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New York City
February 2004

Black History Month: Lincoln’s Unfinished Work
by Matilda Raffa Cuomo

Black History Month is designed to focus attention on how far we have come in correcting the grotesque damage done in our nation by our early years of slavery.

February 12th will be the 195th birthday of Abraham Lincoln and we’ll recall how he began the process that ended slavery in our country through Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, victory in the Civil War and, following his cruel assassination—the constitutional amendments condemning slavery and assuring all races equality of opportunity.

The sad reality is we are a long way from assuring equal opportunity for all races. We have not yet advanced from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid bedrock of true equality. That is not to disparage all that is good about our unique United States of America: we are still the greatest nation in the world and the most effective engine of opportunity in world history. But great as this nation is, we have not yet corrected the damages created by hundreds of years of horrendous slavery that produced riches and comforts for the whites by demeaning, debasing and debilitating blacks. We are still an exceedingly polarized society and the evidence of failure is apparent everywhere around us. Schools in predominantly black neighborhoods are still not as good as schools in white areas. Discrimination against blacks in the business world and beyond still exists. As a result, today blacks are more apt to be inadequately educated, unemployed, poor, uninsured, ill, imprisoned, or sentenced to death, then their Caucasian counterparts. They earn less; they are much less likely to be wealthy, CEOs, or important public officials.

I see this disparity in the Mentoring USA program I run which is designed for children at risk of failure in school. At least 70% of the children we deal with are black or Hispanic. Obviously, we need to do much more than we are doing as a nation to live up to the promise of our Declaration of Independence—that there will be equality of opportunity for all children and adults.
Mentoring USA currently provides structured, one to one, mentoring to all young children at risk, especially children in foster care, children who have been homeless and children who have recently immigrated to this country. It is the largest one to one, site based, mentoring program in New York City and has provided mentors to thousands of children ages five to eighteen. We are affiliated with HELP USA, which is the largest provider of transitional housing, with on-site services for homeless families in the nation. We also provide mentors to the youth in HELP USA’s permanent housing facilities.

We know mentoring is one of the most effective ways to help children obtain the support and encouragement they need in order to prosper. Research increasingly states that those children who succeed, despite enormous personal, economical, or societal obstacles, do so because of the presence of caring, competent adults who believe in them.

Mentoring USA’s goal is to provide the missing support to children before it is too late, in the form of early, frequent and consistent attention trained by adult mentors who are wonderful role models. Research also tells us that when children feel they are affirmed and respected, they are less likely to turn to violence. Also, children appreciate diversity and work harder to resolve diversity-related conflicts when they are in an environment that values diversity. The more pride and appreciation students have of their own culture, the more they will appreciate other cultures as well.

Building from these premises, Mentoring USA initiated nearly eight years ago the Bias-Related-Anti-Violence Education or BRAVE Program. The program uses biographical material as a tool to enhance children’s self-esteem and sense of cultural heritage, to open discussions about the experiences of various racial, cultural and ethnic groups and to facilitate discussion about diversity, overcoming obstacles, tolerance, and the non-violent resolution of conflict.

During Black History Month, Mentoring USA develops informational packets listing activities and travel opportunities for each mentoring site, which the program manager provides for the mentors to share with their mentees. Besides these packets of information, we distribute a one-page list of cultural activities that mentors and mentees can engage in together to celebrate throughout Black History Month.

Michael Strahan, one of the best defensive players in Giants history, is the spokesperson for HELP USA and Mentoring USA. He is an extraordinarily dedicated volunteer who hosts homeless children at his football camp and conducts self-esteem workshops for youth in the New York City area. In my book, The Person Who Changed My Life, Michael is one of the 77 prominent people who remember and thank their mentors. Michael tells us about his best mentor, his father. Michael states, “The three last bits of advice my father taught me was first, the best way to break a bad habit like drugs or alcohol is to never start. Second, never ask someone to give you anything, always earn it first. Third, if being successful was easy, everyone would do it, so you have to work hard for success.”

It is up to all of us. We need more dedicated volunteers like Michael Strahan to work as a team in order to give each child who needs support—a mentor to help fulfill his or her potential. That will bring us much closer to completing our unfinished work and to being all that we can be.#

Mrs. Cuomo, the former First Lady of New York State, is the Founder and Chairperson of Mentoring USA.


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Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 1588, New York, NY 10159.
Tel: (212) 477-5600. Fax: (212) 477-5893. Email: ednews1@aol.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2004.


Reprinted by permission of Chris Soentpiet