Profiles in Mentoring: A conversation with MENTOR’s Michael Garringer on his work translating research into practice

Written by Jelle de Graaf and Vera van den Berg

Michael Garringer is the Director of Knowledge Management for The National Mentoring Partnership, MENTOR. Michael has played a vital role in the development of youth mentoring program supports for many years. One of the crucial roles Michael has within this field is the translation of academic research to more understandable guidance for youth mentoring programs. This includes efforts aimed at addressing the gap between research and the practical application of that research, hands-on training, and technical assistance for youth mentoring programs across the country. In addition to working on these tasks, Michael is involved in many other events within the field of mentoring: organizing the research-focused sessions at the yearly National Mentoring Summit in Washington DC and supporting the Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring at Portland State University, as well as conducting nation-wide surveys on the state of mentoring in the United States. 


  1. What inspired you to become Director of Knowledge Management at MENTOR?

What inspired me to do this work generally is what I’ve learned during different jobs in this field for a few decades now. I first got involved in mentoring through a library and information services angle where I had the opportunity to collect, organize, and read materials about educational subjects which eventually included mentoring when we received an OJJDP grant to support their funded programs in the mid-90s. This was at what is now Education Northwest in Portland, Oregon. At that time, nobody within the organization knew much about mentoring, but I was tasked with collecting information about mentoring that we could draw on in the new work. As I gathered all this research and program manuals and other information over time, I started to become known as the “they guy who knows things” about mentoring and it snowballed from there. At a certain point mentoring programs started calling me and asking for advice and information. I enjoyed helping people in that way—it was like being a one man reference desk. I realized it can be hard for people that don’t have the academic mindset or background to understand what to take away from research. I felt that my role as translator of research was helpful to them and a niche that needed to be filled in our field. An organization like MENTOR is the perfect place to do that.


  1. What positive developments have you seen in youth mentoring during your involvement?

I would say the most positive development I’ve seen in our field is the diversification in the ways in which mentoring is thought of and how mentoring is applied to help young people. The past ten years, I’ve been impressed by the diversity in our field in terms of program models: Hybrids of one-to-one matches that meet in group settings, many varieties of group and team mentoring, mentors working in clinical settings, mentoring combined with other interventions, and so forth. The reason why I’m excited about these developments is that we’re getting closer to the best applications of mentoring. Some young people need one-on-one mentoring and a long-term friendship. In other cases, a mentor can be a guide to other services and make sure that young people take advantage of services that are available for them. Nowadays we see that mentoring is being applied to bigger social problems, like poverty and economic mobility, which have multiple causes. That’s quite a leap in terms of the impact of our work, but mentoring is certainly a piece of the puzzle on those fronts. I think when we connect mentors to other services or give them a role that is very well-defined in a particular context, it could maximize the help a mentor can provide and the overall impact on those large social issues.

One example of the integration of mentoring with other services is the use of mentors from the community within Youth Build U.S.A., which is a program for supporting young adults who have left school early and want to go back and complete their education. I provided some help to them when they were first considering mentoring. In addition to these educational goals, students in the program also learn job skills by studying several trades and get hands-on experience. Within this program they realized that one of the missing pieces in the program was a community-based mentor. The staff could help young people get their high school diploma and other job-related skills, but their students needed support more broadly. They also needed someone to encourage them to stick with it, Thus, a mentor for them doesn’t function as an intervention exactly, but rather as “glue” that holds the intervention together, helping youth get the most out of everything YouthBuild offers.

It’s exciting seeing programs that give mentors this kind of “connective tissue” role. One-to-one mentoring programs where the mentor is the intervention are great, but the most important development I’ve seen over the years is to see mentoring thoughtfully and intelligently applied in many other contexts. And more than one mentor, too. Another trend I’m seeing is that it’s not about one person supporting a young person, but about a group of people taking on mentoring roles to help a young person.


