the video games, the 11th Frame bar, and the orange formica shoe-rental island,
occupying half the Saturday afternoon lanes at Mel's Bowl in Oakland is a scene
to warm the civic heart: 25 lanes packed with bowlers, impervious to the
brilliant spring day outside, immersed in spontaneous sociability.
The crowd is at Mel's today to participate in Bowl for Kids' Sake, a
fundraiser for the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program that has generated nearly
$125 million in donations since 1981. This year the Oakland program expects to
net close to $150,000. Nationally, with endorsements from both the Professional
Bowlers Association and the Bowling Proprietors Association of America, two
million Bowl for Kids' Sake participants will produce more than $15 million,
second only to United Way contributions as a source of financial support for the
mentoring work of Big Brothers/Big Sisters organizations.
The remarkable feature of Bowl for Kids' Sake is that it is fundamentally a
fundraiser for social capital, helping to underwrite a program that constitutes
one of the most important forms of connectedness that political scientist Robert
Putnam and other observers fear is disappearing [see Robert Putnam, " HREF="../24/putnam-r.html">The Strange Disappearance of Civic America,"
TAP, Winter 1996, and the correction
from Putnam and John F. Helliwell this issue, page 18].
As the late sociologist James Colemanwho first introduced the concept
of social capital to an American audienceexplained nearly a decade ago, "Social
capital in the community exists in the interest, even the intrusiveness, of one
adult in the activities of someone else's child." For Coleman this was most
vividly expressed in relationships that crossed generations and were
characterized by "attention, personal interest and intensity of involvement"
on the part of the adults.
Coleman might as well have been reciting the mission statement of Big
Brothers/Big Sisters of America. For nearly 100 years Big Brothers/Big Sisters
has defined the enterprise of face-to-face connecting so completely that it owns
the trademark, One to One. It is also one of the best-known youth programs in
America. A 1994 Gallup poll found that 78 percent of Americans are aware of Big
Brothers/Big Sisters, which matches 75,000 children from single-parent homes ("Littles")
with volunteer mentors ("Bigs") through more than 500 chapters
nationwide. The activities encouraged by the program are primarily informal and
friendly. Depending on a youngster's interests, a mentor takes the child out to
eat, to watch a ballgame, to go to a concert, or just to talkon average
three times a month, three and a half hours each time. That amounts to 126 hours
a year, or about three 40-hour work weeks, which is no small commitment.
The case of Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the new mentoring movement it has
helped spawn offer a concrete opportunity to reexamine the sweeping thesis that
social capital in this country is plummeting, without organic prospects for
replenishment. By focusing on one of its most important and elemental
expressionsthe attempt to create one-to-one relationships between adults
and youthit is also possible to explore if and how public social policy
can help rebuild the civic infrastructure of neighborhoods.
THE PERSONAL TOUCH
Big Brothers/Big Sisters began its long crusade to foster adult-youth
connections in 1904, launched by Ernest Coulter, a New York newspaperman who
left journalism to work in the city's first children's court. Appalled by the
harsh juvenile justice and social welfare systems he encountered in his new job,
Coulter appealed for help to his friends at the Men's Club of the Central
Presbyterian Church of New York.
Recounting the story of one promising child relegated to the custody of an
uncaring system, Coulter told the professionals and businessmen of the Men's
Club: "There is only one possible way to save that youngster, to have some
earnest, true man volunteer to be his big brother, to look after him, help him
to do right, make the little chap feel that there is at least one human being in
this great city . . . who cares whether he lives or dies."
The experience of the 39 volunteers who signed up that night was far from
glorious. Coulter himself spent eight years unsuccessfully trying to
rehabilitate a member of the Fagins street gang. Nevertheless, the movement
caught on, largely by contrasting itself to the emerging bureaucracies of
early-twentieth-century urban America.
At a revival-like rally for the new movement held at the Casino Theater in
New York in 1916, a multiracial, ecumenical crowd of 2,000 recruits listened to
Rabbi J.L. Magnes and a parade of clergy lambast these institutions and their "social
machinery." "In this day of cold efficiencyefficiency in
business, efficiency in charity," Magnes charged, "it is a miserable
small justice our great organized charities do. . . . The personal touch is
Almost 100 years later, the circumstances that so outraged Coulter and
Magnes and launched the Big Brothers/Big Sisters movement are dramatically
worse. British child care expert Penelope Leach warns that if we want to
socialize our children, we must socialize with them. Yet increasingly, many of
this country's youth have few responsible adults to lean on for nurturance and
support. Market forces, individual decisions, and public policies have all
converged to produce a situation for kids that everyone decries.
