Big Brothers/Big Sisters exec challenges Black men to mentor youth


The Black community currently is in a “state of emergency” because there are so many young Blacks who need mentoring, especially Black males, says Darlene Bell.

“I’m a firm believer that in order to be a man, you got to see a man,” says Bell as she urgently calls for more Black male mentors.

At least 700 kids are currently on a mentor waiting list. Most are Black young males, states Bell, the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities community outreach and volunteer recruitment director. She has been a Big Sister to young Black females “long before I was employed” at her present position three years ago. “I’m very driven toward anything that has to do with youth and kids. My passion really is teenagers,” admits Bell.

Bell recently was inducted into the 2009 Mpls.St.Paul Magazine Volunteer Hall of Fame for 20 years of mentoring youth, foster parenting and working with several local organizations such as Children’s Home Society. “It was an honor but at the same time, humbling to be actually honored for something you just naturally do on a day-to-day basis,” she notes.

Growing up on Minneapolis’ South Side, “my mentors were so many neighbors on the block” along with others who live in the surrounding blocks, Bell recalls.

“We don’t have that anymore, where the kids could go to the neighbor and talk about life issues, or talk about being a young man. You [would] just [be] sitting on the front stoop or the front porch [and adults would say to] kids going by, ‘Let me talk to you for a minute,’ ‘What [are] you getting into?’ or
‘How [are] your grades in school?’ You don’t have that anymore.”

Bell grew up in a house full of love and people: her parents, her and her brother, and several other relatives that her folks took in without an eye blinked. It was there where Bell was taught lifelong lessons on giving of oneself to others.

“When people ask me who my role models – my heroes – are, they are my mom and dad,” Bell proudly says, honoring Lenora and Robert Bogan, who have been married for over a half century. “They really taught our family how to give back. I don’t have to go to the Oprahs or the Maya Angelous.”

As a result, volunteering her time in the community was natural. “It made me realize when I became a woman that I am a part of this village. To have someone else to talk to or to lean on, that is what [my parents] taught me as a young lady. Teaching me how to be a wife, a mother and a friend – those are the kind of things that my mom and the older ladies [taught me]… The women in my family [are who] I modeled myself after.”

Bell has been a foster parent for 20 years, along with raising six children (all but five of them now adults) with her husband Curtis. She also is a board member of “Project Divas,” which mentors young Black females in a group setting. Bell says she recently helped facilitate a “Let’s just talk” session with a group of young ladies.

“It opened up a whole array of different things that the girls talked about,” she says of the discussed topics, which ranged from school to name calling to sexual issues. “Their main focus was respect; a lot of them feel disrespected. But we put it back on them: Disrespect comes because you don’t respect yourself.”

Although she still continues to preach the importance of volunteering and mentoring, too often she’s offered “too busy” excuses. Bell admits that convincing others, especially Black males, to do so has been difficult.

“I go out and do pleas to the Black community because the majority of kids on our waiting list are [Black] boys,” she says. “This is why I make the plea in the churches and in the community for the men to step up…

“We do have a lot of male mentors, but they are White men, and they are mentoring our Black boys. It is time for us as a people to stand up and care for our own kids.”

Trying to figure out an answer to why things have come to this, “I have thought about that… I don’t know where [it changed],” Bell sadly reflects. “But I think back [on]… what our parents and the older people did, they just gave back. You didn’t have to pump and prime [people] to give, to do the right thing or go up and beyond.

“[In] the neighborhood where my parents are living, where I grew up, it [once] was [made up of] people who owned their own homes and people cared about the community. If it was rental property, you never knew it because they took pride in [renting]. Now in the neighborhood, it’s more hoods than there are neighbors.”

Bell says finding Black females as mentors hasn’t been as problematic. “Usually I get the women that will sign up,” she points out, but she wants more Black men to join as mentors.

“Brothers, it’s time. Our boys need you, and you need our boys,” she exhorts.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-record