The Growth of Our Big Sibs/Little Sibs Program
In August 2021, as Friends Select’s community continued to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, Lisa White Jones settled into her position as the newly appointed lower school coordinator for DEI student engagement. Unsurprisingly, the longtime Friends Select staff member—who also serves as a physical education teacher—approached her additional role with intention, especially for a then-blossoming mentorship program that connects lower school students who identify as Black, Latine, and/or Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) with upper school students of similar backgrounds.
The Big Sibs/Little Sibs program was piloted in a virtual format for less than 10 pairs of students at the start of the pandemic. It immediately garnered positive feedback for its ability to provide a space for meaningful connection for students, especially during a time when many students missed being with their peers. “When we came back to school for in-person learning, one of the first things I wanted to focus on was expanding the program, because it very quickly presented its incredible impact on the students who participated, even in only a virtual setting,” explained Lisa. “Once our big and little sibs had opportunities to meet in person, I knew the program would continue to grow.”
The program now enrolls over 35 pairs of Black students, as well as other students of color in the school’s Latine and Asian communities. Connie Piau P’31, ’34 has witnessed the growth in the program since its earliest days, when her son, Adam, began meeting virtually with his big sib. Her daughter, Emmy, is now in her second year as a little sib. “Asian and Asian-American culture is incredibly diverse and the Big Sibs/Little Sibs program has allowed AAPI students from different backgrounds to learn about one another’s experiences, interests, unique family heritage, and cultures,” she shared. “The program has provided a meaningful opportunity for participating students to foster a strong sense of community and create memories at school with AAPI students from other FSS divisions.”
Typically, pairs of students meet once a week and schedule in advance; however, content is loosely planned to allow for organic connection. Students play games, draw or color, read together, or simply spend their time talking with one another. Lisa and Toni Graves Williamson, Friends Select’s director of equity and inclusion, meet with big sibs periodically during lunch periods for feedback about their interactions with their little sibs, and to share ideas for the program and plan for upcoming weeks. “Lisa has been instrumental in the organization the program requires,” Toni said. “She does a lot of legwork, including checking in with the upper schoolers and lower school teachers who have students in the program. The Big Sibs/Little Sibs program wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have a faculty member, such as Lisa, for whom it was a primary focus of their role at Friends Select.”
For the big sibs, participation develops leadership skills while also providing opportunities to make a difference in the lives of lower school students of color at a predominantly white institution. Annindyah Weekes ’24 is in her third year as a mentor, and her meetings with her little sib are often the highlight of her week. Her involvement is motivated by understanding what her little sib might be experiencing. “Being at a predominantly white school can be difficult when one doesn’t see someone who looks like them,” she said. “I know what that can be like, and I feel like it’s good that the young students get to hang out with other Black students. This program definitely helps the lower school experience at this school.” Lucy Kelley ’22, now a sophomore at Northeastern University, signed on as a big sib at the start of the program. She added, “I wished there had been a program like this when I was in lower school. I would have greatly benefitted from having an older peer who could help me feel comfortable and confident in the dominantly white space.”
Impromptu interactions during the school day provide as much of a benefit as scheduled meetings for both the young students and their older counterparts. Third-grade teacher Liz Plunkett P’34,’37 believes these encounters to be an indicator of the effects of the program. “Seeing the joy and love that both the big and little sibs give off when they spontaneously run into each other in the hallway is beautiful and powerful,” she explained. “This program creates a visible amount of joy; my third-grade students light up when they see their big sibs arrive at the door to pick them up, or when they run into them in the hallway.”
Liz can also speak to the parent experience because her daughter, Clara, is a little sib. She shared, “My partner and I listened to Clara tell us what it felt like to be the only Black child in the class and were devastated to hear how different and isolated she felt at school as a five-year-old. Even as a super-social kid who had a ton of friends and thrived at school, something big and important was missing from her community. Having a big sib made such a difference in Clara’s experience at school, and that connection with an older Black girl was so grounding for her and has made a sincere difference in the way she feels about going to school and how she experiences a predominantly white school as a Black student.”
Connie notes that research and anecdotal evidence have shown the importance of mentorship for students from marginalized communities. “There is inherent value in having an older student from a similar background as a role model, and we have seen the positive impact of mentorship on our children,” she added. “My children’s big sibs have been wonderful examples to them of being proud of their cultural heritage and the possibilities for them in the future with the skills and knowledge that they gain over the years as FSS students. Adam and Emmy have felt supported not only by their big sibs, but also by the broader school community through the program.”
In March, the Big Sibs/Little Sibs program celebrated its third anniversary with a gathering at the school. Families of lower-school students in the program had the opportunity to meet one another and share their experiences. “It was a really nice experience to talk to my little sib’s parents a bit more and hang out with the whole family. Also, it was nice hanging out with my own little sib and the little sibs of other students,” Annindyah said.
The event highlighted the sense of community and belonging that the Big Sibs/Little Sibs program provides for its students. Liz added, “This program is so important because it is a positive, beautiful thing that students of color get to experience and take pride in around their identity. For example, my daughter is proud to be Black, she loves being Black, and because she’s Black at FSS she gets to have a big sib.”
With the program’s growth, Lisa hopes more upper school students of color will participate and that scheduled meetings increase between big sibs and little sibs. She is also open to more feedback from the school community in an effort to continue improving the program. “I am truly interested in making this space healthy and loving for everybody. I want our students to be comfortable with who they are and know that each of us brings something valuable to our community,” she said. “I think if we can instill that in them at FSS, they can then feel that when they go out into the world.”