Developing cultural consciousness of systemic issues through mentoring

Duron, J. F., Williams‐Butler, A., Schmidt, A. T., & Colon, L. (2020). Mentors’ experiences of mentoring justice-involved adolescents: A narrative of developing cultural consciousness through connection. Journal of Community Psychology48(7), 2309–2325.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Although mentoring is a popular method of engaging with at-risk youth and justice-involved youth, youth mentoring programs still have a moderate impact on improving academic success, in addition to lowering delinquency, aggression, and substance use rates
  • This study explores the experiences of middle and upper-class White adults mentoring working-class youth from diverse backgrounds
  • Three themes were identified from the qualitative data: 
    • Building connections despite differences 
    • Identifying the challenges of mentees 
    • Becoming more aware of systemic issues 
  • Many mentors who worked with justice‐involved adolescents were motivated to strengthen their relationships with their mentees, despite their differences 
  • These mentoring dyads not only influenced mentors to identify the needs of their mentees, but it also made them more conscious of systemic issues that are affecting their mentees
  • Findings indicate the importance of incorporating critical consciousness and cultural humility into training in order to guide mentors in the early stages of their mentoring relationships

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Mentoring provides a relational intervention that can promote positive youth development among adolescents who are involved in the juvenile justice system. The perspectives of mentors engaging these youth, particularly insights considered through a cultural humility lens, have been largely absent from the literature to date. This study examined predominately White, middle‐ to upper‐class adult mentors’ experiences mentoring racially diverse, working‐class youth. Semi‐structured qualitative interviews were completed with 23 mentors participating in a community‐based mentoring program. Themes were derived from inductive content analysis. Emergent themes illustrative of the mentoring process included (a) establishing a connection despite differences, (b) identifying mentees’ personal and environmental challenges, and (c) raising consciousness around structural issues. Despite coming from different backgrounds and experiences, mentors who worked with justice‐involved adolescents were motivated to connect with their mentees. Mentors developed a greater awareness of structural challenges influencing adolescents by learning about the multifaceted experiences and needs of their mentees.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

This study examined predominately White, middle‐ to upper‐class mentors’ perceptions about their mentoring approaches and experiences engaging racially diverse, working‐class justice‐involved adolescents. We found that mentors approached the mentoring process focused on establishing a relationship with adolescents, which evolved into an identification of complex layers and growing consciousness. Mentors initially worked to make a connection with adolescents in any way possible despite differences that they observed between themselves and their mentees. Mentors experienced working with adolescents who had a diversity of personal and environmental needs. Similar to earlier research, mentors described building a connection with adolescents as essential to achieving a positive influence, one that promotes adolescent success (Donlan, McDermott, & Zaff, 2017; Jones & Deutsch, 2011; Rogers, Luksyte, & Spitzmueller, 2016). Mentors also reflected how a strong bond with adolescents (DeWitt et al., 2016) and offering psychosocial and instrumental supports (Eby et al., 2013) facilitated greater adolescent transparency about needs and challenges.

In growing more familiar with adolescents and their families, mentors often become aware of circumstantial differences between themselves and their mentees. Despite differences, mentors can develop successful mentoring relationships that benefit adolescents as they steer through complex issues. In fact, the ethnic and economic differences encountered in mentor matches in this study reflect typical mentor matches. Spencer et al. (2018) found that youth involved in foster care or the juvenile justice system who participated in a youth‐initiated mentor program predominately chose mentors who they knew from school or social services and these mentors tended to be White and middle income. Spencer and Basualdo‐Delmonico (2014), have suggested that such diversity in experiences presents an incentive for mentors to establish relationships with their mentee’s caregivers. Although not all mentors in our study discussed interactions with mentees’ families, those that did often experienced closer or longer term relationships.

Mentor narratives reveal that justice‐involved adolescents often face substantial multifaceted issues. As many programs target justice‐involved adolescents because of the vulnerabilities associated with their circumstances, it is common to find youth living with a wide array of personal and environmental challenges (Spencer, 2007). Mentors describe developing empathy toward mentees as they come to recognize that sometimes individuals are overcome by their conditions. Although mentors often identify in their mentee’s lives individual and environmental factors that exacerbate problems (Lakind, Atkins, & Eddy, 2015), mentors use their relationships to influence youths’ awareness of choice and personal commitment to individual improvement. This finding mirrors previous research that examined relational experiences between youth and adults that found that a positive relationship supports youth in making positive developmental changes (Jones & Deutsch, 2011). Similar to previous research, mentors were invested in their mentees and were devoted to working through difficult issues (Smith et al., 2015).

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