For one, there are fewer adults in families. Today more than one in four
children is born into a single-parent household; among African Americans, it's
two of three. The 1980s alone saw a doubling of no-parent households
(that is, households where kids are being raised by grandparents, other
relatives, or foster parents), and nearly 40 percent of our youth grow up in
fatherless homes. And regardless of the number of adults, the time famine
afflicting so many working parents makes it difficult for them to spend
sufficient time with their kids.
The settings that might compensate for these shiftsneighborhood
streets and schoolsfrequently don't offer much help. One poll finds that
nearly three of four Americans do not know the person living next door;
meanwhile, in many urban neighborhoods, the fear of violence has driven
community adults, once an important source of socialization and support, behind
locked doors. The problem is particularly acute in schools that are now often
impersonal teaching factories, reeling in the wake of budget cuts.
Student-counselor ratios exceed 500 to 1 in most urban districts. Class size is
30 or even 40 students, and the average teacher will often face 200 students in
a single day. Even the most caring find it hard to connect with more than a few
These figures are all the more troubling given the level of stress so many
young people confront. Today's youth face a bewildering array of hazards, with
those living in the inner city particularly besieged. Seventy percent of these
children, by the age of 15, have witnessed someone being beaten, while nearly a
third have watched someone being shot. A recent survey of 2,000 teenagers by
Louis Harris and Associates found that one in eight youth carries a weapon to
school for protection. In high crime areas the number jumps to almost two in
fivewith one out of three cutting classes or staying away from school
regularly out of fear for their safety.
In short, many youth are without adult support at precisely the juncture in
their lives when they need it most. And while common sense tells us this is an
unhappy situation, social sciencethrough an array of studies on "resilient"
children who overcome the odds of povertysuggests that it is also a missed
In the most substantial of these studies, developmental psychologist Emmy E.
Werner followed 500 Hawaiian children growing up in poverty on Kauai. Examining
their lives from birth to adulthood, over a 30-year period, Werner found that
the youth who managed to make it, against the odds, all could count on the
support of an adult mentor other than their parents.
Anthropologists William Kornblum and Terry Williams followed 900 children in
urban and rural poverty across the U.S., concluding that "the most
significant" factor determining whether teenagers would end up on the
corner or in a stable job "is the presence or absence of adult mentors."
Earlier this year, Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College at Columbia
University, reached the same conclusion in a book of case histories chronicling
the experience of 24 disadvantaged children who had made it to college.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Against this backdrop, the busy lanes at Mel's Bowl are reassuring. Better
yet, Mel's patrons are not alone. While overall volunteering is on the sharp
decline (dropping from 54 to 48 percent of adults from 1989 to 1993, according
to a Gallup survey), the number of volunteers in Big Brothers/Big Sisters
programs continues to grow steadily. Indeed, Big Brothers/Big Sisters has helped
to create the new mentoring movement by providing support to other initiatives
and establishing the legitimacy of matching youth with unrelated adult mentors.
Over the past decade hundreds of corporations, universities, youth
organizations, and religious and civic groups have hopped on the mentoring
bandwagon. Nationally, a wide range of groups have joined Big Brothers/Big
Sisters in promoting the mentoring cause, from Proctor and Gamble to the Rainbow
Coalition. California, New York, and Rhode Island have established statewide
mentoring campaigns, with citywide efforts launched to considerable fanfare in
Kansas City, Newark, Oakland, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and dozens of other
locations around the country. A recent volume, Nurturing Young Black Males,
published by the Urban Institute, suggests a particularly rich flowering of
these efforts in the African-American community, sponsored by church groups,
fraternities, sororities, and networks like Concerned Black Men and One Hundred
We also now have powerful evidence that mentoring works. In 1992 the
organization for which we work, Public/Private Ventures, undertook an
independent evaluation of Big Brothers/Big Sisters. (Public/Private Ventures is
a nonprofit social policy development and evaluation firm in Philadelphia that
focuses much of its work on youth and young adults; the evaluation of Big
Brothers/Big Sisters was financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Commonwealth
Fund, Lilly Endowment, and an anonymous donor.) To carry out the research,
Public/Private Ventures studied nearly 1,000 10- to 16-year-olds who applied to
Big Brothers/Big Sisters in 1992 and 1993 but were still on a waiting list. More
than 60 percent of the sample were boys; more than half were members of minority
groups, mostly African Americans. Over 80 percent came from impoverished
families, and almost all were being raised by a single parent, usually the
mother. Approximately 40 percent were from homes with a history of drug or
alcohol abuse and nearly 30 percent came from families with a record of domestic
Half these young people, randomly chosen, were matched with a Big Brother or
Big Sister, while the rest stayed on the waiting list. Eighteen months later,
the differences between the two groups were dramatic. The involvement of a Big
Brother or Big Sister in a young person's life for a single year reduced
first-time drug use by 46 percent (at a time when drug use is mounting among
teenagers), cut school absenteeism by 52 percent, and lowered violent behavior
by 33 percent. Youth with a Big Brother or Big Sister were more likely to
perform well in school, much more likely to relate well to family and friends,
less likely to assault somebody, and much less likely to start using alcohol.
