Brotherly Love

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At his side: Joseph Radelet with Aaron Robinson around the time of Robinson’s high school graduation in 2009. Radelet has served as Robinson’s Big Brother since the young man was 10.

Philadelphia—When Betty Robinson asked Big Brothers Big Sisters in 2000 to find a male mentor for her 10-year-old grandson, Aaron, she wasn’t concerned with the mentor’s race, ethnicity or the color of his skin.

“It didn’t make me no difference,” Robinson, who is African-American, told a visitor recently.

All Robinson wanted for her grandson – who was born with cerebral palsy and abandoned at birth by his since-deceased mother, and whose father has been serving a life sentence in prison since the time Aaron was born – was a mentor who simply would “be there for him and take interest in him no matter what.”

Ten years later, Robinson says she got what she wanted.

Aaron Robinson’s Big Brother is Joseph Radelet, vice president of mentoring programs at the organization’s national headquarters in Philadelphia. Some might scoff at the match between Aaron Robinson and Radelet, who is Caucasian.

“A white man cannot teach a black boy how to be a black man,” one African-American man from Baltimore said during a focus group discussion for Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Increasing African American Male Mentoring Project.

The young man doesn’t see it that way. “Joe is like my older brother from another generation,” Aaron Robinson, now 19, said recently as he and Radelet met at a downtown Philadelphia sports bar. “It’s more who you are as a person than the pigmentation of your skin.”

From behind the walls of the Graterford State Prison in Pennsylvania, Robinson’s father, Shannon Robinson, 35, agrees.

“It made no difference to me if his mentor was black or white,” Robinson wrote in a letter to Youth Today. “What mattered most to me was: What kind of man would they pair my son with? Being black wouldn’t have meant that he would have been right for my son. What matters most in this situation is the person’s character.”

Radelet agrees, for the most part. However, when he puts on his hat as an executive at Big Brothers Big Sisters, he worries about institutional racism seeping in.

“As an organization, we have to put on a different lens,” Radelet said. “A solution to a community’s problems is in the community.

“We as an organization have to know that and have to strive to understand that. And that’s reflected by, in this case, how many black Big Brothers and Big Sisters we are able to enlist.”

Research has shown that the race of the mentor, by itself, does not have any consistent impact on outcomes for minority youths.

“The effects appear to be subtle and act in combination with other factors, such as gender, interpersonal style and parental attitudes, to shape the mentoring experience,” states Mentoring and Race, a research article by MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership, an Alexandria, Va.,-based national mentoring advocacy group.

“With the exception of youth for whom racial issues are an overriding concern, the mentor’s race or ethnicity may not be the critical factor in predicting the likelihood of a successful relationship,” the MENTOR article states. “As long as mentors encourage their mentees to feel secure with their own cultural identity, engage in activities that enhance their mentees’ knowledge of their cultural heritage, and remain aware of the cultural baggage that they bring to bear in the relationship, then racial or ethnic similarity becomes less consequential.”

Rap concerts, history tours

The bond between Radelet and Aaron Robinson is multifaceted. Now in his 60s, Radelet went with Aaron Robinson to see rap megastar Kanye West in concert amid a rambunctious crowd of youths at the Liacouras Center at Temple University.

“I look around and say, ‘How in the world did I get here?’ ” Radelet recalled of the concert.

When Aaron Robinson turned 18 in August of 2008, Radelet took him to register to vote, a key step in enabling the youth to participate in the election that gave the United States its first African-American president.

But beyond rap concerts and politics, perhaps the most significant step that Radelet took as a mentor came after he took Aaron to see the former Philadelphia home of Paul Robeson, the 20th century black actor whose social justice activism is considered a forerunner of the civil rights movement.

After visiting Robeson’s home and a nearby larger-than-life mural of the actor, Radelet asked a young Aaron who his heroes were.

“I said, ‘My father,’ ” Robinson recalled. “He thought I was going to say Paul Robeson, because we were actually in front of the establishment. But I came out and told him who my hero really was.”

Then, “I looked over at Joe. He was in tears.”

“So I realized very clearly, the importance of Aaron’s father to him, even though Aaron’s father has been incarcerated since before Aaron was born,” Radelet said.

Not long after that episode, Radelet stopped by the Robinson home and Aaron’s father, who was on the telephone, wanted to talk to Radelet.

“He was so appreciative,” Radelet recalled. “He said, ‘Thank you for all you’re doing. I can’t do this directly.’

“At that point, I knew we were on the same page,” Radelet said. “That’s when I started to think it would be good for me to get to know Shannon [Aaron’s father], because my job, to be the best kind of Big Brother I can be, is to be on the same page with the best in Aaron’s family.”

Soon, Radelet was taking Aaron Robinson on trips to see his father in prison.

“Putting myself in his shoes, I don’t think I could have done that,” Aaron’s father said in the letter to Youth Today, explaining that his status as a prisoner who’s been locked up for murder since age 16 can be a scary image for outsiders. “But Mr. Radelet shook my hand and hugged me, like the family that he is.”

But difficult days lie ahead. Aaron Robinson graduated from high school in 2009 but is still waiting to get into a state program that helps people with disabilities help themselves start and maintain a career.

Radelet thinks Aaron Robinson would do well in a job that involves delivering things at hospitals and cheering people up.

“His upbeat demeanor and good personality would be an asset,” Radelet says. “We’ve got our work cut out for us in the next few months and few years.”