“I have seen the power of mentoring firsthand”: Hillary Clinton on the mentors who changed her life

screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-12-01-39-pmby Jean Rhodes

“At a time when there seems to be so little that people agree on, this is one mission worthy of bipartisan, broad-based support.” Hillary Clinton

It’s hard to imagine that the political acrimony (and insanity) that has defined this year’s presidential election could get any worse. Understandably, there’s a strong urge to tune it all out and retreat. Yet, as champions of children and families, we all have a moral obligation to remain engaged—and to consider how each candidate might affect the lives of the most vulnerable among us. Hillary Clinton has provided more details about her stance on education and, as she noted in the second debate, has made child welfare a priority over the course of her 30 year career. But both have put forth positions and the Wall Street Journal recently boiled down the essence of their stances on education.

But, where do the candidates stand on mentoring? In this post, we can read about (or listen to) Hillary Clinton’s views on the power of mentoring relationships and how they changed her life. The piece is excerpted, with permission, from Matilda Raffa Cuomo’s excellent book; The Person Who Changed My Life.  In it, Clinton affirms what studies already demonstrate–that mentoring can make a difference in the lives of young people.

Excerpt from Hillary Clinton

I am grateful to so many people—teachers, coaches, neighbors—who encouraged, supported, and challenged me while I was growing up, I will always be thankful to Rev. Donald James, my church’s youth minister in Park Ridge, Illinois, who did so much to open a wider world to me and my friends. He arranged for our church youth group to worship and participate in service projects together with Black and Hispanic teenagers in Chicago. He exposed us to modern art and poetry, from Picasso to e. e. cummings, long before school did. And in 1961 he took a group of us to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. As I listened to Dr. King’s powerful words about nonviolence and the right of all Americans to live in dignity, I knew my world would never be the same.

Adults can have mentors, too. I had one after I met Marian Wright Edelman during my first year of Yale Law School. Marian, a civil rights lawyer and children’s advocate, inspired my own commitment to justice. Marian also knows about mentoring. As she writes about growing up in South Carolina before the civil rights era, she describes how she and her sisters were “wrapped up and rocked in the cradle of faith, song, prayer, ritual, and worship, which immunized our spirits against some of the meanness and unfairness of our segregated South.” I have felt that cloak of protection working in my own life. And I have seen how parents, church leaders, teachers, and other caring adults have sustained and supported young people in times of sorrow, pain, or confusion.

This book is filled with stories of young people who were lucky enough to be embraced by that same loving web of relationships, and who, as a result, found the strength and direction to overcome barriers to success and freedom. Their stories underscore what we know by experience to be true—that even one caring adult in the life of a young person can make all the difference in the world, opening up opportunities that may have seemed unimaginable.

Every child needs a champion. Yet, for too many of America’s children today, there are no champions; there are no mentors. Some young people may need tutoring help in school so they can feel the satisfaction of reading a good book and being promoted to the next class. Others may need coaching in a sport so they can experience what it is like to be engaged in a team effort. Many children thrive when they are given the opportunity to contribute, whether in building a home for a homeless person or tutoring a young sibling or classmate. Every young person needs someone to say “I believe in you.”

I’ve seen the power of mentoring firsthand. For example, I have visited the Harriet Tubman School in Harlem, New York, where parents and members of the community were coming together to create after-school programs that are currently boosting students’ grades and self-confidence. I have seen the excitement in the eyes of young inner-city children in Washington, DC, as they looked forward to meeting with volunteers from AmeriCorps, who were helping them with their reading skills. And I have seen what can happen when artists, poets, and musicians unleash the creative imaginations of young people, turning a dreary classroom into a set for a play or a place to explore the wonders of a flute or a paintbrush.

Mentoring. Tutoring. After-school programs. There are many opportunities for caring, responsible adults to become involved in the lives of our children. At a time when there seems to be so little that people agree on, this is one mission worthy of bipartisan, broad-based support. It is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. We know from countless studies that there are direct links between mentoring and tutoring programs and higher academic achievement, lower dropout rates, fewer teen pregnancies, and safer communities.

I hope this book will inspire more people to become involved in the life of a young person, because we all have a critical role to play. I also hope it will persuade governors and legislators to invest more of their budgets in mentoring and other support programs for our young people. I was pleased that my husband, while president, signed into law the GEAR UP program, which has encouraged middle schoolers in some of our poorest neighborhoods to begin thinking about going to college and has recruited mentors to help them make that dream a reality. The government clearly has a role to play. But in the end, it is up to each and every one of us to become involved in a child’s life.

There are many successful mentoring programs across the country that are making a difference in the lives of young people, thanks to leaders like Matilda Cuomo. Whether people enlist in a local mentoring program, informally start helping a child, or participate in national efforts like Mentoring USA, “I Have a Dream” programs, or the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the result is the same. By giving one-to-one attention to a troubled child, offering hope where there is only despair, or opening doors that were once shut, we can change lives. These are some of the best investments we can make to ensure that children not only survive but thrive in today’s world.

For America to succeed in the twenty-first century everyone deserves a good education, and everyone should have the opportunity to go to college. We cannot afford to let only the privileged have those chances and dream those dreams. As a nation we must ensure that all children, regardless of their race, neighborhood, or family income, have the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential and the skills they need to grow and flourish. Let us teach our children that they can go as far as their dreams and abilities will take them. Let us stand beside them, believe in them, and help guide them, until they get there.

-Hillary Rodham Clinton

Book Cover - The Person Who Changed My Life