  1. What developments do you hope to see in the near future?

Well, I think we have some very interesting research findings on the way in the next few years. Our field desperately needs longitudinal studies on the long-term impacts of being mentored. There haven’t been many of those globally. David DuBois and Carla Herrera are currently working on a longitudinal study at the moment, following up with all the participants from the Big Brothers Big Sisters study conducted 30 years ago. These participant are all grown up and living their lives as adults. The study will hopefully tell us if mentoring made a long term difference in their lives, which is a very big picture question that the mentoring field has been wrestling with for a long time. We certainly see examples of those very long-term, deeply transformational relationships, both in programs and natural mentoring relationships. There is evidence that mentoring can have that long term benefit but the jury is still out as to the long-term effects of mentoring from a policy perspective. We don’t know if it is an effective way of addressing societal problems one individual at a time, over the long haul.

Next to the policy part, I would love to see research at the individual level aiming to understand what makes some people a really good mentor. A challenge in our field is that we want to believe that every adult can be a mentor to a child, but I don’t think that is true. It is important to find out what makes a mentor a great mentor. You see these people in every program that just “get it” and that young people flock to. Our “super mentors,” so to speak. I want to see us learn what makes those people special and to see if those qualities can be taught or if we in fact have a limited number of awesome mentors available to youth. If the latter is the case, that obviously changes what mentoring can achieve or how we perceive the idea of taking mentoring “to scale.”


  1. What message would you like to pass on to today’s youth that could help them successfully develop their school- and professional career?

The thought I had about this question is what I tell my own children as well: don’t obsess about school and career. The reason I say that is that a lot of mentoring here in the US is developed from the perspective of very successful people who make sure that every child is a success according to their definition of success. There is an expectation that every mentee has to go to a great college and pursue some professional career and has to “make it” in these kinds of upper middle class ways. The way we define success for a young person is adult-oriented and oriented on a particular class perspective. So keeping that in mind, what I would say to young people is “if it is your dream to become a doctor or lawyer or whatever, then go pursue that dream, but there is more in life than your job and more to life than what kind of degree you end up getting”. Our goal as a nation can’t be that every mentee goes to Harvard. The notion that everybody needs to have a professional career to live a happy life sets some young people up for failure. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have to care about school or a job, but it does mean that success should be defined by what that young person really wants and what will make them happy. I agree with the advice President Obama gave once (on Bear Gryll’s TV show, of all places): There are two keys to lead a successful life. The first key is to be useful to somebody or something. Make the world better in some way. The second key is to be kind,”. The first one could be serving as a mentor for someone or helping out a sick family member, for example. The second one, kindness, is something we often forget as a society. I feel like the last year has, unfortunately, proved that pretty starkly.


  1. Based on your previous answer, what message would you like to pass on to today’s youth mentors?

I would say the ability to truly listen to what a young person is saying and to hear them for who they are, being truly open to the experience. Especially in the US, we often have matches that are crossing a lot of social-economic, racial, or different lines. It is critical for a mentor to truly listen with an open mind in a judgement-free way, even if there are differences.

Also, it is important to share power in the relationship, the ability to have it be a mutual experience. I think sometimes mentors go into the relationship with a mindset of “I’m here to fix something” or “I’m here to get you out of these terrible circumstances in your life”. They don’t let their mentee take the reins in the relationship. We often forget that young people are capable of many great things if we just empower them. Share the power within the relationship in a way that empowers that young person rather than your own directing. Lastly, don’t forget to have fun. Voluntary relationships are mostly done because they are fun and satisfying. I think programs can sometimes be too purposeful and forget that younger children need some fun in their life.

At a youth mentoring conference I was recently at, someone said, “The best advice you can give to a mentor is to be patient,” which resonated with me. When we look at research into matches that end early, it’s often because mentors think that they have to have this massive instant impact on this young person’s life. When they don’t see that, they get discouraged and walk away from the opportunity. We have to teach mentors that the journey is the point, not to be obsessed with the end goals.

Also, applying mentoring in big social problems. If we really are going to use mentoring to tackle big social problems like poverty and so forth, we have to be more intentional about what causes influence these big social problems. One of my favorite quotes is from William Sloane Coffin, the former Chaplin at Yale: “To show compassion for an individual without also showing concern for the structures of society that make him an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.”

That means that if you care about a person’s needs without bothering to care about how they wound up with those needs, you’re doing it wrong. I love that mentors care for the mentees that enter their lives. But I’d love to see them turn around and be equally concerned about why their mentee’s life is rough in the first place and put some energy and effort into that. The power of mentoring can’t just reside in the individuals lucky enough to receive it, it has to then add up to meaningful change in the world.