Kwame Johnson – President & CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta
January is National Mentoring Month. What has Big Brothers Big Sisters been doing to raise awareness locally and nationally?
We’re very happy to be a part of National Mentoring Month. We have a lot going on locally, with one of our biggest events, our Iconic Mentor Auction. Different leaders, celebrities, CEOs, and other prominent figures have donated their time to the highest bidder to help raise money for BBBS programs. We have Shaquille O’Neal, Arthur Blank and many others who have stepped up wanting to help. So far, we’ve raised more than $30,000 through that event alone. At the national level we have a new CEO, Artis Stevens, who is the first African American CEO in our 100-plus year history. He is focusing on our national brand and getting the word out about the true power of mentorship.
How do you view mentorship as a part of American culture?
I think mentorship needs to be embedded in the fabric of America. I think if you asked everyone and they were honest, they would say that they are where they are today because of someone helping them out along the way. In the Spanish language the word mentorship doesn’t exist. When you ask someone who’s Hispanic about mentorship, they think of family. Mentorship doesn’t need a word for them because it’s just what they do. It doesn’t need a separate name. That’s what I think we should strive to do – make it an integrated part of our society where everyone is involved. Imagine how much better we could be as a country if everyone leaned in to help others along. We talk a lot about defending potential. Everyone is born with potential and we have various roadblocks in front of us. I think it’s our duty as adults to defend that potential.
How has mentorship impacted you personally?
It’s defined my life. It started with my parents, grounding me in service to others. My first mentor was my track coach who helped me navigate a lot of challenges I went through as a teenager – going to jail and prison – and continued to push me into college and to not give up. He brought me my schoolwork when I was in prison and just believed in me and made me believe in myself. He saw me go from that low into a college experience. My first professional mentor was Bob Woodson who gave me my first job in the non-profit sector. He called me a social entrepreneur and brought me to DC to work on behalf of young people all over the country. There’s a number of people that are responsible for me being where I am today.
It would probably surprise people to sit down and think about all the people who helped them get where they are today.
Absolutely. Whenever I speak to groups, I ask “When was the last time you spoke to those people?” Because often we forget and move on. It’s important to reflect on where you came from and to give back. Too often people come into our life for one thing, or a season, or a lifetime, and we can’t forget those people.
What has COVID done to the world of mentoring?
It’s been dramatic. Everyone is remote so getting together has changed. You think about young people who can’t go to school as an outlet, can’t go to afterschool programs, etc. If they are in an abusive or dysfunctional home, it’s even worse for them. We’re making changes to try and help connect families to different resources in the community, whether it’s food, housing, clothing, mental health. I was giving a talk the other day and compared our Bigs to a vaccine, because a vaccine is preventative. When you work with gangs, you realize the best way to get a kid out of a gang is through someone who has already been there before. You think of them as an antibody. When you go to the doctor, they tell you to strengthen your immune system. Then they give you medicine and finally they do surgery. Too often in society we go right to surgery when thinking about helping our communities. But we can create change in communities by strengthening our immune systems and working on that preventative care.
How can other organizations like yours work together?
We can’t do it alone. We face a lot of problems as a country and no one organization can solve them. I’m part of a few different non-profit CEO groups where 10 or 20 of us come together every month and talk about how we can better collaborate. Most of the families we all serve live in poverty and they have barriers that most of us don’t have – insufficient food, clothes, housing, drugs, etc. We can provide a mentor, but we should help coordinate with a food bank or rental assistance organization so we can help those kids go further faster. There’s no reason we shouldn’t work together.
What can companies do to help outside of just giving money?
The biggest way to support is to help us recruit new Bigs. There’s always a waiting list around the country. Just here in Atlanta we have 400 Littles on waiting list in need of a Big. These are kids whose families have come forward and said, “Hey, my son/daughter needs help, needs a Big” and without those volunteers we can’t provide for them. Companies can share those stories internally; they can invite me into a lunch and learn to talk about the program. Chances are good that they know someone who would make a great Big. Additionally, Jabian has been great about donating in-kind services by helping with our strategic planning process. Companies that have people with marketing skills, fundraising skills, or general operations skills are definitely helpful and we’d love to explore that. At the end of the day, we all need to come together and lean in for the future of our country. That’s what keeps me going.