The effects were sustained for both boys and girls and across races.
What's especially startling about these findings is that the mentors were
not trained in drug prevention, remedial tutoring, antiviolence counseling, or
family therapy: Their instructions were to gain the kids' trust and become their
friends. A companion study that looked in-depth over 18 months at 82 Big
Brothers/Big Sisters relationships concluded that those adults who could carry
out those instructionsnot those determined to "straighten these kids
out"were far more likely to gain the trust and time necessary to have
an influence on youths' lives.
In short, while many argue that "nothing works" for poor kidsespecially
if you don't reach them well before adolescencethe evidence says
powerfully otherwise. At a time when "social engineering" of any kind
has reached a nadir in the public's confidence, we find that the most delicate
of social formshuman relationshipscan be created, and can accomplish
OBSTACLES TO EXPANSION
With common sense and powerful evidence of effectiveness now lined up behind
mentoring, you might think that the road ahead is now significantly clearer: We
can floor the accelerator, and get on with it. But two obstacles stand in our
way. They are the numbers of adults available to serve as mentors, and the
organizational resources necessary for carrying out a successful program. Their
repair is inextricably linked to a deeper structural flaw in the route to a more
civil society, namely the widespread American belief that public policy is a
necessary evil, only to be used after individual and social crises have
occurred, and not as an integral, dynamic part of building and maintaining the
Available adults. For all the success of Big Brothers/Big Sisters,
the program is too smallfar too smallin comparison to the number of
young people who want or need a mentor. At present, the waiting list for Big
Brothers/Big Sisters equals nearly half the 75,000 youth it matches in a year, a
list comprised disproportionately of African-American boys. According to one Big
Brothers/Big Sisters official, between 5 million and 15 million children could
benefit from being matched with a mentor.
The modest number of Big Brothers/Big Sisters mentors results in part from a
careful and lengthy screening process; only about one in four people who show
initial interest actually become mentors. But that selectivity is critical, not
simply to screen out pedophiles but because relationships that don't work can be
damaging to kids. It's important to know if an interested, well-meaning adult
really has the time to mentor.
There are a multitude of smaller mentoring programs around the country, and
there is no current and reliable estimate of the number of mentors they deploy
or the time the mentors put in. But if the findings of an earlier Public/Private
Ventures survey hold up, a generous estimate is that these many smaller efforts
triple the Big Brothers/Big Sisters number. Given the estimate of the kids who
could use mentoring, it seems reasonable to conclude that at best a few percent
of kids who could benefit from mentoring are getting it.
Infrastructure and resources. Though some Americans would like to
believe that doing good springs simply from the heart, the Big Brother/Big
Sister experience suggests that, at least in the case of mentoring, making a
genuine difference requires a great deal more. It takes persistent, consistent
involvement, and, as already noted, that necessitates substantial care in
recruiting, screening, matching, and supporting the volunteers. Paid caseworkers
carry out these critical functions for Big Brothers/Big Sisters; as a result,
the program costs on average $1,000 per year per match.
Cheaper programs may not have the same positive results. In other
foundation-supported research, we have studied several mentoring programs that
were much less structured, and thus much less costly, than Big Brothers/Big
Sisters. In these programs many more adult volunteers were ill-prepared for the
commitment and empathy required for mentoring a young stranger. On average the
relationships did not last as long, and far fewer of them were successful,
judging by interviews with both young people and mentors.
Perhaps the Big Brothers/Big Sisters results can be achieved for something
less than $1,000 per yearbut the amount needed won't be zero. If the new,
streamlined mentoring were to cost only $500 per year and we used the lower
estimate of five million kids in need, we would still be about $2.5 billion
Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the many smaller mentoring agencies do a good
job of raising money through bowling fundraisers, United Way contributions,
black-tie affairs, and foundation grants. They may also be able to squeeze 2 to
3 percent more money from private sources. But even if they are spectacularly
successful at fundraising, there is still insufficient monetary support for the
programs. Thus if a few million new volunteers suddenly appeared, there would be
inadequate infrastructure to do anything with them. And there is plenty of
sobering experience with poorly administered volunteers.
