COURTESY BIG BROTHERS BIG SISTERS OF NEW YORK CITY
Alicia Guevara ’94 is one of those fortunate people who has felt a calling in life — in her case, to be in the service of young people. After a 25-year career as a fundraiser in the nonprofit sector, bringing in millions of dollars for organizations such as The Osborne Association and the Abyssinian Development Corp., Guevara is currently fulfilling her personal mission as the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City (BBBS), whose aim is to help young people reach their full potential through mentoring relationships. Matches are made between caring adult volunteers and children across the five boroughs, and are inclusive of guardians and families.
“I was a young person with a really strong family network who also benefited tremendously from the contributions of others. I know what’s possible when we invest in our youth,” she says. “I have committed my life to creating access to opportunities and to making room for others.”
Guevara is proud to be the first CEO in the organization’s 117-year history who identifies as a woman and as a woman of color. “It’s important to me that 89 percent of the participants we serve, who are young people of color, see me not solely for my accomplishments, but as a representation of their own possibilities.”
A major component of Guevara’s work at BBBS is amplifying the idea that mentoring is essential, and helping people understand the impact it has on young people and communities as a whole. “Mentoring creates access to social capital and opportunities — especially now, as New York City begins to reenvision its future. It’s definitely important to invest in our next set of leaders, in our next workforce, in our next corps of decision makers and influencers.”
The work of mentoring never stopped during the pandemic. “Bigs” and “Littles” usually meet in the community twice a month; instead they FaceTimed, played video games, created TikToks, did homework together virtually. “Our Bigs were telling us that pre- pandemic, they were reaching out to their Littles; this time around, it was the Littles who were initiating contact,” Guevara says. “They were mutually connecting.”
Guevara knows firsthand how empowering a connected community can be. She grew up in the Fordham section of the Bronx, the first generation of Cuban immigrants. Her mom was a “modern-day grassroots activist,” Guevara says; “she took care of her community, and she instilled that sense of responsibility in me.” In the midst of the 1980s crack epidemic, Guevara saw friends being torn apart from their parents because of addiction. “But ours was the household that always had a cup of milk to offer, a plate of rice. We provided a safe haven for the kids in our neighborhood,” she says.
Guevara embraced the expectation that she would succeed. “There was a lot of hope placed in me — not just from my immediate family but also from a whole neighborhood that was really banking on me. It was incredibly affirming during my adolescence,” she says. Her mother believed that a good education was paramount, and Guevara left the Bronx every day to travel to The Marymount School, an independent Catholic academy on Fifth Avenue. “That’s when I really came to understand the haves and the have-nots, and the schism between the two,” Guevara says. “With the opportunities I was given, I realized I had some important choices to make about responsibility. And Columbia was really the first place I got to exercise those choices.”
Guevara honed in on creating communities on campus, organizing and addressing issues of social justice at a time when that phrase wasn’t so buzzy. In her sophomore year, she was the president of Alianza Latino Americana, a now-defunct umbrella group for Latinx students, and was an active member of the Black Students Organization. She also co-founded two student groups serving members of the first decade of Latinx College women. “We recognized there wasn’t a social, cultural response to sisterhood as we were experiencing it. We said, ‘We’d better do something about it.’
“There’s great power that comes from community building,” she adds. “I’m a firm believer that there’s a tremendous amount of energy and potential for transformative change that comes with locking arms and doing the work.”
She majored in political science and history, and thought she would become an attorney. But after landing an internship at the Hispanic Federation of New York City, which she had randomly seen advertised on a flier outside the Dean’s Office, Guevara found her launching pad into the nonprofit world. At the Hispanic Federation she learned to write grants and began her decades-long role as a fundraiser. “The entire course of your career can unroll from one small encounter,” she says with a laugh. “Thirty years later, I’m still asking for money from the City of New York!”
Guevara has maintained ties to Columbia; she earned an Executive Leaders certificate from the Business School in 2014, and was recently appointed to the 2021–22 Board of Visitors. “To me it speaks to the College’s commitment to create a sense of belonging for its alumni,” she says. “As a student, I didn’t have any role models who worked in the nonprofit sector. My appointment affirms the spectrum of professions, careers and lived experiences that are valuable to the College.”
Guevara says she’s inspired by the commitment Columbia has demonstrated to building trusting connections for its students and she is motivated, now more than ever, by the impact of youth mentoring relationships created within BBBS. “The pandemic has really put a spotlight on the need for social connectedness,” she says. “And that’s what mentorship does — it’s a relationship that safely grounds you.”
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