For seven years, I was active with Big Brother/Big Sisters, working with a young man who grew up in a public housing complex in Wilmington, Delaware.
Every time I'd come around, the local dealers inside the complex would recognize my car and literally "clear the streets," making sure no one would give me trouble when I went to pick up or spend time with my Little Brother. In turn, I'd give them the head nod for respect, acknowledging the fact that the dealers wanted my Little Brother to succeed.
Though my relationship eventually "aged out" (he was 19 when he graduated from the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program), I felt a sense of fulfillment that I was unable to during my day job as a journalist and later, as an academic.
However, one of the biggest disappointments for me was not seeing more Hindu Americans involved in programs such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, especially given the number of educated professionals in my region who could undoubtedly provide a wealth of knowledge and support for young men and women in need of role models and hands-on supporters. As a study commissioned by the National Mentoring Project notes, mentors can have a significant impact on the lives of at-risk youth, giving them the encouragement they need to stay in school.
Last October, I spoke at the Balaji Temple in Aurora, Illinois, to talk about the challenges the Hindu American community -- particularly those who attend temples regularly -- faces in broader outreach. I suggested that temples become more actively involved in mentoring at-risk youth, whether it be through locally coordinated efforts or through national programs such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Such efforts are more than about helping communities in need of mentors; they uphold the dharmic ideal of seva, or selfless service.
Hindu Americans can to fill the void of mentors, particularly in communities of color. Indeed, President Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative is a great example of getting more individuals and organizations involved in the enormous task of keeping a generation of young (primarily African-American) men engaged with educational opportunities. Hindu Americans, particularly those who have become successful in fields such as the sciences and medicine, would be of great service to encouraging young Black men into colleges and pursue diverse careers. This has long been a staple of service among Abrahamic traditions in this country, and adding a Hindu voice to faith-based community empowerment would only strengthen efforts to help the marginalized.
Mentoring is probably one of the most individually fulfilling activities I experienced, but only in recent years have I truly appreciated how intrinsic the concept has been to Hinduism. In many ways, we as educated Hindu Americans can serve as practical gurus to those who need the support and the "hand up" to get to where they aspire to be. From our faith's view, it's seva and the dharmic thing to do. From a more practical standpoint, mentoring helps all of us. We the mentors stand to gain just as much as our mentees do, making it all the more important for us to be involved in helping to make the change we wish to see in the world.