FORUM: What does it mean for a mentor to be an “advocate” for a young person?

Putting The Puzzle TogetherLast week, we began exploring the connections between advocacy and mentoring with a moving piece on the ways a mentor could advocate for gay and lesbian youth. This week we share some additional perspectives on how mentors can serve as “advocates” in working with children and adolescents.

This issue comes out of David DuBois’ 2011 meta-analysis, which found a positive association between stronger program outcomes and models where the mentors took on an advocacy role in working with their mentee. Since then, many in the field have wondered what this advocacy looks like in action? Does it involve special training or activities? Is it applicable across a variety of programs or is it really a good fit only with specific program models? Is it asking too much of a typical volunteer?

We asked several leaders in the mentoring field for their take on this complex topic.

spencerRenée Spencer – Associate Professor, Boston University School of Social Work

Advocacy can take many forms, from a phone call placed on a young person’s behalf to help land a job to attending meetings with teachers and other school officials. I’ll bet it was largely these kinds of examples of advocacy that were captured in the evaluations included in the DuBois et al (2011) meta-analysis.

But what about bigger acts? A few years back, a researcher, Melissa Abelev, interviewed 48 African-American adults who had been “at-risk” children but who became first generation college students, or what she called “educationally resilient.” Wanting to understand the factors that had contributed to these individuals’ success, she learned that in every case someone had intervened on the young person’s behalf to increase their chances of educational success. Many were pulled from underperforming schools and placed by a mentor in high performing schools. In a number of these cases, the mentors even paid the tuition or arranged to have the fees waved. These non-familial adults were members of the middle class who leveraged their resources on behalf of the young people.

As someone who is deeply interested in ethical issues in youth mentoring (Rhodes, Liang, & Spencer, 2009), the complexities associated with a volunteer mentor taking this kind of action on a formal mentee’s behalf are not lost on me. Such action should be considered very carefully and in consultation with multiple stakeholders. But Abelev’s study has stayed with me. What does it mean to become invested in the future of young person? Implicit in our matching of low-income youth with middle-class mentors is the sense that doing so connects youth with valuable knowledge and resources that can help set them on a path to brighter economic future. But how far are we willing to go? In his 1993 book, The Kindness of Strangers, Marc Friedman began with “a call to action.” The DuBois et al (2011) meta-analysis challenges us to consider more fully what action can – and should – be taken. It’s about time.


graigGraig Meyer – Director, Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools

When explaining the role of a mentor-advocate to students, we say “Advocacy is when your mentor and your family help you even when they’re not with you.” In our context, this specifically means that mentors and parents work together on school advocacy activities such as reviewing report cards and attending parent-teacher conferences. Many volunteers are attracted to our program because they are eager to support a child’s academic progress and can’t imagine mentoring without doing things like talking to the child’s teacher. For parents, this portion of the program can seem intrusive, but we emphasize to both mentors and parents that a mentor can never replace a parent as the decision maker.  A good advocate helps the parent fulfill their role without overstepping boundaries.

I think that being a program operated by a school district makes it a lot easier for our staff to advocate, as well, because we’re “inside.” We are already working with the teachers and staff. But for mentors, the only way that I think it matters is that they’re seen as somewhat sanctioned by the district, which helps. Community-based mentors could do the same things as long as parents were on board. It’s that cooperation with the parent that makes this doable.

kayKay Logan
– Center Coordinator, Center for Interdisciplinary Mentoring Research, Portland State University

When I read the meta-analysis, probably like everyone else, I spent a bit of time reading between the lines of the brief program descriptions provided. How do programs define advocacy and how do they operationalize it? Did I know of other programs that I thought were good examples?

The first program that sprang to my mind was the My Life intervention, because it seems to fit the mold for programs being described in the meta-analysis: it is an advocacy-focused mentoring program that has been shown to have large and moderate effect sizes on multiple outcomes in randomized-assignment studies.  My Life is an intervention developed by Drs. Laurie Powers and Sarah Geenen at the Regional Research Institute for Human Services here at Portland State University.  It incorporates both individual and group “peer” mentoring and serves 16-17 year-old youth who are in both the foster care and the special education system.