These are, remember, children.
Facing shortages of volunteers and dollars, Big Brothers/Big Sisters
programs across the country are busy innovating and adapting. They are trying to
recruit more older adults as mentors. They now involve high school students as "Bigs"
and work with schools and other partners in an attempt to lower supervisory
costs. Indeed, this willingness to adapt is what separates Big Brothers/Big
Sisters from many civic organizations that have become passé. Still,
these measures are insufficient.
Until we accept the integral role of the public sector in scaling up
effective private initiatives, the potential of mentoring will remain
unfulfilled. Unfortunately, for some time public debate has been marooned over
ideological opposition between voluntary action and public involvement. (George
Bush was fond of contrasting the "good" and the "Great"
societies, highlighting the superiority of the former over the latter, and this
tendency continues among many right-wing champions of voluntarism today.)
Nevertheless, there are hopeful signs. In Congress, for example, Democrat
Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey successfully shepherded the Juvenile Mentoring
Program Act (JUMP) to passage, providing federal support for grassroots
mentoring programs. JUMP has also won the hearts of some conservative
Republicans. Dan Coats of Indiana, whoalong with Connecticut liberal
Christopher Doddis one of two former Big Brothers in the Senate, announced
that he would include a measure based on JUMP, the Character Development Act, as
one of 18 bills in his Project for American Renewal. Coats's act will offer
federal grants to link public schools and local mentoring programs. Republican
Governor Pete Wilson of California has proposed putting $15 million in state
funding directly into local mentoring programs to address teenage alcohol and
drug abuse, pregnancy, violence, and school failure.
But these hopeful signs are only that; on balance, most policy efforts
remain small, scattered, and symbolic.
AN ARMY FOR YOUTH
Blending public and voluntary contributions would help mentoring programs to
address the needs of young people for adult contact. Yet it would be a mistake
to underestimate these needs or to overestimate the capacity of volunteers to
meet them. The isolation of young people is a structural problem resulting from
fundamental, corrosive social changes. Volunteer mentoring is a critical step in
the right direction, but rather than being a sufficient response, it highlights
an unmet need and calls out for reinforcements.
From where might these reinforcements come? For one, we need to expand the
number of paid youth workers available to connect with children, as mentors, in
the hours kids spend outside of school. In this vein, David Liederman, director
of the Child Welfare League of America, urges establishment of a corps of
inner-city youth workers, "able to hit the streets and work directly with
kids in their own neighborhoods." He argues that these are the role models
kids really neednot famous athletes on television, but caring adults they
can "see, touch, and talk to." Hugh Price of the National Urban League
estimates that we could support 500,000 such youth workers for the crucial
afternoon and early evening hours for the price of the 100,000 new cops that
were so central to the debate over the 1994 Crime Act.
In fact, this vision of a "small army" of adults committed to
youth is being partly realized through national service, another example of the
role that public policy can play in rebuilding the social capital available to
kids. A significant portion of the 20,000 national service participants in
AmeriCorps are working in direct and intensive one-to-one roles with youth, many
of them helping to expand grassroots mentoring projects.
Friends of the Children in Portland, Oregon, offers a compelling example.
Created by a local financier, the program employs "full-time caring, loving
adults" who each work intensively with eight young children identified by
teachers as destined for trouble. The adult Friends spend time in the classroom,
serve as a bridge between school and home, and act like surrogate family to the
kids. Their goal is to stick with them from second grade to high school. Until
last year, however, budget restrictions limited this promising program to four
adult friends. With AmeriCorps dollars, Friends of the Children has moved from a
complement of 4 to a corps of 24 mentors, and the number of children served has
The Foster Grandparent Program, a little-known product of the War on Poverty
that is now run by the Corporation for National Service, is another potential
platoon in this much-needed army. Foster Grandparents work one-on-one with
90,000 children a year, making it the biggest one-to-one program in the U.S.,
bigger even than Big Brothers/Big Sisters. These Grandparents are low-income
women and men over the age of 60 who serve 20 hours a week in schools, Head
Start centers, and youth organizations for a stipend of about $200 a month.
