Mentoring in the context of inequality, injustice, and a global pandemic

By Jean Rhodes

When asked how he felt about the timing of his forthcoming movie, comedian and commentator Jon Stewart replied “it’s like showing up to a plane crash with a chocolate bar. There’s tragedy everywhere, and you’re like, ‘‘Uh, does anybody want chocolate?’’ It feels ridiculous. But what doesn’t feel ridiculous is to continue to fight for nuance and precision and solutions.”

Likewise, after years of writing and research, I never expected that the release of Older and Wiser: New ideas for Mentoring Youth in the 21st Century would coincide with a global pandemic,  recession, and growing calls for racial justice. Although overwhelming, the timing also adds a sense of urgency and meaning to the search for mentoring solutions. To this end, the book delineates and provides the rationale for several approaches. This includes specialized mentoring program models, which often deploy carefully trained and supervised mentors to target specific populations and/or outcomes. Many of these programs draw on both cognitive strategies (e.g., self-talk, distraction, and mindfulness) and behavioral strategies (e.g., problem solving, activation, self-monitoring, and relaxation). I also make the case for two different approaches—embedded and blended models—in which larger programs train and supervise their mentors to support (but not deliver) evidence-based interventions in ways that help mentees remain engaged and master new skills. In addition to reducing the risks inherent in a service model that hinges on the regular, ongoing service of volunteers, the embedded and blended approaches reduce costly investments in training programs, enabling large nonspecific mentoring programs to focus on what they do best: recruiting, screening, training, and supervising a helpful volunteer workforce.

Of course, as recent events have also made clear, mentoring is only one piece of a bigger puzzle. Lurking behind any recommendation for improving mentoring programs are the upstream problems of the pandemic, growing poverty, and entrenched racial and economic inequality, and all that they entail for families—housing instability, schools with inadequate resources, limited health care, unfair policing practices, and unsafe neighborhoods. The list goes on. Program staff members are well aware of this oppressive backdrop and the reality that time spent with a mentor could never be enough to redress these concerns. The same holds true in child and adolescent therapy, which psychologist Payton Jones and his colleagues recently acknowledged is in

a kind of competition with all that happens during the other 110+ waking hours, and many of the forces that can contribute to psychological distress and dysfunction during those hours may not be readily altered by therapy. From this perspective, it may make sense to construe youth psychotherapy as but one of many forces that can impact youth mental health and functioning, and in many cases not the most powerful of those forces.[i]

Not only are mentoring relationships one of many competing forces in the lives of youth, some argue that volunteering through nonprofit programs (particularly those supported by corporate philanthropy) may actually divert our attention from larger solutions. Indeed, in his bestseller, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas argued that many charitable efforts are essentially feel-good solutions to larger social problems, serving as a moral safety valve that relieves the pressure on citizens, governments, and corporations to grapple in more meaningful ways with the root causes of poverty and inequality.[ii] And, by narrowly targeting skills, such as those for managing stress and anxiety, programs are essentially asking children to muster solutions to counter these challenges. Taking stock of such issues in youth mentoring, in 2007 Gary Walker, then president of Public/Private Ventures, wrote:

At its core, mentoring is a charitable act, a kindness to a stranger, improvement in the life of people one at a time—whereas what we need is social change, where change comes to larger groups of individuals all at once. Mentoring as social policy, under this critique, is diversionary at best, reactionary at worst. Even if it is effective and does build confidence in social policy, it remains diversionary and/or reactionary because what it builds is confidence in the capacity of individuals to help individuals; it blunts the fundamental need for broader social change.[iii]

As Walker points out, however, helping a young person while also doing whatever we can to address the broader context of inequality and stress is not a zero-sum game. In fact, when equipped with targeted, evidence-based interventions, a well-trained volunteer mentor is one of our best hopes for providing mental health and other services to the young people who need it most, resolving early problems and preventing negative cascades into more serious difficulties. Short-term expenditures in early, targeted intervention programs are offset by reductions in more costly downstream social, health, and correctional services.[iv] Likewise, early skills training positions children to benefit from later education and interventions. For example, mentors can teach youth social and emotional regulation skills that can act as a sort of immune system, enabling them to marshal defenses as stressors arise. In other instances, conversations between mentors and mentees can heighten youth’s critical thinking about broader societal issues, providing “an opportunity for marginalized youth to reclaim power, celebrate their identities, and take ownership of their narratives.”[v] More generally, by creating meaningful connections between volunteers and marginalized youth, and providing opportunities for volunteers to gain a deeper understanding of the everyday challenges such youth face, the field of mentoring can help to bridge perspectives. In our increasingly segregated world, mentoring programs provide a sanctioned channel for unlikely connections across widely diverse ethnic, cultural, and economic lines.

From a distance, it is easier to dehumanize and blame young people for their struggles. Mentoring can help counter that tendency. In the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, “It is extraordinarily difficult to love children in the abstract, to devote oneself exclusively to the next generation. It is only through precise, attentive knowledge of particular children that we become—as we must—informed advocates for the needs of all children.”[vii]

As long as mentors can generalize their concern for their one mentee to a concern for children in similar situations, programs have an important role in both bridging gaps in mental health services and catalyzing authentic action and reform.

[i] P. J. Jones et al., “An Upper Limit to Youth Psychotherapy Benefit?: A Meta-analytic Copula Approach to Psychotherapy Outcomes,” Clinical Psychological Science 7, no. 6 (2019): 1434–1449,

[ii] A. Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (New York: Knopf, 2018).

[iii] G. Walker, Mentoring, Policy, and Politics (Philadelphia: Public / Private Ventures, 2007), 522.

[iv] James J. Heckman, “Invest in Early Childhood Development: Reduce Deficits, Strengthen the Economy,” Heckman Equation, 2012, <AU: Please check the date here. The URL indicates a date of July 2013.>

[v] T. Weiston-Serdon, Critical Mentoring: A Practical Guide (Herndon, VA: Stylus, 2017); J. N. Albright, N. M. Hurd, and S. B. Hussain, “Applying a Social Justice Lens to Youth Mentoring: A Review of the Literature and Recommendations for Practice,” American Journal of Community Psychology 59, no. 3–4 (2017): 363–381. <AU: Please ensure all journal sources in the notes for Chapter 4 include DOIs.>

[vi] B. A. Stevenson, “Commencement Address,” College of the Holy Cross, 2015,

[vii] Margaret Mead, “On Being a Grandmother,” in Development through Life: A Case Study Approach, ed. B. M. Newman and P. R. Newman (Homewood, IL: Dorsey, 1972), 293–300. <AU: Please check the edits here.>