Helping kids in need - one path to racial healing

When they entered the Big Brothers and Big Sisters conference room, most of the 25 women hugged and kissed me.

I rose in front of the women as they celebrated Mother's Day a week late, eating broiled chicken and rice, and happily talking. I asked my question -and they suddenly became silent. I had asked them to talk openly about that most sensitive topic: race.

These were poor, single mothers and guardians who originally came to my organization seeking a volunteer for a troubled son or daughter. Most parents wanted a volunteer of their own race. But not wanting to delay the help, they usually accepted the first trained, and apparently caring, volunteer.

Three-fourths of their children would enter into close, long-term relationships,meeting at least every other week with a helper of a different skin color. These matches would last, on average, three years, and many would go on for a lifetime.

Our agency, with an outside researcher, had conducted a study of more than 400 participating parents, volunteers, and youngsters. We looked at the youths' school performance, relationships with friends and family, and the ability to avoid trouble with the law. On average, 75 percent improved in these areas with a volunteer - and the study found no difference in success between youngsters who had helpers of the same or a different race.

And when offered the chance to switch to another relationship with someone of the same race, more than 95 percent of parents, volunteers, and youngsters rejected this opportunity.

I was excited. Our type of program could be one of the few proven ways to build racial understanding.

Yet in a society filled with racial mistrust, I needed tonight to hear these mothers -71 percent black and Hispanic -say these research findings were real.

It was a difficult room. One parent finally said, "I was born in St. Vincent in the West Indies. One of my boys had a white volunteer. My son, he's 22 now, and he and the white volunteer, they still see each other. It's maybe seven years. I never been prejudice. I just thought whites don't like me. Now I see that's not so true."

I urged more mothers to speak. But the room's silence returned. Talking about race doesn't come easily.

Other mothers gradually offered similar remarks. One of my social workers from Puerto Rico was at this meeting. She questioned a parent, also from Puerto Rico, about her son's volunteer, who was from China.

The mother looked around the room. She didn't respond. But then said, "I didn't know someone Chinese before. He's so good. How can I not like someone Chinese?"

I realized that the mentoring movement, the need for help for our youths, was one of the few ways that brought people of different races closely together for long periods of time. Importantly, everyone changed.

Our research found that youths paired with volunteers of another race were 10 times more likely to say they now are more accepting of all people than those teamed with someone of their own race. The volunteers in mixed-race pairs expressed a greater acceptance of others too.

When I later spoke to kids and their helpers, I received the same response as from the mothers: an initial reluctance, then a defense that they never had any bias, and finally conversations admitting that they now felt more relaxed with people of other skin colors.

The potential is enormous. More than 8 million children live in poverty, and large numbers of parents - many of them out of necessity - are consistently seeking color-blind volunteer help for their youngsters. But will their invitation be accepted by the middle-class majority of all races? Not more than 300,000 youngsters have such close, caring one-to-one relationships in the nation. So volunteering's current impact on racial awareness is too small to be noticed.

As I left the conference room that day, I heard the women resume their party talk -nothing more about the study. They individually had experienced a new racial awareness. They had done their part.

The responsibility to spread this opportunity to increase racial trust was now up to do-good leaders like me. Will we eventually be able to get enough people to recognize that they would be accepted by the poor, who often are of different skin colors, and volunteer in far greater numbers? Or will this be one more piece of social research on how to create a better tomorrow that no one pays attention to?

•Allan Luks is the executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City and the author of 'The Healing Power of Doing Good' (Ballantine, 1992).

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