As with Friends of the Children and other youth workers, Foster Grandparents
are able to maintain relationships with as many as ten children each, providing
consistent, weekly (if not daily) attention, while dramatically expanding the
number of young people that can be served. At this ratio, 500,000 youth workers
might eventually be able to reach as many as five million young people at a
level of intensity equivalent to that provided by Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
A GREAT TRANSITION?
When James Coleman argued that social capital was declining ten years ago,
he presented his case in historical terms extending back to the Industrial
Revolution. When men left the household in droves to work in factories in the
nineteenth century, an extensive public investment was required "in a new
form of social capital, mass public schooling." Now that women are leaving
home, we must think again, he suggested, about institutional changes. These
reforms should focus not on classroom instruction, but on caring for childrenas
Coleman put it, "all day; from birth to school age; after school, every day
till parents return home from work; and all summer."
In this context, mentoring appears as a transitional movement, part of a
much larger working through of potential institutional and social changes.
Indeed, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the limitations of the
Friendly Visiting movementbuilt, like mentoring, around middle-class
volunteers, a belief in the transformative power of personal relationships, and
a focus on improving the lives of poor childrenled to the establishment of
the social work profession.
However, the potential implications of mentoring extend further, past the
creation of new roles, to the reform of institutionsin particular,
transformation of those faceless bureaucracies that Rabbi Magnes and the early
proponents of Big Brothers/Big Sisters so despised. As we seek to develop more
powerful strategies for supporting kids, we cannot afford simply to rail against
these institutions or to write them off. Rather, we must strive to combine the
efforts of volunteers and staff in ways capable of transforming the two settings
where young people spend the majority of their time outside the home: schools
and youth organizations.
Today, little of the money being spent on reform of schools, foster care,
and other youth-serving institutions leads to more sustained adult contact with
youth. Our goal, in contrast, should be to work through schools and youth
organizations to construct a web of support for children, sustained by adults
acting together, as partners, to help out with the long-term, complex process of
developing young people. This is not just because these changes seem kinder and
more gentle, but because a caring climate is the key to successful results,
according to research on a wide range of children's initiatives.
Ultimately, this approach suggests a new approach to schools and youth
programs. We need to fill these places with interested adultsnot only with
volunteer mentors, but also with youth workers, teachers, coaches, counselors,
and others with the time and inclination to establish close ties with young
people. Young people in these settings would find ample opportunities to develop
natural connections and to select the right mentor at the right time. As we go
about "stocking the pond," so to speak, we should also help youth to "fish,"
to make best use of the adults they find in their path. Doing so builds off a
central lesson from the study of resilient children, who typically overcome
poverty by actively recruiting mentors from the surrounding community.
More kids can learn how to reach out to adults, too.
How will we ever develop the constituency for such sweeping reformsand
the dollars they will require? The issue provokes a final point about
mentoring's potential to rebuild social capital and revitalize civic engagement.
While the isolation of youth is a primary reason for mentoring programs, many of
the middle-class adult volunteers are just as isolated from the realities of
poverty as participating youth are from middle-class life.
At a time when statistics no longer shock, mentors are brought face-to-face
with the unfair impact of poverty on innocent children. Many wonder how their
own children would fare under such circumstances. This education can build not
only empathy, but also advocacy. In other words, mentoring can be every bit as
much a social program for adults as for kids, a vehicle for developing their
civic instincts while building bridges between communities.
Investment banker Felix Rohatyn's involvement as a sponsor of the "I
Have a Dream" project illustrates this process. While mentoring young
people in a New York City public school class he adopted, Rohatyn concluded that
the youth worker he hired to connect with the children was the critical
ingredient in the program's success. As a result, he became an influential
advocate for reducing the ratio of students to guidance counselors in New York
elementary schools. He even attempted to hold up approval for the city's budget
in the late 1980s until the school system began making changes to create more
caring climates for kids.
The anthropologist Mary Cathe rine Bateson observes that every adult needs a
relationship with a flesh-and-blood child to imagine what the future will be
like as that child's life unfolds. For her, this amounts to "the elementary
school of caring." The new mentoring movement offers vivid examples of such
a schoolan elementary school of caring for other people's children,
particularly children of the poor.
But by serving as a catalyst to broader institutional changes, the movement
holds the potential to graduate beyond elementary contributions. In this
process, social policy can offer critical assistance, if it is savvy about
identifying the opportunities for rebuilding social capital and willing to blend
public and voluntary support.
This may well be something that Democrats and Republicans, liberals and
conservatives, can agree upon. The forces pulling us apart today seem almost
inexorable, yet Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the mentoring movement are timely
reminders that our social instincts continue to function, offering not only a
basis of hope but also an opportunity to act.
You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)