by Sandra Lopez Burke, Executive Director, City Year Boston
On New Year's Day, I was struck by Andrea Campbell's words as she was sworn in as Boston City Council President. Now leading the most diverse council in Boston's history, she spoke to the opportunities afforded to her, and the ones we must provide and expand for our city's children. As I reflect on the mentors who opened doors for me, I want to encourage everyone to find a way to mentor or thank their mentors during National Mentoring Month this January.
Having a mentor was a deciding factor in changing the trajectory that I thought was possible for myself. I grew up in Brownsville, Texas on the Mexican border. My father dropped out of school to provide for his family before joining the Army. When he and my mom started their own family, he worked his way up from being a janitor to becoming a supervisor at a chemical plant. My mother graduated from high school with minimal job prospects. Through hard work and perseverance, she overcame countless obstacles and eventually opened a business of her own.
As I was preparing to graduate from high school, I saw two options – head to college or get to work. I didn't have anyone in my life who encouraged me to pursue higher education. Maybe my parents lost hope since my older siblings all failed in their attempts to complete college. Maybe our school counselor didn’t think I could succeed where my siblings fell short. Without that encouragement, I committed myself to emulating what I had seen from my parents – working hard every day and being the best I could be. And for me that meant entry level work with little prospects of advancement.
I am certain that I would not have pushed myself to explore my dreams if not for one teacher who noticed potential in me that others hadn't, and certainly more than I had seen in myself. I am thankful to this day for the lessons and the confidence Mrs. Ownby provided me. She was my school choir director, a woman who saw that my talkative, social butterfly tendencies were not a nuisance, but rather a skill to lead my peers. She pushed me to audition for state competitions, helped me understand feedback from the judges, and coached me to put in the work to become a better singer.
She scolded me when I uttered the phrase "I can't," saying, "Sandra, you can do and be anything you want to. Never let anyone tell you otherwise." With her guidance I began to test my limits and reach beyond what I thought was possible.
That mentality propelled me through several major hurdles in my first years out of high school. But with my parents' work ethic and Mrs. Ownby's push, what ended up being possible for me was that I became the first woman executive director of the NCAA Men's Final Four tournament in 1998. And I have built on that success in various leadership positions in Boston. As a woman of color from a small town in Texas, my story is the exception. But it should be the norm.
Throughout my career, I have seen firsthand how much young people benefit when they connect with as many adults as possible who care about their well-being. Students who have mentors are more likely to stay in school; in fact, according to MENTOR, they are 52 percent less likely than their peers to skip a day of school and 81 percent more likely to participate regularly in sports or extracurriculars. Mentors can be critical influences in young people’s lives, helping them make the smart decisions and connections that open doors to bigger and better opportunities.
Mentoring isn't easy. It takes time, effort, and long-term dedication to make a difference. And representation matters – seeing someone who looks like you in a position of power is significant. Across Boston, groups like Mayor Walsh's My Brother's Keeper, Mass Mentoring Partnership, and AmeriCorps programs offer meaningful ways for people from all walks of life to get involved. During National Mentoring Month, make a resolution to show up for the young people in our community. Thank the mentors in your life like Mrs. Ownby for helping you get to where you are, then pay it forward. No matter who you are, if you're able to make the commitment, I guarantee there is a young person out there who would value your time and attention.
One person – a teacher, principal, coach, or near-peer – can have a critical impact on the choices students make and the path they end up following. And we can only achieve social justice when each path is available to everyone, and we have the skills and support to take the path we choose.
Sandra Lopez Burke with City Year Boston AmeriCorps members from the JFK School team on the first day of school.