For recent Palo Alto High School graduate Makayla Miller, having someone with whom she can relate, go to for college advice or simply text when she's having a bad day has been vital.
Miller connected with Jazmine Brown, a clinical psychology doctoral student in San Diego, through the local nonprofit Big Homie Project. Both women are Black, and Miller, a psychology major, is interested in going into the same field as Brown. They formed a bond through weekly video calls, shared family backgrounds and conversations about mental health.
"It's really important for kids to have role models to look up to that look like them and are doing the things they want to do," Miller said. "Especially in lower income communities — having someone you can talk to, someone you can relate to … is really important for flattening out or minimizing the achievement gap, getting more kids into college (and) getting more Black and brown youth into positions of power."
These are among the goals of the Big Homie Project. Palo Alto resident Jacqueline Diep started the nonprofit to connect Black teenagers in East Palo Alto with Black mentors working in careers they're interested in pursuing.
Diep sees herself in the teens she works with. She was a foster youth who went on to prove the statistics about foster youth underachieving wrong: She graduated from college and got her Master of Business Administration from the University of Southern California. She credits much of her success to mentors who recognized and supported her at a young age, including a social worker and high school teacher.
"It's the opportunity, network and equity gap," she said. "If you don't provide opportunities for these kids, they'll never ever make it out. I speak so passionately about it because I was that kid."
Diep has leveraged her professional and personal networks to bring in all kinds of Black mentors from Stanford University surgeons and Silicon Valley venture capitalists to professional athletes. (The nonprofit also works with athletes to host basketball clinics for youth in East Palo Alto.) The mentors check in with their teen mentees once a week or every other week to provide career advice and support. They use their connections to expose the young adults to opportunities in their fields that they might not otherwise have access to.
Miller is in her freshman year at Louisiana State University. She grew up in East Palo Alto and attended Palo Alto Unified schools through the Voluntary Transfer Program. The first Big Homie Project mentor she worked with was a Stanford surgeon. They had the same taste in music and went rock climbing together pre-coronavirus.
For the last few months, she's worked with Brown, a foster youth who went to a majority white high school where there was one Black teacher. Few of Brown's family members attended college and she didn't grow up in a place where education was valued. She eventually went to community college and then transferred to a four-year college, but struggled with the economic and familial pressure to pursue a lucrative field rather than the one she was passionate about.
"A lot of times, even unintentionally, parents, family members, the community put people down. Like, 'A surgeon? You know how expensive that is? You know how smart you have to be?'" Brown said, whereas the Big Homie Project is amplifying the message that "you can do whatever you want to."
They talk about which classes Miller should take, whether she should join the LSU dance team, and in recent months, the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. Miller helped organize a Juneteenth rally in Palo Alto this summer that was attended by hundreds of people. She spoke to the crowd about racism at Palo Alto High School and the isolation of "being Black in a school full of white."
Brown often talks with Miller about her emotional well-being, working to loosen the stigma attached to mental health in Black communities. After Floyd was killed while in custody of Minneapolis police this summer, sparking protests across the country and intense debate about race in the United States — all against the disruptive backdrop of a global pandemic — she reminded Miller that it's OK to not be OK.
"We talk about how Black girls, Black kids don't seek therapy because our parents are like, 'Deal with it; suck it up; you're going to be fine'… and how anxiety and depression are normal things but we just don't define them as that and our parents don't define them as that," Brown said.
Armani Barnes, who also graduated from Palo Alto High this year, is a first-generation college student at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills. She struck up an informal mentorship with Diep, who helped Barnes figure out which classes she should take, what major she wanted to pursue and why — questions that others in her life weren't asking her.
"I didn't exactly know what to do or how to do it," Barnes said. "I was already stressing about school, but I wasn't verbally talking about it."
She said Diep helped alleviate that stress. She'll frequently get texts from Diep, checking in to make sure she signed up for a class or did something she said she would.
Another Big Homie Project mentor is Fernandino Vilson, a urology resident at Stanford. He's been working with a young woman in Oakland who wants to become a radiologist, advising her on the steps she needs to take before applying to medical school. He connected her to a local radiologist and gave her access to research projects he's working on.
Vilson grew up in Maryland, where he didn't see any Black doctors. He now has two younger siblings attending medical school. He realized that having someone in their family who had already blazed that path helped them do so, too.
"Being able to see someone close to you, it helps motivate people behind you … but if you don't have that direct access to someone, it's hard for you to believe that or to have faith in yourself," he said.
The power of the Big Homie Project relationships, no matter the field or profession, Vilson said, is empowering Black youth through the feeling that "I can do that, too."
With many schools still closed due to the coronavirus and a renewed national conversation about racial injustice, Diep sees the Big Homie Project's work supporting Black youth as more critical than ever.
"We're collectively doing the work in real life in hopes to drive change and also encourage other people to take action in real life," she said. "It's going to take more than just being upset or angry about the state that we're in for real change to happen."
For more information about the Big Homie Project, go to bighomieproject.org.