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BRMA is Back!

By Stuart Phillips, CHCCS Communications Specialist

On consecutive weekends, the proof that  Blue Ribbon Mentor Advocate (BRMA) is reinvigorated and roaring back to its previous vitality could be observed at the packed fundraiser in the home of NC Senator, Graig Meyer, on May 27 as well as the Graduation Celebration for nine Scholars at Carrboro High School on June 3. Embracing the Core Value of Social Justice Action, as well as the Key Priority of Strengthening Family and Community Engagement, the acclaimed CHCCS program aligns with and supports numerous aspects of the district’s equity-focused mission. What a year of regeneration and growth it has been – Welcome Back, BRMA!

BR scholar at graduation

The program was created in 1995 in response to the findings of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, which was commissioned by Superintendent Neil Pedersen to examine causes and solutions to the achievement gap in CHCCS. In 1998, Meyer was hired to lead and develop the program, remaining at the helm until 2013. For much of the following 28 years, the organization expanded its mission, outreach and enrollment, impacting and changing lives of hundreds of Black and Brown students. 

In a January 2022 “Visioning Update” to the Board of Education, Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rodney Trice and Coordinator for Student Leadership and Engagement, Lorie Clark presented a hopeful and fundamentally patient explanation of how the program was returning to a healthier state, following a dramatic shift in administrative priorities several years prior, when the program was redesigned. On the heels of those changes came the substantial limitations and reduction of activities during the “Covid years.” However, as stated in the abstract from that 2022 BOE presentation, “With the support of a new administration, the Equity and Engagement Division is excited to bring a renewed focus to student leadership and engagement and to reposition BRMA for success …  The primary focus is on understanding and reviving the best of past practices while designing the program to thrive in a new and more innovative direction.”

The goal of BRMA has always been to increase student engagement, expand enrichment opportunities and nurture student leadership, as well as expand academic achievement and confidence, specifically for students who are historically marginalized and under-resourced. The three-component approach to meeting those goals has been anchored by the relationships among students, their families and trained community mentors. BRMA has been a nationally recognized trailblazer in developing a model of systemic mentoring. Although the mentor-mentee relationship forms the center of each support network, the interests and concerns of families and school staff also enrich that system, especially through the oversight and input from school social workers. 

Since that Visioning Update was delivered in early 2022, Clark, Trice and a growing number of staff in the Office of Equity and Engagement have developed new initiatives, even as they’ve revived the original mentoring program itself, as well as the long established Youth Leadership Institute, or YLI, which hosts chapters for Black and Brown students at each high school. 

Clark said, “I am delighted with the current momentum of Blue Ribbon. In addition to rematching 95% of our scholars, we have served an additional 50 scholars through our new programs, LevelUP (8-12 grade young men of color) and BluePrint (Building Leaders through Ubuntu and Equity) a STEM-focused leadership program for middle school scholars.  We have also raised more than $65,000 to support enrichment funds and scholarships. At the annual graduation and end of year celebration, there were over 125 scholars, families and mentors. Blue Ribbon recognized nine graduating scholars and two additional scholarship recipients. Blue Ribbon is definitely back!”

BRMA spring break service

Since March 2023, BRMA has facilitated a Civil Rights Spring Break trip through history-rich cities of the Deep South; led a Level Up experience in Charlotte that included a Hornets game; a visit to Guilford College and the International Civil Rights Center in Greensboro; and a full-day Girls Retreat for girls in grades 8-12, “My Story, Your Story, Our Story”. In addition to these enrichment activities, scholars have participated in service projects, including volunteering at the annual Mildred Council Community Dinner in April. In May, mentors had the opportunity to attend a Youth Mental Health First Aid workshop, and other sponsored workshops have included a College Finance and Prep Night and the Black and Latinx College Fair, in collaboration with the Office of Equity and Engagement. Whew!

Eugenia Floyd, former Scroggs fourth grade teacher, current CHCCS equity specialist, as well as 2021 Burroughs Wellcome NC Teacher of the Year, speaks in glowing terms about her experience in YLI, when she was a student at East Chapel Hill High School. “The Blue Ribbon Mentor Advocate Program creates opportunities that are rooted in the REALITIES that students of CHCCS face. Example: If we know our most marginalized groups of students can't afford the private Reading/Math/SAT/ACT tutors that some can, then we intentionally create or find a tutoring program where they can get that service. Moving with this level of intentionality leads to direct impact. My first train ride was when I was in the Youth Leadership Institute. We rode the train to D.C, which was a place I'd never gone. I made repairs to homes in Louisiana, I volunteered in the Chapel Hill Food Bank and all of these, plus many more (experiences) led to life changing options for me.”

At the June 2 celebration, the graduates spoke emotionally and powerfully about the impact their years with BRMA have provided them. They described favorite activities with their mentors, meaningful experiences with YLI, and they detailed the ways they see their lives have changed. “Everything (my mentor) has done for me has turned me into the man I am today,” said one graduate. Another graduate noted how her experiences have created a lifelong passion for service.

Public School Foundation Director, Madeline Blobe and her husband, Dr. Gerry Blobe both serve as mentors now. “As a mentor, I hope to build a trusting friendship, share my experiences, and inspire my scholar to reach their full potential,” she said. “Becoming a BRMA mentor connects members of our community who truly want to invest in young people and our future.” 

Chapel Hill Town Council Member Camille Berry has served as a mentor for a number of years. “I have been privileged to be part of a young person's life and have enjoyed being in community with my scholar, her family, and her friends. She and I have shared our challenges, curiosities, and dreams. We are empowering ourselves to see possibilities that we once may never have envisioned. Thank you to the Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate program for providing this opportunity to support our youth and for creating a framework that ensures we are well equipped to do that.”

Floyd said, “The Blue Ribbon Mentor Advocate Program created this intentional exposure and access for my peers, who have become VPs in billion dollar companies, enlisted in the service, and many who have come back to Chapel Hill to contribute to the community. Some of them have even become educators and the 2021 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year! I will forever be grateful for the Blue Ribbon Mentor Advocate Program and all the people in the Chapel Hill community that truly believe in what it means to actually close opportunity gaps.”

BRMA invites donations through PSF, as they continue to replenish resources and expand programming. Blobe said, “The Public School Foundations serves as the fiscal agent for the Blue Ribbon Mentor Program and also provides additional grant funding to support enrichment, training, and leadership programs for students, mentors and families. 

New Community Mentors are welcome to apply- contact Lorie Clark at lclark@chccs.k12.nc.us

Photo credits- Sara Levine and BRMA Team

CHCCS District Headlines stories are written on a regular basis by the CHCCS Division of Communications, with assistance from a network of school-based “storytellers” who share tips and ideas throughout the school year. The goal is to share real-world examples of the CHCCS Strategic Plan in action. Know about a story worth telling from your school? Contact the CHCCS Communications team at communications@chccs.k12.nc.us.