From poetry to justice: Mentors as partners in youth’s critical awareness and activism

by Jean Rhodes

Sixteen-year old Kayla Harris loves poetry. She pens verses in the margins of her notebooks during class, fine tuning them on the bus as it rattles from her public school in Boston’s West Roxbury neighborhood to her grandmother’s apartment in nearby Mattapan. She composes them in her head each night, tuning out the noise drifting into her makeshift bedroom. Kayla wrote one of her favorite poems last summer on the Ashmont “T,” tweaking it through the bus transfer to the Morton Street stop. She had been warned about the dangers of walking alone after dusk but was too absorbed to care. When she finally reached the steps of her grandmother’s triple-decker apartment unit, she sat down and completed it. Riffing on a favorite Maya Angelou verse, she had envisioned “a night drunk with the nectar of peace and beauty.” A fitting poem for Mattapan, which was named by its Native American settlers “a good place to sit”

Unfortunately, however, Mattapan is an increasingly perilous place to sit, and Kayla recently suffered a concussion after being mugged near her bus stop. Mattapan has one of the highest violent crime rates in the State, and growing inequality, stagnant social mobility, and a shortage of affordable housing have conspired to dim the prospects of its young residents. Educational segregation and inequality is on full display in Kayla’s Urban Science Academy, which ranks in the bottom 15% of all schools in the State. Like her, ninety-one percent of Kayla’s classmates are African American, 86% of whom are growing up in economically disadvantaged homes. And, as journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones recently observed, segregation fuels inequality,  “There’s never been a moment in the history of this country where black people who have been isolated from white people have gotten the same resources. They often don’t have the same level of instruction. They often don’t have strong principals. They often don’t have the same technology.”

Kayla is a mentee in a Boston program through which her mentor, “Miss” Evette, has been cultivating her budding interest in poetry and teaching her skills to regulate her stress, insomnia, and occasional bouts of depression. In keeping with the best of Positive Youth Development (PYD) practice, the program has a vibrant drop-in center–a sanctuary in which youth like Kayla can take refuge from their difficulties in the company of caring adults. But, as Ben Kirshner notes in his excellent new book, Youth Activism in an Era of Education Inequality, “What is less well-articulated in youth development practice or theory is how these caring adults should engage in conversations with youth–who are marginalized because of their race, class or sexual identities–about the political context of their lives, particularly in ways that don’t further pathologize their neighborhood or peer groups”

For the most part, mentors are not trained to talk about the difficult societal issues that increasingly shape and define Kayla’s and others lives. Particularly when serving marginalized, older youth, Kirchner and others would argue that mentoring and other youth programs have a tendency to cultivate important psychological skills (e.g., Grit, SEL) and interpersonal strengths while leaving the structural oppressions of the surrounding context unchallenged. But in their silence about glaring inequality and substandard schooling, mentors can be communicating that this is “just the way things are.” What’s more, when inequality is taken for granted, and youth internalize the norms and standards of those with the power, they can end up blaming themselves for their struggles. As mentees gain awareness of systems of power and inequality, and realize that they are socially produced, they also realize that they can be changed. Building on this, Ginwright and Cammarota argue for a “Social Justice Youth Development Model” through which teachers and other caring adults find ways to place struggles within the broader context of political, economic, and social forces and to encourage activism.

Assuming it’s age-appropriate, how can mentors engage their mentees in this sort of critical consciousness? What could Kayla’s mentor do to further develop in her a critical awareness that challenges self-blame? Torrie Weiston-Serdan, PhD has developed the concept of “critical mentoring,” and to advance her ideas, Southern California-based Youth Mentoring Action Network is partnering with Mentor: the National Mentoring Partnership, Summer Search, Amped Strategies, and others. As Weiston-Serdon told a reporter, “Critical mentoring acknowledges that the traditional way we mentor isn’t conducive to black or brown young people or others who are marginalized or ‘minoritized,’ such as LGBT youth. Traditional mentoring is one-to-one hierarchical: ‘I’m an authority figure and I’m going to tell you what you need to do to get on track.’ That’s an antiquated idea for our young people today, and it doesn’t include any analysis of their context.” Along similar lines, San Francisco State University professor, Jeffery Duncan-Anrade intensively shadowed teachers and developed recommendations for “equitable education.” Although his ideas, which are distilled in Allie Gross’ article, “Five practice of Highly Effective Urban Educators” are focused on educators, there are implications for mentors. In essence, the recommendations include communicating the belief that their mentees will be agents of change. This might include developing meaningful experiences and opportunities that allow students to critically think about issues and solutions affecting their lives.  In Kayla’s case, this includes acknowledging or witnessing the stresses or barriers in her everyday life and then perhaps finding ways to infuse her poetry with critical thinking and calls to action. In doing so, mentors can teach young people that “righteous indignation” is a strength that moves them from recipients of mentors’ care to partners in addressing larger issues.