Mentoring relationships as bridges to new neighborhoods

Andris, C., Liu, X., Mitchell, J., O’Dwyer, J., & Cleve, J. V. (2021). Threads across the urban fabric: Youth mentorship relationships as neighborhood bridges. Journal of Urban Affairs43(1), 77–92.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Evidence suggests that relationships across different groups and neighborhoods are beneficial for urban communities.
  • Bigger social networks have the potential to strengthen educational achievement & health outcomes, as well as promote a better sense of community identity. 
  • This study examined geographic ties between 6,286 mentoring pairs from Big Brothers Big Sisters to answer the following questions: 
    • Do mentors and mentees live in neighborhoods that are close to each other?
    • Do the mentors and the mentees live in different counties?
    • Do mentoring relationships follow commuter interaction networks?
    • Are the demographics (i.e. race, socioeconomic status, educational attainment levels, etc.) of the neighborhoods of mentors and mentees similar? 
  • Results indicate that many mentor-mentee dyads live relatively close to each other, live in the same counties, and follow similar commuter flows as the control group.
  • However, findings also show that many mentoring relationships are bridged by socioeconomically different neighborhoods. 
  • This study demonstrates how important it is to establish mentoring relationships across different demographics (e.g. race, cultures, and class) and by different communities, and how these, in turn, can benefit cities. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Geolocated interpersonal relationships form extensive networks of social ties in the city. One type of urban-focused relationship is the community-based youth mentorship, which matches volunteers with at-risk youth. These programs improve youth outcomes in mental health, education and behavior, and are also an asset to a city because they connect disparate social networks. In this work, we uncover how these ties are distributed within an urban context by measuring the extent to which 6,286 pairs of Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) mentorship relationships connect across distant or diverse neighborhoods in seven metropolitan areas. Results show that matches do not span the city or cross administrative boundaries as often as expected, nor do they follow commuter flows differently than our control group. Yet, these connections join socioeconomically different neighborhoods at significant rates. Our results imply that youth mentoring programs have a hidden byproduct of creating a more socially cohesive city, and that policy makers should regard this dividend as a community asset.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

In this research, we sought to discover how a network of organization-facilitated relationships connects a city. In a case study of 6,266 pairs of Big Brothers Big Sisters matches in seven U.S. cities, we found that matches linked the city spatially only in terms of countering commuter flows, but not more significantly than our null model. Bigs and Littles did not travel farther to meet than simulated pairs, but lived in different neighborhood environments, suggesting that nearby segregated neighborhoods are bridged by mentorships. This study provides a way to measure the salience of ties within a larger urban context, at various distances, across administrative districts, within a network of flows, and between different types of neighborhoods.

As a result, organizations that facilitate bridging ties can be viewed at not only as bridging matches and the social network (Keller & Blakeslee, 2014), but at the city as well. Cities benefit from having ties that cut across neighborhoods and social groups, and the mentorship program seems to facilitate these ties. While the mentorships did not tie the city together through connecting at far distances, they did so in terms of neighborhoods with socioeconomic differences. This quantitative analysis supports qualitative findings that mentors come from “from very different worlds” (Andris et al., 2016, p. 18), but this analysis also shows that they come from nearby worlds which may help build “neighborly” empathy. For example, a new program called Bigs in Blue has been set up to bridge the gaps between police officers and the communities they patrol by pairing youth Littles with police officer Bigs (Simonton, 2017). The goal is to change perceptions of one another and to help law enforcement officials understand what life is like for kids in “tough” neighborhoods.

Our results were derived from a select group of cities, chosen for their high participation rates in community-based mentoring, that is, mentoring outside of schools or programs where mentors and protegees meet at a specific site. These cities span two coasts and include Denver, Houston, Dallas and Kansas City, yielding a geographically distributed set of cities. However, the findings in this study may or may not extend to other cities. Mentorship pairs in smaller cities, or cities with less segregation, may not bridge disparate neighborhoods as much as we see in our study of large metropolitan areas. We also only use one mentorship program in this study (BBBSA), and other mentorship organizations (or even special BBBS programs focused toward religious groups or immigrant groups), may yield different results, as their participants may come from specialized pockets of the city.

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