Six years after I first heard them, the statistics still haunt me: Eighty-six percent of Black children in the fourth grade read and do math below their grade level. Black girls between the ages of 15 and 24 represent the greatest number of people with new HIV infections. Homicide is the leading cause of death for our boys. The village is on fire! And our love is the healing water that legions of our precious children are literally dying for. When we listen, we hear their cries rising above the flames; their voices carry the dream-crushing pain and humiliation of intergenerational poverty: days of missed meals, uncertain safety and poorly resourced schools that are the pipeline to prison. These are among the many heart-wrenching things stealing the lives of impoverished Black children in the land of plenty, a land made rich and powerful on the backs of our ancestors where today under-resourced Black children have been all but discarded, even as we note significant anniversaries and strides toward justice and peace.
In August we mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That moment is perhaps the most defining in the push toward ending Jim Crow, which would come five years later, with the signing of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. And this past January we noted the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in all but America’s border states. Five years before that, however, there was another occurrence that deserves our attention, because that’s when the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Dred Scott case, ruling that African American were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” And why should we note this vulgarity? Because of Frederick Douglass. At that moment, and in in the face of that despicable decision, he still envisioned the end of slavery just down road—and proclaimed it publicly! So if during one of the harshest and cruelest times in this our story, a man who was born into slavery could lead abolitionists and a President to take their place on the right side of history, let us not step back in making that same choice today. Let people look back 50 years from today, 150 years from today and say that even as more people were killed in Chicago in 2012 than American soldiers were in the Kabul theater of war; and even as America had five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population, with young Black men leading the stats in being profiled for arrest—guilty or not—let it also be said that 2013 was the year the people came to their senses, stood up together and said “Not on our watch! We are putting an end to the war in our streets and the wars we fund overseas. “Enough is enough!”
This is what National CARES Mentoring Movement, the organization I founded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, is saying and we are asking that you stand with us as we stand for children, many already forgotten by the policymakers, written off by the jaded, hated by the racist and traumatized by those closest to them. We are their shield, their sword, sometimes their voice and always their shoulder. We can ensure young lives tumbling south and rebuild the village. And we can do it well by mentoring the least of these.
Mentoring—a low-cost, high-returns solution—works miracles. In the tradition of our ancestors, we can provide protective cover for our children whether we are rich or poor, formally educated or not, and though none of our lives is perfect. Done well and consistently, mentoring changes and secures even the most challenged young lives.
But when the call goes out for mentors, White women and men are the first respondents, Black women and men too often are not in the mix—and all the while the waiting lists of youth-serving organizations are filled with Black children, the vast majority of them our beautiful boys…waiting. The National CARES Mentoring Movement is committed to changing this, and in the now time!
Before we began our work, there was no national infrastructure in place to engage desperately needed Black men and women volunteers. At National CARES, now operating in nearly 60 U.S. cities, we are determined to ensure that all Black children needing guidance and role models are surrounded by a circle of caring, supportive adults who are committed to volunteering just one hour a week of their time as mentors. And of our programs, none is more urgent than our initiative, The Rising: Elevating Education, Expectations and Self-Esteem, being piloted on Chicago’s Southside at John H. Harlan Community Academy, a school of more than 1,000. We were working with devoted Principal Reggie Evans and his staff to help undergird the whole student body, most of which come severely challenged communities and families. We can do it. But we need your help.
The Rising is a community-led initiative designed to nourish and advance our youngsters emotionally, socially and academically. The pilot program incorporates empowering elements of A New Way Forward: Healing What’s Hurting Black America, which is National CARES’ directional framework for all we do in our communities. It was created for mentors to counter the incalculable damage done to the psyche and soul of African Americans over the centuries of enslavement and its equally punishing aftermath. The Rising at Harlan, designed specifically for struggling high-schoolers, draws upon A New Way Forward’s philosophy, and like A New Way Forward, is rooted in the wisdom of 60 of this nation’s most highly regarded experts on critical thinking, education, African American history, total well-being, spirituality, wealth building and more.
The Rising at Harlan High is a pilot aimed at transforming the lives of children trapped in inter-generational poverty by engaging them in prevention, wellness and support efforts that mitigate the disparities and dysfunction ruining so many young lives. The children benefit from being served within a group-mentoring framework, where able adults come together to support students through all-school assemblies and smaller in-classroom Wellness Mentoring Circles. This reduces the pressures sometimes faced in one-to-one relationships, which can be overwhelming for the single mentor; and it allows us to address problems at scale. Our goal at CARES is wrap our arms around all children who need a mentor, not to choose just a fortunate few.
Our ask is that in partnership with a cohort of other Windy City CARES mentors, you volunteer an hour or two a week listening to, supporting and sharing with Harlan students in Wellness Mentoring Circles. Listening carefully and your heart wide open and the training we will provide, you will be giving children struggling along the margins a chance to create the beautiful lives they are longing for and at a critical juncture in their lives.
This is what I’ve come to know: Working with and mentoring young people is about our humanity. It’s our soul work. It’s the big business of Black people. And standing in solidarity with caring partners in the public and private sectors, we privileged African Americans have the ability and responsibility to end this crisis moment our under-resourced children are struggling through.
Dr. Martin Luther King told us half a decade ago that we had but two choices: community or chaos. Our ask today is that you stand with us as we gratefully, fully and with our hearts filled to overflow with love, choose the community of our children who need us so.
For more information about the National CARES Mentoring Movement, please visit www.caresmentoring.org.
Susan L. Taylor is the founder and CEO of the National CARES Mentoring Movement. For 27 years, she served as chief editor of ESSENCE Magazine.