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Q&A with President & CEO, Kwame Johnson

This year, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta welcomed a new leader. Our President and CEO, Kwame Johnson, offers a wealth of experience in the non-profit sector, and a pragmatic philosophy that promises to move our organization in an exciting new direction. Here Kwame discusses the future of Metro Atlanta’s youth, and the part Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta will take in effecting positive change in our community.

What attracted you to the opportunity to lead Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta?

I’ve been a fan of Big Brothers Big Sisters for the majority of my career. This program has a significant impact, and measurable results. We serve roughly 2000 children in Metro Atlanta. 98% of the kids in our program are being promoted to the next grade level, 98% are graduating high school on time, and 99% are avoiding the criminal justice system. Professionally supported one-to-one mentoring works. The way I see it, these results show us a path to solving poverty in America.

We all know, and all the research says, that one’s best chance to escape poverty starts with graduating high school. So, in getting an education, advancing through school, and graduating, a child has their best shot at making it out of poverty.

My overall goal in life, professionally, is to try and solve poverty. It’s a huge problem. I see Big Brothers Big Sisters as a solution to poverty.

How does the fact that Big Brothers Big Sisters is a youth focused program help position us to combat poverty?

There’s a famous quote: “It’s easier to build strong children than repair broken men.”

Our country faces a lot of challenges today, poverty being one of the biggest. Based on reports from the Southern Education Foundation, for the first time in at least 50 years, more than half the kids in our nation’s public education system come from low income families. According to the United Way, of the 1.5 million kids in Greater Atlanta, nearly half a million children live in communities with low or very low child well-being. These numbers are staggering. They can be overwhelming. So where do we start?

As a strategy for solving poverty, focusing on youth is how we’ll get our greatest return on investment. By working with young people and giving them the tools to change their lives, to change their situations, we’re impacting their children, and their children’s children, and we’re impacting generations to come.

What are some of the biggest strengths of our organization?

In the non-profit sector, there are plenty of initiatives, and tons of programs. What is most vital about our specific approach are the relationships we build. Throughout my career, I’ve learned, and I preach, that relationships change people, not programs. Some programs are great. Ultimately, it’s the relationships that can come from a program or initiative that truly effect change.

What is unique about what we do, is our approach that is entirely based on relationships. That’s the real power to create change. It’s not only a program. It’s also about how an individual can form a mentoring relationship with someone else and inspire that change. Regardless of what kind of challenge someone is facing, regardless of what zip code they live in, regardless of the situation, the relationship element has produced absolutely amazing results for us, and kids are getting to that next level because of it. ‘Relationship’ is core to what we do.

What have you noticed about the state of youth development in the underserved communities of Atlanta?

Atlanta has a lot of promise. Atlanta has seen a recent growth in the non-profit sector. I came out of Washington D.C., which is a real hub for non-profits. In a lot of ways, those non-profits aren’t necessarily working together. They’re stepping on each other in many instances. I think what they are beginning to figure out, is something we can learn from. In Atlanta, as we continue to grow our sector, we need to continue to collaborate, not duplicate. We need to build a sector that is meeting the needs of our community.

How can Big Brothers Big Sisters generate the momentum needed for positive change in Atlanta?

Most importantly, we need to demonstrate the power of mentoring. We need to show what professionally supported one-to-one mentoring is all about, because we have the results. We have the ability to make change and impact the future of the youth here in Metro Atlanta.

That doesn’t mean we need to be the only one. We need to partner with other organizations, because we can’t provide every single intervention that a young person will need. We need to lead, but we also need to partner with other youth development organizations who can complement the work that we’re doing, so that all the kids in our programs can go much further.

Half a million children living in Greater Atlanta communities with insufficient child well-being, that number is bigger than Big Brothers Big Sisters. The goal should be to work together to help those children, and as a result, make Atlanta an example for the rest of the country.