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Child Watch® Column: "Mentors Matter"

Release Date: September 6, 2013

Marian Wright Edelman

These are the words of an 18-year-old who recently graduated from high school in a high-poverty neighborhood in the nation’s capital: “Where I live, which is Ward 7, everyone is the same . . . If you follow the crowd, you’re going to end up dead or in jail because that’s where most of them are. But if you’re a leader and you make your own decisions, then you can set your path for life.”

Mike Ruff had to make up his mind a while back that he was going to step up and become one of the leaders. That’s what he told participants at the recent symposium “Black Male Teens: Moving to Success in the High School Years,” sponsored by the Educational Testing Service and the Children’s Defense Fund. Mike explained how he came to embrace standing out from the crowd by defying low expectations—and how he reached a key turning point when a mentor told him he couldn’t succeed.

College and career planning wasn’t a reality for the people he knew: “Ninety-five percent of the students are poor. We come from basically nothing, because our parents were in the same situations that we are.” His father had dropped out of school in tenth grade, and when Mike started high school he seemed to be heading down a similar track: “Ninety percent of the school did the same thing I did—skipped class, left school, and no one seemed to try to find out what the problem was.” His grade point average freshman year was a 2.5, and at the time his main ambition was to keep up a D average so he could graduate.

But then he met with Mr. Mungin, one of the adults he’d met through an enrichment program he’d enrolled in during middle school, who asked Mike how his plans for life after high school were coming. Mike told Mr. Mungin he’d started thinking about a career in hospitality management, and Mr. Mungin asked to see his grades: “So he looked at my transcript, just for that ninth grade year . . . saw my grades, D, D, B, D, D, A, and looked back up at me with the straightest face and said, ‘You can’t do it.’ So that kind of hurt me, for a grown man telling me that I can't do something. So then I just got up, walked out, and [caught] the bus home.”

With some uncaring and uninterested adults, that’s exactly where the story would end. Mike would have left discouraged from having a dream at all. But that wasn’t Mike’s story: “By the time I arrived home, there is Mr. Mungin already there. I was wondering, why is this man at my house after he told me that I can’t do something?” Mike had been lucky enough to find a true mentor on a mission. As Mr. Mungin talked to Mike and his mother that day he was able to show Mike that of course he believed he could succeed, but he also knew the path Mike was on so far wasn’t going to get him there. Mike took the message to heart. Other mentors stepped in along the way to support him. By eleventh grade Mike had brought his GPA up to a 3.0, and by twelfth grade, a 3.75.

Now Mike is attending Tuskegee University, a historically Black university in Alabama founded by Booker T. Washington and the alma mater of the brilliant scientist George Washington Carver and many other scholars and leaders, where he plans to double major in hospitality management and psychology. Mike knows that in his graduating class he is one of the lucky ones: “We started off in this twelfth grade with at least 300 students . . . but only 130 twelfth graders graduated.”

Mr. Mungin helped Mike realize he needed to change, and every one of the other young Black male leaders on the panel—all college students and recent college graduates—agreed on the importance of the mentors in their lives. But what happens to the students who never know a Mr. Mungin? What will happen to the other students in Mike’s high school class who didn’t graduate at all or were content to get out with mostly Ds? Far too many young Black boys are only hearing the first part of the message—“You can’t do it.” We need supports in place to show them that they can choose a different path—and even if no one else they know has done it, they can decide to be the ones to step up and lead the way.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Lodi at: October 2, 2013
Mrs. Edelman, thank you for your leadership in standing up for the rights of the "least of these" who seldom have a voice in determining their own futures. Those young people facing adversity are particularly at risk. Big Brothers Big Sisters is an under-utilized asset that can help eliminate the "you can't do it" message some of pour kids get stuck on. We stand ready to help in any way we can. Onward and upward!

Submitted by free spirit at: September 10, 2013
This is a wonderful article I definitely will be sharing this with my daughter.It's not just young men that needs mentoring,young girl as well.God Bless

Submitted by free spirit at: September 10, 2013
This is a wonderful article I definitely will be sharing this with my daughter.It's not just young men that needs mentoring,young girl as well.God Bless

Submitted by free spirit at: September 10, 2013
This is a wonderful article I definitely will be sharing this with my daughter.It's not just young men that needs mentoring,young girl as well.God Bless

Submitted by free spirit at: September 10, 2013
This is a wonderful article I definitely will be sharing this with my daughter.It's not just young men that needs mentoring,young girl as well.God Bless

Submitted by Anonymous at: September 9, 2013
Great job

Submitted by Lee at: September 8, 2013
Good article. I'm an active parent in our school district and I'm going to find out what I can do to get a mentor program established. We have one program that allows students to get questions answered by local college students but it isn't a real mentorship.

Submitted by Carrie at: September 8, 2013
This is a big issue for all kids and especially those in poverty .All adults should help think about this issue for our country and help to address it .

Submitted by THE QUEEN at: September 7, 2013

Submitted by Kedmond1 at: September 7, 2013
Thank you for your words of wisdom. We all should remember there but by the grace of God go I. I see myself in this young man. And I know where so many people end up who are just like me. Words of discouragement can hurt. Especially when it's the truth. But I learned something from working in hospitals for so many years. Medicine burns. Truth is like a medicine sometimes, althou it can burn, or taste bitter. Without it, the wound can't be cleansed or infection removed. Being a mentor is a godly thing. I think it is something that JWD. Especially when the work reveals fruits of prosperity, and healing. I hope God blesses our crippled wounded children with a army of healing, do gooders!. Focused on doing the work at hand. Healing the nation, and setting the captive free. Especially for our Black boys, and girls, who's civil rights and freedom have been seemingly, robbed from them at birth. (It's like a snare setup for them to walk right in that particular direction of under achievement or failure.) We as a people have to start telling the truth and not just walk by our peoples situation and problems like "that's their issues. I'm alright." (My heart weeps when I meet Christians with such mannerisms and narcissistic ways.) By acknowledging our children and children's dilemmas in general, We can affectively address the problem honestly. We as a caring, civilized, adults, can turn these children around to go in the right direction, (and have a better quality of life to boot.) I have faith in God and CDF to be that instrument of change for our people. Thank u for caring.

