Susan L. Taylor on the National CARES Mentoring Movement

In honor of National Mentoring Month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan L. Taylor, founder & CEO of National CARES Mentoring Movement and Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Essence magazine, about the importance of mentoring and the critical work her organization is doing.

The following is from our interview: Does your organization work directly with children, or does it fund organizations that do?

Taylor: The National CARES Mentoring Movement impacts the lives of children in our most blighted communities. Our mission is to fill the mentoring pipeline with caring adults. In many under-resourced schools and local youth-support and mentoring organizations throughout the nation, there is a desperate need for black volunteers. National CARES is the foremost supplier of black mentors. Deepening our commitment to secure and elevate the lives of our children struggling in impoverished communities and under-resourced schools, we are piloting whole-school, group-mentoring, transformational programs that are changing the predictable futures of young people who must have more support, encouragement, and love in order to flourish. We are embarking on a fundraising campaign so we will have the capacity and trained leaders and mentors throughout the nation to begin the national roll-out of our life-changing programmatic. We have paid staff in our four pilot cities. Our CARES Affiliate leaders in 58 cities are a volunteer army. CARES does not fund other organizations.

What kinds of successes are you seeing in the lives of children affected by your organization?

We are achieving our goal of helping to transform young, fragile lives. Our program The Rising: Elevating Education, Expectations and Self-Esteem is now in its third year of operation at four exceedingly challenged high schools in Chicago, Detroit, and South Florida. The staff, psychologists, and mentors who lead the program place a strong focus on wellness in body, mind, spirit, and community. The curriculum is designed by subject-matter experts to ensure racial pride, critical thinking, self-confidence, and a love of learning. There are monthly whole-school assemblies and smaller, single-gender Wellness Mentoring Circles where our young–many of whom are living with the multiple traumas of poverty and violence–can be heard and helped and begin to heal. More than 95% of the thousands of students participating said that they feel better prepared to succeed after being mentored and supported emotionally and academically through The Rising.

The HBCU Rising: An HBCU-Public Schools Literacy and STEM Mentoring Initiative, at Clark Atlanta University and two middle schools in Atlanta, is a three-tiered group-mentoring program through which trained and compensated college-student mentors offer STEM and literacy support to middle schoolers in small group-mentoring cohorts. The model incorporates workforce-development and career-readiness skills into the wraparound support offered to the college students. According to our independent evaluation of the program, 70% of the college mentors who completed the program reported an increased interest in technology fields and careers. Additionally, we have seen an increase in interest in science and higher grades among the middle schoolers who are mentored by the college students, who most often are the first in their families to attend college, and come from the same types of communities as their mentees. This made attending college a realistic goal for the younger students.

Once you learned of the dire academic straits of black children, you began to prepare your exit from Essence. Why did you choose a mentoring framework and not something else, for example, scholarships?

Mentoring works miracles. It is a proven, effective, and low-cost way to profoundly change young challenged lives. It’s part of our tradition as African Americans–just what we have done over the centuries to ensure the advancement of our young, though we did not have a name for it. We able African Americans must step up and do for our children what others did for us–create a pathway to self-sufficiency and security. None of us got where she or he is alone. This is what we owe God and our ancestors, to take care of “the least of these.”

You have CARES affiliates across the country. What does a CARES affiliate do?

The devoted women and men who volunteer in our CARES affiliates recruit, train, place, and support mentors. Many of them work as mentors themselves. We are launching a fund-development campaign this year to ensure that they have the support needed to receive our transformational pilot programs and implement them effectively in their local communities.

Did mentoring play a role in your own life?

Absolutely. I grew up in a family of strong women and with an entrepreneurial father whose women’s clothing store was at the street level of the Harlem tenement where my family lived. My grandmother, Rhoda Weekes, and her legion of friends from the Caribbean were ever present – especially during the summer. They all kept watch and their hands at the backs of the children. In my adult life, sister Maya Angelou was a powerful mentor to me.

With the Risings component of your organization, it seems that you’re embracing the social-emotional learning process. What can you tell me about Risings and your goals for it?

The Risings are bringing to our young the principles and practices of our overarching and guiding protocol, A New Way Forward: Healing What’s Hurting Black America, which was created by a brain trust of 60 brilliant and community-focused leaders across many fields. A New Way Forward and the programmatic work that it guides are all for the revitalization of our people and communities. We have not recovered from the incalculable damage done to our psyche and soul by more than three centuries of slavery, Jim Crow practices, and racism. We must remember that we are not at the mercy of outside forces. Our power resides where it has always been–within us, with our God, and in unity. The Risings are for our healing and advancement.

How long has the National CARES Mentoring Movement been in existence? Do adults who were mentored as children tell you what the organization meant to them?

Founded as Essence CARES, the National CARES Mentoring Movement has been in operation for 10 years. And, yes, at our gala, For the Love of our Children in New York City on Jan. 25, we heard testimonies not only from young people whose lives have been transformed by mentoring, but also from mentors who tell us that their lives are dramatically transformed as well.