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Discussing Racial Injustice with Our Littles

Gene Willis is Co-Chair of the BBBSKC DEI Board and was the 2014 Kansas City Big Brother of the Year.

On the early morning of July 7, 2016, I wrote the following post on my social media platforms following the news of the shooting and death of Philando Castile, a Black male school worker, at the hands of a Minnesota police officer:

"I can't sleep. The shootings continue to unnerve and scare me. I mentor 3 black/biracial young men, ages 12, 18, & 21. Each has had/will get a heart-to-heart about police interactions as a rite of passage, talking on all angles — good, bad, and the grey areas. Part of me feels angry that I have to do this. Part feels irresponsible that I haven't talked to the 12-year-old yet."

I hoped to never again feel compelled to write about that pain and frustration. But, here we are, four years later, substituting Castille's name with George Floyd's and countless others. Also, here I am: a Black man, former Big, and 16+ year supporter of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters mission, sharing a perspective on systematic tragedy.

It's hard for anyone to live through these experiences. For young people in 2020, the situations are compounded. They've been abruptly uprooted from school, which serves as a support system, community forum, food center, athletic and academic catharses, and so much more. They've also been separated from their mentor/Big. It's a lot, and it's a lot that's coming at them as fast as the 5G speeds in which the world tweets its opinions on the subjects.

Your Littles are thinking about the protests, riots, marches, speeches, and violence. With approximately 80% of the Littles in Kansas City being Black or of color, they represent the mission of the Black Lives Matter movement on a daily basis. Many mentors are facing this for the first time: how do I have these conversations about race, equity, social justice, and the world right now? 

  • Rely on the trust that you've built in your relationship with them. Showing up matters. For many of you, you've been showing up multiple times a month for a while now. That consistency lends itself to transparency in a relationship. Use that trust to create a space and time where your Little can talk.
  • Set up the opportunity. When I was in my longest-term match (he's now 25 and far from "little"), we would make a point of starting our outing by talking about one thing from the news every week. Sometimes, it was serious - the Boston Marathon bombing. Other times, it was fun - Drake's record-breaking music streams/sales. The important thing was to create a habit so that when it's time to deal with things that invoke traumatic feelings, they have an outlet. It's never too late to start a positive habit.
  • Call it by its name and be mindful of your own bias. Today's issues are racism. Injustices. Challenging police brutality and unlawful use of force. Your Littles are hearing these terms, whether you're comfortable with them or not. Many have had "the talk" with someone in their life about interacting with the police and authoritative confrontation. Honesty is the highest form of respect in my book. This isn't the time to prove that you're right or know best. It's a time for you both to grow together, and for you to be the support system that they need. If you have differing political opinions or perspectives, consider your delivery, especially as the adult in the situation. They're learning from you in every way possible, especially in how you handle being challenged.
  • Listen. For some young people, your ears will be the first adult ears that are fully attentive to their perspectives - which are being formed by the day, just as their brains are continuing to develop at these ages. This is not singularly about you, or your experiences growing up, or how it was "different back then." It may take time, and it may mean an ongoing conversation before they're transparent; pain can also come out forcefully at times. Listen and continue to be present.

I hope that the students that you are mentoring are a part of the next generation of change. I hope that you get the privilege of having a Little tell you, later in life, how much your presence and ears mattered. Most of all, I hope that you continue to press through the discomfort. That's where the growth occurs for all involved.