Soul Searching: BBBSA’s Image AmongAfrican Americans

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If perception is reality, then Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA) is everything from an outsider in the black community to a “white organization” to non-existent.

Those and other criticisms of America’s largest mentoring agency are contained in a 2007 report the agency commissioned to learn more about how it is perceived among black men – a group the agency has been having trouble enlisting as mentors.

To learn the perceptions of Big Brothers Big Sisters, the communications firm Motivational Educational Entertainment gathered black men in Philadelphia, Baltimore and St. Louis for the Increasing African American Male Mentoring Project Focus Group. The groups included those who had served the agency as mentors as well as those who had not.

Among the findings, according to the report:

• “A consistent theme by all focus group participants is that BBBS is an outsider in the Black community.”

• Several of the agency’s marketing tactics were criticized as being wasteful or counterproductive. Billboard ads, for instance, were attacked.

“The money is going to Madison Avenue instead of to the field,” one focus group observer charged. “If you put an ad on a billboard in our community, that’s not going to resonate with us. You have to be authentic and BBBS doesn’t impress me as being authentic and actually getting the job done.”

• “The rules and regulations are too restrictive for me,” a participant said. “You have to have some freedom to do things.”

• Others complained about the requirement of a one-year commitment, with meetings at regular intervals. “Some people like to give the time that they have to give,” one participant said. “Most people get scared of the [structure of BBBS] … I can give you [only] what I can give you.”

Another asked: “If I can commit more time over the summer than someone else can in a year, then why is that a problem?”

• Others didn’t like the attitude and phone demeanor of Big Brothers Big Sisters staff members, the agency’s ads, or its white facade. “All the commercials I have seen have been a white person mentoring the child. I’ve hardly ever seen a black person,” a participant said.

Self-Criticism

The men in the focus groups were just as critical of themselves as of BBBSA.

Among other things, the men cited low self-esteem, fear of being accused of child molestation and worries about not having a “rosy” background. They also cited a general apathy that manifests itself in a “not my problem” attitude. Others said many men are so engrossed in their own problems and responsibilities that they forget they have a larger responsibility.

They also dealt with the idea that it takes a heavy financial commitment to be a big.

“There are many misconceptions about what it takes to be a big,” one focus group participant said. “All it really takes is love. The only money I spend is on gas to pick him up and drop him off.”

BBBSA’s efforts

One BBBSA agency that tried to shed the image of being white-oriented is Big Brothers Big Sisters of Washtenaw County, which put more black men in its promotional material.

“We changed our face,” said Jennifer Spitler, the agency’s executive director. “We changed what our marketing materials look like. Women are going to respond no matter who’s on the face. But men need to see men to respond. We just changed everything so people can see, ‘People who look like me are doing this.’ ”

After the change in the ads, Spitler said, the agency’s percentage of black male mentors increased in 2009 from 7 percent to nearly 12 percent. She was uncertain whether the increase was the result of the new materials, working more closely with the black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, or both.

The national organization seems to have taken to heart the message about the importance of finding potential mentors. In addition to working with black fraternities to recruit fraternity members as bigs, the agency has launched http://www.mentoringbrothers.org – a mentoring recruitment Web site geared specifically toward black men.

BBBSA is also working with Michael Baisden’s nationally syndicated radio program on his 2010 “One Million Mentors” recruitment tour, and is partnering with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the National Cares Mentoring Movement and chapters of 100 Black Men of America.

“For Big Brothers Big Sisters to be a strong agency, we have to tie in with the local community, in this case the local black community,” said Joseph Radelet, BBBSA’s vice president of mentoring programs.