.
To find out more information on the Mentors of Color Campaign, visit www.youcanmentor2.org.
Andrea J. Cabral is a former prosecutor and the Sheriff of Suffolk County