The gap

Three-quarters of the youths seeking mentors in Massachusetts are minorities. Three-quarters of the mentors are white. Does it matter?

Email|Print| Text size + By Vanessa E. Jones
Globe Staff / March 5, 2008

Kelly Cash sounds like a concerned mother as she asks Eleanor Lee how things are going in her life. How was Eleanor's weekend? How did midterms go? Has she submitted all her applications to the colleges she's applying to?

Three years ago Cash, a senior associate at State Street in Quincy, became a mentor to Lee, now a 17-year-old senior at North Quincy High School. Lee, who was born in Dorchester, grew up in Hong Kong, and returned to the Boston area at the age of 13, had been having trouble with her studies; her guidance counselor at school had suggested a mentor. Around the same time Cash, a native of Canton, received an e-mail from State Street asking if any employees wanted to volunteer at the high school one hour a week.

Cash's input during their usual Thursday meeting at North Quincy High ranges from giving Lee leads for an after-school job to helping her deal with the complications of living far from her parents, who are still in Hong Kong. "Maybe you would not want to talk to your relatives about life," says Lee, explaining why Cash has been so helpful in subjects where the grandparents she lives with are not. "I just talk to Kelly about my family. She gives me some ideas to solve [the challenge of living without my parents]."

Cash and Lee exemplify the strong mentoring relationship that can develop between people from different cultures; Lee is Chinese, Cash is Caucasian. But their disparate backgrounds reflect a pattern in mentoring programs: Most young people are not matched with mentors of their racial or ethnic background.

A 2006 report by Mass Mentoring Partnership, a statewide organization that helps create mentoring programs and recruits and trains volunteers, found that two years ago, three-quarters of the more than 17,000 youths aged 5 to 19 who participated in formal mentoring programs in Massachusetts were people of color - 35 percent were Latino and 28 percent African American. Of the 8,625 adults serving as mentors statewide, 75 percent were Caucasian, 12 percent were black, and 5 percent were Latino.

"It has to do with demographics," says Jean Rhodes, a psychology professor at UMass-Boston who specializes in mentoring. "Many children who present at after-school programs and certainly Big Brother Big Sister are children of color, particularly boys of color. And yet the typical volunteer is a middle-age white women."

The year-old Jack Kent Cooke/PANAS program, a component of the Talented and Gifted Latino program at UMass-Boston, pairs Latino high school students with Latino professionals in an effort to reduce the Latino dropout rate. Although the program does have about five black, South Asian, or Caucasian mentors, the majority of its 53 adult participants are Latino.

"They can relate to that individual much better in a cultural sense," says the program's coordinator, Joél Mora, of his young participants. "And it also helps the parents who don't speak English very well that they can communicate with the mentors in their first language."

Mallory Chery, a former mentor recruiter at Mass Mentoring Partnership, has experienced the challenges of signing up mentors of color. In her job, she has erected recruiting tables at the Health and Fitness Expo, the Boston Soul Music Festival, and the South Station T, among other places.

"The fitness expo and South Station, I can count on one hand how many African-American and Latino people I signed up," Chery says. "At the Soul Festival the market is already there."

Rhodes presented the pros and cons of same-race and cross-racial pairing in her 2002 study "Mentoring and Race." Mentoring professionals who support cross-racial mentoring, her study notes, say the relationships expose both participants to different experiences. For example, Cash took Lee snowboarding; Lee and her local relatives introduced Cash to Chinatown.

Those who prefer same-race pairings say they produce quicker, more inspiring bonds. "It just helps that the students can relate to someone," says Mora. "They can see themselves or mirror themselves after them."

Rhodes's study concludes, "With the exception of youth for whom racial issues are an overriding concern, the mentor's race or ethnicity may not be the critical factor in predicting the likelihood of a successful relationship." Yet many parents of color must make a difficult decision, says Rhodes: Keep their child on a waiting list until a mentor of the same racial or ethnic background turns up, or unite their child with the first adult willing to participate. The 2006 Mass Mentoring Counts report estimated that more than 4,500 youths are waiting for an adult mentor in Massachusetts.

"Someone who says, 'I'd like to have a Latino big [brother or sister] for my son or daughter,' we try not to say, 'Well, if you want that it's going to be a longer wait,' " says John Pearson, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay, where 50 percent of the organization's pairings are cross-racial. "If they're settling or taking someone they don't really want, we're not providing the service that they've asked us for. So we often have people who will hold for awhile. Then if it's been awhile, a year or more, they might say, 'I'm willing to consider [cross-racial mentors].' "

A number of new national and local campaigns want to relieve parents of having to make that choice. Mass Mentoring Partnership recently received a $5,000 grant to recruit mentors of color. Last year Susan Taylor, the former editorial director of Essence magazine, appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to publicize Essence Cares, now called the National Cares Mentoring Movement. The organization, which encourages blacks to serve as mentors, has a prominent presence on the home page of MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership (

Mora, who has signed up 59 students in his PANAS program, found participants by recruiting at schools, community events, and organizations such as the Latino Professional Network. (PANAS stands for "Para Ayudar a Nuestros Alumnos a Sobresir," Spanish for "helping our students to excel"; "panas" means "pal.") Three seniors in the program have received full college scholarships. Another student in the PANAS program, Massiel De los Santos, a 17-year-old junior at Roxbury's John D. O'Bryant School of Math and Science, won Mass Mentoring's annual Kelly Award, consisting of up to four educational gifts worth between $1,000 and $5,000 for students who have overcome adversity. Mora considers De los Santos and her mentor, Camille Marcos, a lawyer, one of his program's success stories.

The duo's first official meeting took place about a year ago at the downtown California Pizza Kitchen before they attended the ballet with tickets obtained through the PANAS program. At the time, Marcos was in her third year at Suffolk University Law School; De los Santos dreamed of becoming a lawyer. But it was their cultural connection that created their immediate bond. Marcos's mother is from the Dominican Republic; De los Santos was born in the country. Both are only daughters with brothers. By the end of their dinner, they were teasing each other like sisters.

For Cash, building a relationship with Lee took a little longer. They bonded over music. Lee plays five instruments, including piano. Cash used to play the flute. Cash soon realized that although Lee was good with math she struggled with chemistry, particularly with exercises that tested her growing English skills. She suggested that Lee meet with her chemistry teacher after school to do extra class work. Initially Lee resisted, but she ultimately learned to incorporate Cash's advice into any course where she's having problems. On the day Cash and Lee meet, Lee mentions that she went to an after-school tutoring session to work on her Spanish - without needing Lee to tell her to do it.

Marcos has also helped De los Santos with her studies. As an immigrant student focused on taking the MCAS, De los Santos was unaware of the importance of the standard college entrance exams, the PSATs and SATs. Marcos submitted De los Santos's name for the Kelly Awards. De los Santos will use the award money to purchase SAT books and take SAT training classes.

While still at Suffolk, Marcos invited De los Santos to explore the law school library and 200-seat classrooms. The size of both were unexpected, says De los Santos. Last summer, Marcos helped De los Santos get a summer internship through the Boston Bar Association. She worked with Christine Hughes, Emerson College's general counsel, who also became an important mentor. But Hughes, a white woman, has had less impact on De los Santos than Marcos.

"I'm still in contact with her," De los Santos says of Hughes. "But it was important to have that Latina professional to know that, 'Yes, I can make it; yes, I can go to law school.' "

Mentors by the numbers

Of 17,000 youths, age 5 to 19,

who participated in formal mentoring programs in Massachusetts

Latino 35%

African-American 28%

Caucasian 24%

8,625 adults serving as mentors statewide

Latino 5%

African-American 12%

Caucasian 75%

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