Social Change One on One: The New Mentoring Movement

Past 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, "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 Coleman—who first introduced the concept of social capital to an American audience—explained 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 talk—on 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 expressions—the attempt to create one-to-one relationships between adults and youth—it is also possible to explore if and how public social policy can help rebuild the civic infrastructure of neighborhoods.


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 efficiency—efficiency in business, efficiency in charity," Magnes charged, "it is a miserable small justice our great organized charities do. . . . The personal touch is absent."

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.

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The settings that might compensate for these shifts—neighborhood streets and schools—frequently 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 young people.

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 five—with 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 science—through an array of studies on "resilient" children who overcome the odds of poverty—suggests that it is also a missed opportunity.

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.


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 Black Men.

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 violence.

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 instructions—not 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 kids—especially if you don't reach them well before adolescence—the 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 forms—human relationships—can be created, and can accomplish important results.


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 social fabric.

Available adults. For all the success of Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the program is too small—far too small—in 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 year—but 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 short.

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, who—along with Connecticut liberal Christopher Dodd—is 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.


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 need—not 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 increased dramatically.

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.


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 children—as 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 movement—built, like mentoring, around middle-class volunteers, a belief in the transformative power of personal relationships, and a focus on improving the lives of poor children—led 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 institutions—in 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 adults—not 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 reforms—and 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 school—an 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.

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