Interview with Kelly Baker, volunteer mentor at AFC Mentoring

kellybakerThe Chronicle is proud to interview Kelly Baker, a volunteer mentor at Adoption Foster Care (AFC) Mentoring of Boston, MA. Kelly is a Development Associate at Sociedad Latina and previously worked as a Diversity Fellow at Science Club for Girls. Her work as a mentor was recently recognized by The Huffington Post in an article titled, “You Don’t Have To Adopt To Make A Huge Impact On The Life Of A Foster Child”. This interview was conducted by Asst. Director of CEBM, Evan Cutler. It explores how pre-match training, self-education, and cultural competence contributes to the success of Kelly’s 2+ year mentoring relationship.

Evan Cutler: The Huffington Post article describes what sounds like an amazing relationship between you and your mentee. How did it all start?

Kelly Baker: When I was seven years old, I was matched with a Big Sister through the Big Sister Association of Boston. The relationship lasted about a year, and left me with a number of positive memories. As a young adult, I knew I wanted to pay that experience forward by mentoring a young person myself. I did a little research into local mentoring organizations and when I found AFC Mentoring’s website, I knew it was a fit. I have always been interested in becoming a foster parent and/or adoptive parent and felt that this would be a great way to both mentor a youth and learn more about the foster care system.

I went to an AFC Mentoring info session that solidified my interest in the organization. The presenter explained that what matters most in a mentoring relationship is consistency and commitment. She cautioned us to be honest with ourselves about the commitment we were making, and the importance of being accountable to the young person we may be matched with. The presenter was open about the fact that many of the youth on their waiting list are youth of color and most of the volunteers are white. She emphasized that cross-cultural mentoring can be meaningful and impactful, but also need to be culturally responsive.

After the info session, I filled out an application, went to an in-person interview, and was invited to attend a day-long training. After that, I was put on the waiting list to be matched.  AFC staff asked me if I had a preference to be matched with a girl or boy, and I said I was open to any gender.  I was confident that I could find commonality with a boy or a girl, as long as they were open to having a female mentor.

And what was it like to first meet your mentee? For this interview, we can use an alias and not your mentee’s real name.

I’ll never forget the email that introduced me to my mentee, Brendan.  It contained information about his interests and hobbies, likes and dislikes.  I was so excited to meet him, and also a little nervous. It was a little daunting to think that I was about to be the mentor to a 14 year old boy.  Then I met Brendan and any anxiety melted away immediately.  We are both outspoken, honest to a fault, and skeptical of the status quo.  For example, while filling out a “getting to know you” activity together on our first meet up, we were asked who our hero was.  I didn’t know what to put, so I put down President Obama.  Brendan looked at my sheet and said something to the effect of, “Really?  You know, I have mixed feelings about him.” This launched a brief, but illuminating conversation about why Brendan felt this way, and I knew we would probably never run out of things to talk about. Over the last two and a half years, this has proven true—ranging from the Ferguson protests to scary movies, science fiction novels and the existence of aliens, our conversations have this rhythm and energy that I truly enjoy.  Brendan is an incredible young man, and my life is enriched by having him in it.

Before you met your mentee you went through pre-match training, correct? Can you tell me about your experience receiving mentor training?

AFC Mentoring requires all mentors to attend a day-long training before they are matched with a young person.  The training was incredibly helpful in preparing me to be a mentor.  AFC staff provided context around the foster care system, positive youth development, and cultural competency.  The staff also prepared me for different types of situations through interactive activities and role playing.

Did you find anything else about the training especially meaningful?

I appreciated AFC’s asset-based approach to youth development.  Youth, particularly youth of color, are often saddled with negative labels and stereotypes.  It is common to hear youth referred to as “at-risk,” and defined by their income level, their court involvement, or their academic performance. These descriptors are harmful and reductive, and obscure the fact that youth lead textured, rich lives. AFC’s mentor training intentionally broke down these stereotypes and encouraged mentors to think of youth as whole people, with strengths and weaknesses, good days and bad.

It sounds like the pre-match training from AFC was comprehensive. Did the program require you to attend any additional trainings?

Mentors who have concerns or questions are encouraged to reach out to staff for resources and additional training, though ongoing training is not a requirement.  I have, however, sought out related trainings in my own time. I feel that it is so important for mentors to engage in the process of cultural competency.  I say process because there isn’t a point at which one is fully culturally competent.  I don’t think someone can ever throw up their hands and say, “I did it! I’m culturally competent. I can stop talking about these issues.”  I find it much more instructive to think about cultural competency as a lifelong learning process.

Can you talk a bit more about cultural competence and the role it plays for you as a mentor?

As a white woman who is matched with a young man of color, I am attuned to the role my privilege plays in our relationship. When we were first matched, I read up on the research around cross-cultural mentoring relationships – The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring is a helpful resource in that regard. I found plenty of evidence pointing towards the efficacy of cross-cultural relationships. I would argue, though, that it is critical for white mentors to be fully immersed in understanding their whiteness and the privilege conferred upon that identity.

I feel that a mentoring relationship, by design, is one in which youth receive judgment-free support from safe adults. To truly provide a safe space for youth to express themselves I believe that white people need to be aware of their privilege and to actively acknowledge or “check” that privilege. To that end, I believe cultural competency trainings are an excellent tool in the process of understanding privilege and oppression. That, and lots of reading!

Do you have any favorite books that you feel have been especially helpful for engaging in the process of cultural competency?

Yes, I do! I highly recommend the essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy Macintosh and the book “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in The Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum. Growing up, I found novels to be a window into other perspectives and identities. Books that left a huge impact on me were Black Boy by Richard Wright, Sumitra’s Story by Rukshana Smith, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez, and Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang.

Lastly, in addition to books and online resources you mentioned attending cultural competence trainings. Do you have any recommendations or advice for mentors who are interesting in attending similar workshops?

There are actually quite a few low-cost or free trainings in the Boston area. I recommend: White People Challenging Racism and Class Action. Also, I often find out about new trainings through the YNPN listserv.

If you’re not in the Boston area, it will be helpful to ask your mentoring program for resources, contact a local university, or simply search google for cultural competency trainings in your area. The People’s Institute For Survival and Beyond holds Undoing Racism trainings all over the country, and the Catalyst Project has a great list of resources, as well.