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Finding Family Through Big Sisters

Posted 06/10/2012

When Austyn Ellese Mayfield walked into a Big Sister mentorship orientation session in 2010, one thing stunned her.

Mayfield was the only nonwhite person in the room.

“I was just, like, ‘Huh, OK – that’s surprising,’ ’’ recalls Mayfield, who is African-American. “This opportunity is something that is so important, especially to communities of color. I thought there would certainly be other women who looked like me.’’

Mayfield’s experience is typical at the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston: While 85 percent of the girls served by the mentorship program are black, Latina, Asian, or Native American, only about one-third of the mentoring volunteers are nonwhite.

Now, the Big Sister Association and Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley are trying to change those demographics. In 2009, the organization established a Diversity Council, tasked with finding new ways to connect with communities of color.

Months later, Pressley launched Ayanna’s Big Challenge – a campaign to recruit black, Latino, Asian, and Native-American Bostonians as mentors.

“Many mentor-mentee pairings are not perfectly homogenous, and I know that young people are still benefiting,’’ says Pressley, who is a Big Sister herself. “But certainly there is the potential for that impact to be maximized when there is that instant cultural connection and relatability.’’

So far, the efforts appear to be working: Between August 2009 and December 2011, the share of minority mentors at Big Sister grew from 26 to 32 percent. Mia Roberts, the organization’s vice president of recruitment and community partnerships, says families often request a mentor who shares their ethnic background, speaks their home language, or lives in their same neighborhood.

“Many of these parents are looking for someone who can have fun with their daughters, but they’re also asking for a woman of a similar cultural background to help them navigate the culture in which these girls are raised,’’ Roberts says.

Pressley’s own Little Sister is a Mattapan teenager named Arianna who, like, Pressley, is African-American and grew up in a single-parent household.

The relationship is much more than a “a cutesy idea about taking a kid out to ice cream now and then,’’ says Pressley. In addition to weekly hang-outs, they text daily to talk about an exam, a new boyfriend, or just to check in.

Pressley believes many women of color assume they’re not “mentor material.’’ She recalls meeting one black woman, a hairstylist, who was concerned about whether she could make the cut. “In her mind, she felt there was a very specific sort of profile that makes someone fit to be a mentor . . .; a very specific kind of a professional, a lawyer or someone with a PhD,’’ Pressley explains. “I told her, ‘You are appropriate, and you are worthy, and you are good enough.’ ’’

With about 150 girls currently on the waiting list for a mentor, the Big Sister Association can’t give every girl a mentor with a similar background.

But Pressley envisions a time when all girls in the Big Sister program can be matched with someone who shares a cultural experience beyond race: For example, girls could be paired with someone who knows what it’s like to have a parent in prison, Pressley says, or who identifies as lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

Julia Collao, who has been a mentor to 14-year-old Willina for three months, says a shared cultural background and language have helped her connect with her Little Sister’s family. Collao is Peruvian-American, and Willina’s parents are from the Dominican Republic.

“It was very comfortable very fast,’’ says Collao, 23. “Her mom welcomed me right into the family. Being able to speak the language really does help.’’

After her orientation session, Mayfield expected to be paired with an African-American girl. To her surprise, she ended up with 11-year-old Natalie – who is Latina – an altogether different kind of cross-cultural exchange.

“I know what it’s like to be a woman of color and to have people look at you and have certain expectations,’’ Mayfield says. “But at the same time, I don’t know what it’s like to be from a family of immigrants.’’

When the two get together, they discuss things like Natalie’s plans for choosing a high school, the goings-on in her large family, and the Katniss-Peeta romance in “The Hunger Games.’’ Most of all, Mayfield says, she serves as a friend to Natalie – and for that, she says, sharing a cultural background doesn’t much matter.

“With three older siblings, there’s not a lot of things that are hers,’’ Mayfield says. “But for all intents and purposes, I am hers – and I’m really proud of that.’’