The Big News: First, congratulations for being elected general president of Alpha Phi Alpha!
Mark Tillman: Thank you! I appreciate that.
The Big News: We’ll just dive right in, now. Why did you originally get involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters?
MT: I wanted to do my part to help African-American kids that either did not have father figures or just needed someone to look up to. In some cases I met folks who had father figures, but they weren’t the most positive role models in their lives. I wanted to make sure that I was able to do my part to help them have a positive male role model.
The Big News: And you are currently matched with a Little Brother?
MT: Yes, my Little’s name is Elijah, he’s 11 years old and we’ve been matched now for about a year and a half.
The Big News: He’s not your first Little, though.
MT: No, he is my third Little. My first Little and I were matched in the nineties for 7 years. I then got reunited with the organization when I got involved with Alpha Phi Alpha in 2000.
The Big News: Can you tell me a little about your current Little?
MT: Elijah is a typical 11 year old. My previous matches were more reserved and introverted; Elijah is pretty much the opposite. He’s more – I would use the word hyper – but he certainly has a lot more energy in terms of his interactions and conversations. Our development started off very well, but there were times when he needed to get used to me and I needed to get used to him. Working with his mother, it has developed into a more trusting relationship. It’s definitely been a good time, and he’s grown a lot and I’ve seen how he’s grown over the time that we’ve been together.
The Big News: Do you have any examples of how he’s grown since you’ve been matched?
MT: His grades have gotten way better. Any time he gets his report card, he’s always excited to call me up and tell me that he’s getting As and Bs. I tend to reward him after he gives me his report card – one of his favorite pastimes is playing with Legos®. Actually, it’s more than just playing with them – he’s actually looking to build something. It focuses that energy in a positive way so that he can use his mind and his hands. We recently had the opportunity to go to a Lego exhibit. It may seem like a simple toy to some, but it has grown to be a very prominent architectural thing to Elijah.
The Big News: Do you find that you’ve also learned from him? Has he taught you anything about yourself?
MT: Patience! My wife and I don’t have any kids, and so I try to model myself after friends or coworkers that have kids and their level of patience versus my own without any kids. He tends to test the patience of any adult – for instance, he’ll want to do go-carts or bumper cars, or he’ll want candy or ice cream – you definitely have to have some patience with that but it’s also fun and enjoyable. We have a great time and a great relationship. We learn from each other. He tends to calm down sometimes around me because I like to play more mellow music like jazz – none of that ‘on-the-radio’ stuff that kids may hear today.
The Big News: On the topic of mentoring itself, why do you think it’s important for men to become mentors for kids who don’t have that type of figure in their lives?
MT: More and more, I’m seeing fragmented families. Many of these families have boys within them, and the mother or the grandmother is trying to raise a well-rounded young man. There are times when that is great and it works, but there are times when it might not be conducive for a young man’s growth. So I stepped in to utilize the experiences that I had when I was growing up. I grew up in a single-parent household; I know, understand and value the positive energy that a young man can receive from a male mentor. I had many mentors when I was a kid that helped keep me pretty much on the straight and narrow. I’m just doing my part to give another young man that opportunity to see different things, to do different things that he may not otherwise get a chance to do. Elijah does have a relationship with his father, and from what I can tell it’s a very good relationship, but I think his mother wanted to have someone else in Elijah’s life to be a friend or a go-to guy in case Elijah doesn’t want to share some things. It’s very important in the development of a young man’s life.
The Big News: As general president of Alpha Phi Alpha, how do you hope to promote the importance of mentoring – specifically the need for more African-American male mentors?
MT: Being the national president of a very large organization, my members will get an opportunity to not only hear what I’m saying but to actually see what I’m doing. Big Brothers Big Sisters will always have a prominent position during my term of administration. I also want to find ways to tie Big Brothers Big Sisters to some other areas of mentorship and scholastic achievement. Even with other organizations that we partner with, it’s a synergy – one organization can’t do it on its own, it’s like raising a village. I want our members to see that and also to see how they can be evolved. Even if they don’t have a one-to-one match, they can still get involved by supporting events like Bowl for Kids’ Sake or the Greek Bowl-a-thons to help raise money so that other matches can be formed. There are so many different opportunities – that’s what I want to showcase to our membership during the course of my term as general president.
The Big News: Do you think that Elijah will want to become a member of Alpha Phi Alpha one day?
MT: I sure hope so! He’ll obviously get the opportunity to make his own choice as he gets to those formative years and his critical decision making ability starts manifesting itself. The one thing I want Elijah to take away from this is that there are people who care. When he was at my installation as general president, he was overwhelmed by the show of support and the large audience that we had. He had a chance to speak at a podium so he’ll be able to take that experience through the rest of his life and hopefully that maybe one day he can be standing next to me as a fraternity brother.