A Whitehouse photo taken for former President Barack Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" mentoring program.

January is Mentoring Month, January 17 International Mentoring Day — with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday a day of service.  (January is also Human Trafficking Awareness Month, underscoring one risk of a lack of positive mentoring and other adult presences in a young person’s life.)

Supportive, cross-generational relationships help young people to develop socially/emotionally and academically—as well as adults to grow professionally and beyond.

The original mentor appeared in the Odyssey, as the man to whom Odysseus entrusted his son’s education during the father’s epic journey.  The common definition is “trusted counselor or guide.”  Mentors can be formal—as through Big Brothers/Big Sisters—or informal, as teachers, coaches, ministers, kin or neighbors.  Ideally in person, mentoring can also —even before COVID-19 contingencies— be virtual, as iCouldBe and others have shown.  Formal mentoring generally entails a commitment of at least a year.  Informally, mentoring can evolve over lifetimes.

Personal, professional, reciprocal

With gratitude, I have benefited from mentors, who have offered advice, introductions, references, access to networks—what social scientists call social and cultural capital.  Jobs, graduate school, reassurance during tough moments like the September 11, 2001 aftermath in New York City—all were eased by mentors (not to mention by luck: the privileges of birth, gender, and whiteness).

Several of those mentors are now among the advisors for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Southern Connecticut.

An additional one of those advisors happens to be a former mentee, Travis Bristol, who has become an accomplished figure in education and policy—now lending his expertise and profile to our cause.  His work has included the NYC Men Teach program of New York’s Young Men’s Initiative, among other efforts to strengthen education, anti-racism, and youth.

National context, scholarship, policy, practice

MENTOR (the National Mentoring Partnership) promotes mentoring and offers resources like this, for “youth in the wake of trauma,” and currently a “Mentoring Amplifies” campaign.  This Boston-based partnership includes an affiliation with UMass-Boston Professor Jean Rhodes, the Center for Evidence-based Mentoring, and the Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring.  Professor Rhodes is the author of Older and Wiser: New Ideas for Youth Mentoring in the 21st Century and Stand by Me: The Risks and Rewards of Mentoring Today’s Youth.

There, she wrote, “Mentoring by volunteers is not a panacea, and … not as inexpensive … as it may seem…. Mentoring programs for vulnerable youth cannot substitute for a caring community of support, or for adequate public investment in adolescents’ education, physical health and safety, and psychological well-being.”  Still, she continued, “mentoring programs … can powerfully influence positive development among youth….  Our challenge is, first, to not underestimate the complexities of mentoring relationships and, second, to better understand and promote the conditions under which they are most likely to flourish.” (p. 6-7).

Rhodes quoted sociologists Terry Williams and William Kornblum (in their book Growing Up Poor):

“The probabilities that teenagers will end up on the corner or in a stable job are conditioned by a great many features of life in their communities…. the most significant is the presence or absence of adult mentors.”

Such observations have been repeatedly echoed, for example at the Forum for Youth Investment and by the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, finding that even one consistent, caring adult can cultivate resilience in a child facing adversity.  At that university’s Achievement Gap Initiative, Ronald Ferguson has led research on intersections among early childhood, schooling, peer, neighborhood, and other factors “toward excellence with equity.”

Marc Freedman’s The Kindness of Strangers (1993) was an early book in the mentoring field.  Freedman, expert at connecting generations, noted the importance of raising what one might term both consciousness and consciences.

He observed, “mentoring is just one way for caring adults to become involved.  Without making every interested adult into a mentor, it may well be possible to increase the number who … come to understand … [children’s] needs, have the opportunity to help, and feel an enhanced stake in their fate.” (p. 136)

In effect, along with those individuals boosted directly through mentoring relationships, a larger number can benefit indirectly from our rallying support for policies that address glaring opportunity gaps.

President Obama, My Brother’s Keeper, and the NBA

Former President Barack Obama increased mentoring promotion as a federal priority, for example through his My Brother’s Keeper initiative (now an alliance, with the Obama Foundation); by mentoring a young man himself; and by appearing in an amusing video with NBA star Stephen Curry.  The NBA has made mentoring a community service and social justice focus, with Hall of Famer Bill Russell among the visible proponents as a founding board member of MENTOR.

Again, mentoring has variations but includes reciprocity across generations—with the mentor gaining satisfaction, even friendship from recognizing and nurturing talents and growth in the (typically younger) mentee.  In addition to age and stage of life, experience, profession, culture, gender, and ethnicity can be relevant considerations.

In New Haven alone, mentoring relationships—whether formal or “natural”—flourish in schools and on sports teams, in faith-based and neighborhood organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, ConnCAT, LEAP, New Haven Reads, and Solar Youth.  Statewide, the Governor’s Prevention Partnership summons mentors toward positive action, as well as to mitigate problems from school dropout to substance use, juvenile crime, and mental health concerns.

Mentor and advocate

At CASA of Southern Connecticut, one source of funding is a federal “mentoring” grant, as this is one important dimension of the role CASA volunteers undertake.  Building a trusted relationship with a child (who has experienced abuse and/or neglect) is essential.  Our national association offers a related training—“Fostering Futures”— on adolescents’ transition to young adulthood and independence.  Emphasized: “the youth’s plan for permanence should include provisions for a long-term connection to at least one committed and caring adult.”

Beyond mentoring aspects, being a CASA volunteer demands diligent fact-finding, resourceful problem-solving, informed advocacy.  What is the distinction between these complementary roles?

We say: “Mentoring involves developing a personal relationship with a youth, being a buddy and serving as a role model.”

Advocating “involves learning about the youth’s needs and wishes and [depending on the child’s age] serving as a voice for the older child’s best interest within the child protection system and the courts.”

Together, these mentoring and advocacy challenges are particularly salient for children in foster care, who face heightened risks.  Yet every young person needs a reliable guide or two, to navigate academics and peer pressure, family crises, career options, difficult choices.

Clearing paths of opportunity

Indeed, we all can use someone in our corner, at different times in our lives.  Each of us can be that someone to others, too.  Ideally, we can encourage their development while advancing our own.  Sustained, thoughtful counsel; caring; and social capital can propel not just individual paths but opportunity and equity—so more young people can pursue their potential.

Josiah H. Brown is executive director of CASA of Southern Connecticut (New Haven, New London, Middlesex counties), part of the Connecticut CASA and national CASA network, now on YouTube.  

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