By Teresa L. White
Though myriad social science studies affirm the value of mentors, I don’t need to look any further than my own life experience to see the profoundly beneficial impact of good role models. My sister and I grew up in Dallas, in what was generously called “affordable housing.” We spent hours at home after school unsupervised. Friends were getting high and making bad decisions. We were, in the parlance of the times, “at-risk youth.”
How does that girl get to college and through grad school? How does that girl climb the ranks of one of the nation’s most admired companies to become a corporate officer?
Fact is, I had something going for me that many minority teens don’t. I had champions – adults who believed in me and would be disappointed if I stumbled. In addition to my determined mother, there was an aunt who served as a Peace Corp volunteer. Hours at her knee hearing stories of people from all over the world taught me that I shouldn’t fear societies beyond our borders. One uncle, a doctor, had his own stories of challenge; another uncle, an artist, taught me how to view life through others’ eyes.
Another relative lived a harder life. All the clichés — drugs, prison, violence. Once, he came to pick me up from high school. He knew I was having a dispute with a classmate. He opened the car door and gestured to the kids milling about, saying, “Which one is she? Which one?” I told him she wasn’t around. I feared what his question implied. I feared what he might do on my behalf. I didn’t want to live that way. But I knew I didn’t have to, because I had other examples to follow.
My mentors, be they coaches, parents, relatives or ministers, told me: “Don’t become a statistic.” Among the statistics that haunt the African American community: Illegal drug use rates that top 10 percent. Teen pregnancy rates that remain stubbornly high (44 births per 1,000) relative to whites (20.5 births per 1,000). And while people of color make up about 30 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned.
It’s tempting to dismiss such unfortunate populations as simply not taking advantage of the gifts laid before them. But such daunting failures indicate something else. To achieve something, a child has to know she is capable. She has to see that people who came before her have led successful lives. They have to be people close to her. They have to be people like her.
Atlanta, the birthplace of the civil rights movement, has long been a place where people of color earn respect and accomplish great things. It is incumbent, therefore, that those of us who are in a position to serve as role models become the leading light that young African Americans desperately need.
Mentoring is one of my most cherished activities, whether serving as a formal advisor or an informal counselor. Regardless of how busy I get, I always find time for mentoring. It is my calling, my duty.
Though a successful life involves a lot of hard work, it starts as something simpler. It starts as a suggestion. It starts as an expectation. It starts as a vision.
Teresa L. White is executive vice president and chief operating officer at Aflac, based in Columbus. Ga.-based corporation named nine years running by Black Enterprise magazine as one of top 40 companies for diversity.