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Q&A: Big Brothers Big Sisters CEO recruits alumni as mentors

NEW YORK (AP) — Big Brothers Big Sisters America CEO Artis Stevens says the 119-year-old nonprofit long known for mentoring schoolchildren is now diversifying its programming.

Stevens, who took over the organization two years ago, said the fastest growing demand for its services is among young adults, ages 18-25, and he wants to expand its offerings to meet the changing availability of mentors and needs and interests of mentees.

“A lot of kids we have been serving are raising their hand and saying, 'What’s next? How do I navigate?',” he told The Associated Press.

Big Brothers Big Sisters is now offering group mentoring — gathering together multiple adults, known as Bigs, with multiple young people, called Littles — as well as a greater focus on career development and mental health.

Data released last week from the U.S. Census Bureau and AmeriCorps found that the number of Americans volunteering through a formal program dropped 7% from 2019 to 2021, which corresponds with the profound social disruptions the pandemic caused.

“When we’re in a moment when kids are experiencing senses of isolation and struggling socially," said Nancy Deutsch, a professor of education at the University of Virginia. “Mentoring is the kind of intervention that I think is really important.”

Stevens said he hopes to address the chronic shortage of Bigs for interested Littles by recruiting mentors from the organization’s 20 million alumni.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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Q: What should people know about the children you serve?

A: We were born as an alternative innovation to the juvenile justice system. So our mandate was always focused around young people at the time who were immigrants, who were in street gangs, who were homeless, who had the greatest challenges. The idea was: Instead of putting kids into the juvenile justice system, can we connect them with positive people in their community?

We know the resilience that these kids have, but we also know the power when they’re matched with a positive relationship with an adult, what that can do to help them thrive, what it can do to help them grow.

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Q: Who can be mentors? Do you have to have it all figured out?

One of our most common expressions is, “You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be present.” So if you look at our mentors, they come from all walks of life. They’re all backgrounds, all ages, all demographics. But the commonality they all have is they believe in showing up for kids.

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Q: How are you recruiting volunteers, especially after a drop in formal volunteering during the pandemic?

A: It’s incredibly, incredibly challenging for most organizations right now. So we have implemented a technology platform that’s allowing us to do what we call “technology enabled mentoring” much more effectively.

Our biggest challenge in attracting volunteers is accessibility. Finding ways that they can plug in, ways that we can create proximity to the communities that they live in and making sure there is a value in the impact in the young person's life and for the person who gets involved.

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Q: You came to lead Big Brothers Big Sisters America during the pandemic and after the killings of George Floyd and others by police. Would you speak about how you’re coming to this job as a Black man?

A: I take great responsibility. I take great pride. When I became the CEO, of course, I was the first Black CEO in our 119-year history, and that means a lot to me. It’s significant certainly in the recognition of it. But it’s more significant in the representation it means for other kids, other communities to say, “If he can do it, I can do it or I can exceed it.”

The first thing that I did was created a national Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) advisory council. This group was essential for helping us to get outside of our inside thinking. We’ve been around for over a century and we had issues that we needed to look at, just like the country does.

Then, so much happens at the board level of local and national nonprofit organizations. A staff person can believe certain things, but if your board isn't commitment, it’s hard to truly implement those things. So we’re doing a lot of board training and coaching.

The last thing I’ll say is, we are not a political organization. We don’t want to be a political organization. What we believe is in youth empowerment, and we believe that every single young person should have access to opportunity.

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Q: MacKenzie Scott gave your organization more than $122 million. Has that donation cooled interest from other donors?

A: It hasn’t. You know, $122 million, that’s a lot of money, right? It allowed us to talk about an investment as an invitation for more people to come and join and be part of this community. We decided to create a fund that our local organizations who received funding can contribute to that would help the other 200 organizations that didn't receive funding. We call it the Bigger Together Fund. For us, if we’re going to take this investment, it had to be invested in every community, not just the 38 that were funded.

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Q: What's next for Big Brothers Big Sisters America?

A: We are really focused on our 20 million alumni and champions who have been part of our program. Our goal is to bring those alumni back into the fold, to bring them in to volunteer more effectively, to help us to fundraise, to help us to spread the word is going to be core to what we do. We hope that more people would hopefully join us, raise their hand and come back and support and be a mentor.

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Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.