Submitted by Bromanupstandup at: September 7, 2013
Inner-city Blues Makes Me Wanna Holla--Marvin Gaye. Great story Marian Wright Edelman! It certainly can be used as a mentor recruitment tool! I wish to report how one mentor can make a huge impact on changing mindsets of School Administrators. Recently, as a result of my advocacy on behalf of minority males in the Buffalo Public Schools, The Buffalo Board Of Education approved a resolution in support of the 5000 Role Models Of Excellence Project founded by Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson. It's the first step to getting the program adopted in the Buffalo Public Schools District to uplift and empower minority males to high academic achievement etc. In a nutshell, after participating in more than 100 prayer vigils and attending more than 100 prayer vigils--I became a mentor, then started my own group mentoring organization, joined the District Parent Coordinating Council of Buffalo Public Schools and was elected to Chair the Mentor Committee. Yes! One man can make a difference if he decides to get up of his knees and MIND-UP! I learned all of this by embracing my ancestral roots and spirituality. While I still get down on my knees in prayer everyday--I also call upon the spirits of my ancestors to help me deal with the ongoing freedom liberation struggle! Old school--nobody's fool! Hotep!

Submitted by Sone-Serae at: September 7, 2013
Mentors do matter! Your son Josh mentored my brother through R.I.S.E. and it made all of the difference for him!

Submitted by Miggs at: September 7, 2013
I am delighted to read this story of success and know the importance of having someone in your life who believes in you, particularly in the critical teen years. Helping our young black men understand their value to their families and to society, as a whole, should be near the top of the list in our country.

Submitted by Kathy at: September 7, 2013
I am a retired social worker. Years ago I worked in a teen parenting program. I tried to teach a course segment on 'Future Dreams" because I believe, and my life proves that if one has dreams of the future, one can eventually make it happen. I was not allowed to do this officially. However, little comments did get in, and I lost that job......

Submitted by Kay at: September 7, 2013
Mentors build perseverance.

Submitted by Coach at: September 7, 2013
This column is very inspiritional. It gives me additional energy to carry my cross of reaching back to help underprivileged children to achieve their dreams.

Submitted by mean mama at: September 6, 2013
As a Red Cross expectant parent instructor I had the opportunity to talk to young parents to be about the child's need for a stable home environment with loving parents. I came up poor, (there were times we went hungry and for six years we lived in makeshift housing; (tents and an old chicken coop). Our parents always told the seven of us children that we could do anything we wanted to in our lives if we studied hard and applied ourselves. They made sure we did our homework and did not accept any excuses for poor grades. Although I was the only one who earned a 4 year college degree (at age 45) all of us were able to obtain the skills to support ourselves and our families. We all became successful in our chosen work. Too many parents do not involve themselves in their children's educations and do not demand the child work to learn what is essential in elementary school. If the foundation is not laid properly the child does not have the foundations they need for progressing in their education. Parents should be mentoring their children!

Submitted by Julie at: September 6, 2013
Mentors are the kind-hearted people who selfishly give to others so as to afford their mentees some of the same opportunities they had.

Submitted by Joan LB at: September 6, 2013
A most beautiful story--thanks so much for telling it!

Submitted by gigi at: September 6, 2013
I enjoyed Mike's story and so completely related to it. Our lives were not completely the same, but how we worked out the trials and tribulations of life, that can prevent you from becoming more than you are, are very similar. I had a wonderful childhood, middle class, but we always had nice houses, neighborhoods and a loving large extended family. I grew up naive but not closed minded. At 17 my life started to unravel. After trying to attend a catholic high school in my junior year, I dropped out, got a job and suddenly we moved again. This unfortunately led to me being in a situation where I was raped, (a virgin), the men were caught, a trial ensued and they went to prison for a very long time. One for life. This drastically threw my puberescence into overload. I got a boyfriend and was being a teenager again, swimming, water skiing, being sexual etc. It was short lived nirvana. Heartbroken from my boyfriend moving away, I started dancing at an art school. Crash boom bang!!! A teenage drunk driver crashed into my mom making her a parapalegic for the remaining 7 years of her life. Crisis tore my family apart. My dancing dreams shattered as I had to care for my mom and younger siblings. Surviving the accident, my father started drinking. He became useless, I became pregnant with a man 11 years older than I, got married had 2 more and divorced. I had never worked, mother dead, alone with 3 kids and dead beat husband and father. I felt suicidal so I sought help. Humiliated as I was on food stamps, welfare, I went back to school to get my GED. Then onto city colleges, FCC license, Cosmetology license, working to support and feed my 3 children on my own. My road less traveled was led by me and only me. Destiny relies on no one but oneself. And I had several very important mentors, men & women, along the way. Especially the aid to help women and children get their education and work. The programs themselves gave hope for all who sought to better themselves, pull themselves up as they say. I say my mentors meant everything to me, their support and knowledge helped me make my own decisions, giving me confidence and hope for mine and my children's future. Today they are grown, have their own children, and I am happy and proud of our struggle to become better human beings and citizens in our society.