In preparation for this talk I spent quite a lot of time really thinking about what I would say. I knew I wanted to deliver a message about mentoring, but I was not sure, other than the basics, what I truly wanted to convey as the essence of mentoring. I finally decided that I should communicate three principal elements:
-What mentoring is and what it is not
-Why mentoring is the new “essential” for youth development
-Why mentoring is not only good for the mentee but for the mentor
Let’s begin with what mentoring is and what it is not…
We get the word Mentor from the Latin and Greek. You see Mentor was the name of the man whom Odysseus trusted with the education and guidance of his son Telamachus. Let’s focus on the word trust. Mentoring is a relationship that requires a great deal of trust. In the research literature youth mentoring is more carefully defined as a “personal relationship in which a caring individual provides consistent companionship, support, and guidance aimed at developing the competence and character of a child or adolescent.” While the word trust, is not in this definition, trust is implied. How many of us would pick someone we didn’t trust to help develop the competence and character of our child or adolescent?
So mentoring is about relationship, it is about trust and it is about character development.
Mentoring, however, is also about building capital, social capital more specifically. Social capital is a term that we get from sociology and it refers to “the awards that individuals collect, and ultimately cash in on, because of their relationships to or memberships in a group”. Access to mentoring relationships can also mean access to educational resources, social skill building and networks that a mentee might not otherwise have access to.
So mentoring is about relationship, it is about trust, it is about character development and it is also about building capital.
Now lets talk about what mentoring is not. Mentoring is not authoritarian, it is not parenting and it is not judgmental. I want to convey this point with an anecdote. One of my more challenging mentees was having trouble in a Spanish class. To be quite honest this mentee was acting up in his Spanish class. His Spanish teacher, who was a colleague of mine, would report his many infractions and want me to follow up on disciplining him. I had to explain to my colleague that as mentor I am not a disciplinarian, I am not a parent, or as I say to my mentees, “I’m not yo mama”, instead, I am a guide. Obviously as a mentor I discuss right and wrong and good or bad, but it is not for me to force judgment or to punish when a mentee is in the wrong. Discipline I think, fundamentally undermines the trust of the mentoring relationship.
So mentoring is not authoritarian, it is not parenting and it is not judgmental.
Mentoring is the new essential for youth development. We live in a brave new world where the intruder drill has replaced the fire drill, where college access has become the economic issue of the century, where the family unit is being disassembled and communities are no longer whole, but fractured, as every one escapes into their individual suburban cocoons every evening. Mentoring is what we call “old school”. It’s back to the each one teach one generation, that time when the entire neighborhood looked out for a young person’s well being, when we got in trouble on the corner and we knew that we would not only hear it from our parents, but from every single person on the way home. It goes back to a time when we all knew we had someone we could go to if we were in trouble.
Mentoring is the new youth development essential because without mentoring relationships, many of our youth are without access. Access to trust, access to care, access to academic resources, access to a wholesome and beneficial relationship.
Finally, mentoring is not just good for the mentee it’s good for the mentor. Many people approach mentoring from a deficit based perspective. “I want to be a mentor because a youth will need the infinite love and wisdom that I have to offer them”. A very self-centered perspective. We almost always consider the mentee to be the one who requires something or that has the most to gain. I would argue that in a healthy mentoring relationship both the mentee and the mentor have a great deal to gain. I have found in my own mentoring relationships that my mentees have taught me the most valuable of lessons. They teach me that young people have a voice. A voice that is meaningful, a voice that is powerful and a voice that is valid. They have taught me patience and the ability to be an observer as they live life for the very first time. As a mentor you may see the young person you work with headed straight into a wall. What one must recognize is that being a good mentor is not always about saving your mentee from crashing into that wall, but about being there to pick them up after they do.
These young people keep me relevant, they keep me hip, but most importantly they give me hope. They let me know that the future is not ours, but theirs. They let me know that there is more to living life than working and making money, but that life is full of small and simple treasures.
So we know that mentoring is about relationships, trust, character development and social capital. We know that mentoring is not about being an authoritarian, parent or a judge.We know that mentoring is the new youth development essential because we live in a world where personal connections are reduced to social media interactions in a digital universe and that violence is often more commonplace than love and loyalty. And, we know that mentoring relationships work both ways, that mentoring benefits the mentor and mentee equally as both learn valuable lessons about life.
Mentoring, though it as old as the Latin and Greek, is fundamental to what we want our future to be.
When we look at solutions for school violence, we must think of mentoring. When we look at solutions for high-school drop outs, we must think of mentoring, when we think of solutions for poverty, we must think of mentoring.
Make that connection.
When we look at solutions for broken homes, we must think of mentoring. When we look at solutions for college access, we must think of mentoring. Make that connection, because if you don’t someone else will.
Make that connection, mentor a young person because what they see is what they will be and what you give, is what you will get.