February 3, 2016

As we wrap up National Mentoring Month, we recently sent our very own Sandra LaFleur, Vice President of Program, to the 2016 National Mentoring Summit. Here is what she learned, in her own words:

This year, the national mentoring “movement” is recognizing its 25th anniversary. This milestone is very special to me personally, because my own career in youth development began around the same time.

Back then, I was fresh out of graduate school, taking what I thought would be a short break before resuming my doctoral studies. I took the opportunity to work for an organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters, where I felt I could apply my talents, stretch my brain and feed my soul. At the time, “mentoring” was quickly becoming a buzzword, and with the recent release of groundbreaking research validating the impact of mentoring on youth outcomes, those were exciting times of growth and promise.

Over the past two decades, I’ve witnessed many of the big transformations within this mentoring movement. When there were calls for growth and expansion, requiring new systems and processes not yet commonplace across the sector, the community responded by developing new consistent models of practice, effective staff and volunteer trainings, as well as tools to measure success and provide accountability. When the movement called for additional evidence to both validate the effectiveness of mentoring and develop its own robust learning agenda, new ways of integrating evaluation, research and innovation emerged.

Heading into this year’s National Mentoring Summit in Washington, DC, I was both intrigued and excited to be a part of another important call to action, this one ringing familiar of the many conversations we are having within Summer Search today. While not an official theme of the conference, many of the discussions touched on the urgency for critical cultural consciousness to be recognized as both a means and an end in mentoring today’s youth, especially when mentoring youth of color.

These varied conversations at the summit reflected a shift in how we are viewing the role of mentoring. It’s more than simply an effective strategy for achieving individual youth outcomes, but mentoring is equally important when it comes to addressing narratives of inequity and oppression. Effective mentoring for our most marginalized students requires us (as mentors) to be ready, willing, and able to guide them through tough conversations about their perceived place in the world, and how that shapes their identity development, their aspirations, and how they confront obstacles on their path to and through school.

Clearing the Air

In her workshop on Emerging Voices in Mentoring: Advancing a Critical Youth Mentoring Agenda, Dr. Torie Weiston of the Youth Mentoring Action Network — along with co-presenter Steve Vassor, CEO of Amped Strategies — discussed the need to revisit the traditional constructs of youth mentoring to include the role of context, adding that:

“Our youth are traumatized every day with the images and stories they view in the media, and so before we talk about mentoring them, we need to help them deal with their reality.”

Sandra-Steve-Torie Pictured, from left to right: Steve Vassor, CEO of Amped Strategies; Sandra LaFleur; Dr. Torie Weiston of the Youth Mentoring Action Network.

They urged that the short-term goals of this approach should be about helping students become contributing citizens, while the long game should be about engaging them to help “clean the toxic air and water” that we’ve adapted to as a national community. Together, Weiston and Vassor spoke of how mentoring must be “reciprocal, collaborative, participatory, emancipatory and transformational.” I was moved! It was like they had been in the room for many of the conversations we’ve been having at Summer Search today.

Addressing Inequity

Equally engaging were the discussions held in the Mentoring Initiative Poised to Address Equity in Education workshop. Co-presenter Cyndie Shepard of the Compass 2 Campus program in Washington (state) explained the innovative way in which her program prepares mentors to develop their critical cultural consciousness.

Mentors enroll in a series of semester-long, credit-bearing courses to be trained on how to serve their mentees through a “critical service-learning model.” With a curriculum focused on the dynamics of power, privilege, race, class, and social injustice, Shepard’s students become better equipped to serve as mentors who both reflect and behave in more culturally responsive ways, rendering the mentoring itself more meaningful (and effective) for both mentor and mentee.

Co-presenter Pam Gant of Mentoring Works Washington explained that:

“In moving from having cultural competency to developing critical cultural consciousness, we will be better equipped to help youth develop their counter-narratives… to combat what the media says about them or tells them.”

To drive this point home, the workshop participants were led through an activity that powerfully illustrated the dynamics associated with oppression, inequities, power, and privilege. This particular part of my conference experience was extremely powerful, as I found myself full of emotions – sadness, pain, frustration, empathy, and grace. It was a shared moment with everyone in the room that I won’t easily forget.

Sharing Our Best Practices

One more unforgettable moment was when my colleague Salem Valentino, our National Director of Research and Evaluation, led a discussion about Summer Search’s innovative Group Mentoring Pilot, as part of the “Practice-to-Research” Pipeline workshop.

We are extremely proud of the work we have been doing in this space, especially as it relates to mentoring and reaching more males of color. We were honored to present our case study as an example of an innovation and best practice for other organizations to emulate. #DareToLead

Answering the Call

As I return home from the summit, my two days in Washington, DC serve as important reminders that we at Summer Search are in the right (often messy) place of leading through these conversations ourselves. Thanks to critical dialogue we continue to have with each other, Summer Search demonstrates that we’re showing up and getting in the ring.

This terrain of determining how to best support students by understanding and impacting their social context is challenging for the entire mentoring field. I take heart, however, in knowing that the work we are undertaking at Summer Search will continue to push us forward in both clarifying and articulating how our style of mentoring acts to hold critical cultural consciousness as both a means and an end in our work with students.

We are investing in our efforts to diversify our talent within Summer Search. We are prioritizing adding alumni and other people of color to our leadership boards. We are listening to better understand how our teams need support to confidently and competently engage in the often messy dialogues about equity, power, and privilege. We are seeking better ways to determine how we will hold ourselves accountable for cultivating social responsibility within our students.

There is much to do, and while on some days the load feels almost impossible, I am extremely proud that Summer Search is already playing a part in this emerging call to action… and the field of mentoring is listening.

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