I once took a year’s leave from academia to serve as a match coordinator in a Boston-based mentoring program. One evening I found myself sitting on the edge of a couch in a subsidized apartment conducting an intake with nine year old Kayla and her mom. Kayla’s toddler brother played beside me, occasionally staring at me as if wondering what this nerdy middle-aged woman was doing in his apartment. I remember feeling uneasy but also deeply impressed by the mom’s commitment to Kayla’s future–including all the hoops she was going through to enroll her in the mentoring program.
As I worked my way through the intake questions, a small mouse ran out from under the couch, crossing between my feet before scurrying out of the room. While everyone else in the room sat unfazed, I involuntarily let out a loud, embarrassing scream. We all shared a laugh before moving on, but my discomfort with the awkwardness of that moment remains. In a telling instant, my privilege had been drawn out and thrown into stark contrast with the everyday experiences of this young family. Yet as uncomfortable as we may feel entering the lives and homes of disenfranchised families, mentoring provides a lens through which literally millions of middle-class adults have seen the humiliations of poverty: insufficient, poorly maintained affordable housing, decrepit schools with stressed teachers, unsafe neighborhoods, and other difficult circumstances. Although many Americans may already know that one in five children in our wealthy democracy live in poverty, this inequality somehow remains compartmentalized and largely ignored in our day-to-day lives.
Yet, deeply connecting with one child in poverty through a mentoring program can illuminate its pernicious effects, potentially mobilizing more sustained authentic action. Mentors’ negative stereotypes of disenfranchised groups are challenged by the many sources of strength in low-income and minority neighborhoods. Indeed, when middle class mentors bear witness to caring that exists in families, religious institutions, and grassroots community organizations, and to the level of commitment that many low-income parents marshal in support of their children, it remains much more difficult to blame the victim. In other words, through proximity, mentoring helps challenge dominant narratives and make us, in Mead’s words, “informed advocates for the needs of all children.”
Related points, and the actions they can lead to, appear in the compelling graduation speech delivered by Bryan Stevenson at Williams College last spring, excerpted below.
“There are four things I think you can do to change the world. And if you do them, I absolutely believe that whether the issue is criminal justice, whether the issue is food security, whether the issue is the environment, whether the issue is income equality or international human rights, I believe you can change the world. The first thing I believe you have to do is that you have to commit to getting proximate to the places in our nation, in our world, where there’s suffering and abuse and neglect. Many of you have been taught your whole lives that there are parts of the community where the schools don’t work very well; if there are sections of the community where there’s a lot of violence or abuse or despair or neglect, you should stay as far away from those parts of town as possible. Today, I want to urge you to do the opposite. I think you need to get closer to the parts of the communities where you live where there’s suffering and abuse and neglect. I want you to choose to get closer. We have people trying to solve problems from a distance, and their solutions don’t work, because until you get close, you don’t understand the nuances and the details of those problems. And I am persuaded that there is actually power in proximity…..I found myself in Harvard Law School, disillusioned, because they weren’t talking about racial equality, they weren’t talking about poverty, they weren’t talking about social injustice. And it’s only when I went to Death Row and found people literally dying for legal assistance that I found purpose. And I believe there is purpose for each of us when we get proximate to the things we care about.
But we cannot achieve changing the world with proximity alone. The second thing I think we have to do is that we’ve got to change the narrative. There are narratives behind the problems we deal with. Mass incarceration was created by some policy choices. We decided to deal with drug addiction and drug dependency as a crime issue rather than a health issue. We could have said drug dependency is a health problem and used the health system, but we chose to call it a crime problem. We didn’t do that for alcoholism. In this country, we said alcoholism is a disease. And if you know someone who suffers from alcoholism and you see them going in to a bar, you don’t think, let me call the police. But we didn’t do that for drug addiction, and now we put hundreds of thousands of people in jails and prisons. But underneath that decision was a narrative, and that narrative was shaped by what I call the politics of fear and anger. We’ve had politicians preaching to us, “Be afraid, be angry.” And I will warn you that when you make decisions rooted in fear and anger, you will tolerate abuse, you will tolerate inequality, you will tolerate injustice, and we’ve got to change that narrative.
I think we have to change the narrative about race in this country. As wonderful as things are today, it pains me to have to acknowledge that we are still not free in this country. We are burdened with our history of racial inequality. It hangs over us like a kind of smog, and this pollution created by this history of racial inequality. We haven’t dealt with it. We’ve got to change this narrative of racial difference that we have created in America…..To the graduates of color, I hate to tell you this, but you will go places in this country where you will be presumed dangerous and guilty because of your color, and we will not make progress until we change the narrative.
You can’t change the world by just getting proximate and changing narratives. The third thing I think we have to do is that we have to stay hopeful. This is a really hopeful day, but you’re going to have days in front of you that are will make you hopeless. And I want to urge you to find ways to stay hopeful. If your activism is not rooted in a hope of something, if your work is not rooted in a hope of something, then you’ve got to reorient. Hope is essential. Hope is what gets you to stand up when other people say sit down. Hope is what gets you to speak when other people want you to be quiet. Your hope is vital……What I’m asking you to do will exhaust you. But if you’re courageous, you will find something on the other side of your hopefulness that is transformative.
Fourth and finally. I don’t think you can change the world by just getting proximate, just changing narratives, just being hopeful. The fourth thing you have to do is that you’ve got to be willing to do uncomfortable things. I wish I didn’t have to say that because it’s so nice if you can only do the things that are comfortable. But the truth is we can’t change the world by doing just what’s convenient and comfortable. I’ve looked for examples where things changed, where oppression was ended, where inequality was overcome, when people did only what was convenient and comfortable, and I can’t find any examples of that. To change the world, you’re going to sometimes have to make uncomfortable choices, to be in uncomfortable places, and be proximate and be hopeful and change narratives. But know that if you do it, there is some great reward, all of that knowledge that you have accumulated will resonate. You will have ideas in your mind that match the conviction in your heart.
I’ll end with this. There is a different metric system for those of you who want to change the world. You’ve all done really well and all of you have got great opportunities in front of you, but I want to tell you that your grades are not a measure of your capacity to change the world. The income you make is not a measure of your capacity to change the world. There’s a different metric system for changing the world.”