If we use My Life as an example to begin looking at how advocacy-mentoring might be defined, one thing that is immediately apparent is that in this intervention, advocacy is viewed through the lens of youth “self-advocacy” and “self-determination.” In the words of Geenen and Powers: “Although they are well intentioned, it is not enough for caring adults to ensure the success of youth by performing key activities on their behalf or planning their futures. Rather, youth must have the opportunity to exercise their own abilities and strengths and achieve goals that are personally meaningful to them.”  This certainly would seem to be a fundamental concept when it comes to advocacy in programs serving older youth. The working definition of self-determination that guides the intervention is “self-directed action to achieve personally valued goals.” 

This working definition drives every aspect of My Life’s program design. Mentors (called coaches) meet with youth weekly with two overarching objectives: one is that they will work with a youth on the skills they need to achieve youth-identified goals using a specific curriculum called Take Charge, the other that they will help youth prepare themselves to lead a transition planning meeting with all of the adults charged with making decisions about them (i.e., case workers, foster parents, teachers, counselors, etc. etc.).  Youth also attend group mentoring sessions led by a “near-peer” mentor, who has been in the foster-care system and successfully navigated some of the challenges faced by the youth, where they learn critical advocacy skills, such as “strategic sharing.” (Even a cursory glance through the Strategic Sharing workbook  gives an idea of how critical training is for mentors who will be serving as advocates!)

A key feature of My Life is that the goals matches work on are truly youth identified – some youth choose practical things like getting in to college or getting a job, whereas others choose goals that might even seem unrealistic such as becoming a famous musician or athlete. No matter the goal, the mentors work with their youth using a self-determination curriculum, Take Charge, that teaches youth about how to break goal into realizable steps, prioritize activities, etc. The key point is that, no matter what the original goal, youth are able to apply the skills learned to other goals in their lives.

Having youth prepare for and run a transition-planning meeting also seems to be a very important to the self-determination framework. Youth are often surrounded by adults who make decisions for them, and who might even accurately describe themselves as advocates.  A mentor can’t just be one more person at this ever evolving table where the youth themselves don’t have a seat. Another great advocacy program, the FosterClub All -Stars, have a great saying that resonates: “Nothing about me without me.”

Looking at My Life, reading between the lines in the brief program examples in the meta-analysis, and thinking of other programs that I know of that have an advocacy role for mentors, has led me to this opinion:  Having mentors serving in advocacy roles tends to be most successful in programs where various aspects of the program provide scaffolding and reinforcement for those roles. In other words, it is not just the role of the mentor that is important vis-à-vis advocacy, but the design of the overall program. These programs infuse advocacy into mentor recruitment, training, ongoing support, matching, and even the way in which group activities are designed and the way that staff engage mentees and their families. Program models may look very different, but when it comes to advocacy, successful programs tend to get all of the program components pulling together on the oars. In fact, it might not always be the mentor that is doing the heavy lifting on advocacy, but a program staff member along with the mentor, mentee and the mentee’s family. This makes sense because advocacy demands consistency, perseverance and follow-through, so having staff, mentors, mentees and families engaged is both an added protection and a key to success.

One major effort that is underway to look at infusing advocacy roles into mentoring is the Mentoring Enhancement Demonstration Program, funded by the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The MEDP has funded 32 programs around the country (ten sites that represent collaboratives of three or four mentoring programs) to design and implement enhancements to mentor training and support focused on preparing mentors to take on a greater advocacy role. The independent evaluation is led by Dr. Roger Jarjoura of the American Institutes for Research. Because the mentoring programs have different program models and serve different communities and youth around the country, it is hoped that the evaluation will not only look at outcomes, but also provide a lot of information on how programs can train and support mentors in advocacy roles that can be applied by other programs.

So what do you think? Do these perspectives on advocacy ring true in your experience? Do you know of other great examples of this in action? Or do you still have questions about how this works best and for whom? Share your thoughts on this emerging trend in the comments below!


[image by Ken Teegardin courtesy of SeniorLiving]