Mentoring in Trump’s America

Update: We wrote this post 3 years ago, soon after Trump became president. Our focus was on what mentors can do to support youth who are marginalized by our society (e.g., youth of color, LGBTQ youth). Our post is still relevant as an urgent call to mentoring organizations, staff, and volunteer mentors to support Black youth and their communities who are protesting for their humanity to be acknowledged. As we say below, mentoring alone will not solve the structural inequities that have literally been (and still are) killing Black people. Mentoring organizations need to collaborate with local organizations fighting for Black lives and systemic change (e.g., BYP 100Black Lives Matter) and support our mentees who are putting their bodies on the line and/or expressing concern and fear for their lives and community.

By: Noelle Hurd, PhD, Bernadette Sanchez, PhD, & Torie Weiston-Serdan, PhD

For many in this country, the political events that have unfolded over the past year have brought about a great deal of change and uncertainty. For many others, these same political events have unleashed a sense of sheer terror and intense psychological distress. In our own research and practice with members of marginalized groups, we are learning that youth who hold marginalized social identities (e.g., youth who are members of racial/ethnic minority groups, LGBTQ youth, immigrant youth) are reporting grave concerns pertaining to how shifts in policy and even public discourse are affecting their day-to-day experiences and expectations for their future. In addition, youth from lower socioeconomic backgrounds whose families receive healthcare through the Affordable Care Act are experiencing anxiety about the ways in which health care reform may result in their families’ loss of health insurance.

Not surprisingly, youth who possess multiple marginalized identities report distress across many fronts and a decreased sense of personal safety. If it is unclear what this has to do with mentoring, allow us to make the connection more explicit: descriptive data on youth who participate in mentoring programs indicate that the overwhelming majority of youth served by these programs possess at least one social identity or status that is marginalized by society. Therefore, the field of youth mentoring must contend with issues of marginalization and consider how the youth it serves are affected by the current sociopolitical climate.

To date, the field of youth mentoring has primarily focused on strategies for fostering individual growth and improvement among protégés with little attention paid to the oppressive structural forces facing the youth being served. As Torie noted in her recent book on critical mentoring, current mentoring practices do little to address the need for structural change. The problematic assumption inherent in traditional mentoring approaches is that youth alone can overcome even the most formidable circumstances if they just work hard enough and possess a relationship with a supportive adult who can show them the way. The flaws of this approach are particularly apparent at a time when our administration is actively working to introduce new barriers to success for disadvantaged youth and their families while simultaneously undermining policies and practices geared at reducing inequality.

Now that we have highlighted what we see as a fundamental limitation of the traditional approach to youth mentoring, we would like to delineate several recommendations for the field that could help mentoring interventions be more responsive to the needs of the youth being served and consequently, yield greater improvements in youths’ lives.

First, mentoring programs should provide mentors with training about the historical and current systematic disadvantages facing marginalized youth, similar to the kinds of training offered by social justice organizations, such as Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). It is important for mentors to have an understanding of the ways in which our society was designed to limit the opportunities and potential of certain groups of individuals and also how the current rhetoric and political agenda being advanced by our country’s leaders has direct negative consequences on groups who have longstanding histories of oppression in the U.S. Relative to their protégés, mentors are much less likely to be members of marginalized groups and consequently, may be much less aware of the ways in which historic oppression and the current sociopolitical environment are affecting their protégés. Given that a core function of mentoring entails the provision of support, mentors will be much better positioned to support their protégés if they have a substantive understanding of the broad and systematic challenges facing their protégés. Moreover, knowledge of current events and the ways in which those events may negatively affect their protégés and their protégés’ families will allow mentors to more adequately provide support.

Second, mentors could benefit from additional training and support in regards to how to broach conversations with their protégés about these issues. Mentors are likely to be more comfortable discussing points of commonality between themselves and their protégés and may avoid conversations that don’t rely on a shared experience or that highlight a way in which the mentor is privileged. Mentors also may assume that their protégés should be the ones to broach these topics given that they are the ones most directly affected by them. The problem with this assumption is that it neglects the power hierarchy inherent in mentoring relationships. Protégés may be reluctant to bring up topics that could make their mentors uncomfortable. Moreover, youth may struggle with the right language to use; after all, just because something is affecting them, doesn’t mean that they have experience articulating their concerns. They also may be uncertain of how receptive their mentor will be to hearing about these stressors and whether their mentor will be able to understand their experiences. For all of these reasons, mentors should shoulder the burden of creating space for these conversations. Creating space doesn’t mean forcing a conversation; rather, it means acknowledging an issue, checking in to see how their protégé is doing, and mentioning that the issue is something that they would be happy to discuss further with their protégé if their protégé so desires. This also is a youth-centered approach to mentoring by focusing on the needs of youth, which is consistent with critical mentoring as well as mentoring research about successful relationships.

To be clear, we are not recommending that mentors bring up politics to have a conversation about political positions or to push their political views on their protégés. We must acknowledge, however, that the current political climate is riddled with bigotry and geared toward fostering greater divisiveness among mainstream and marginalized groups. Thus, avoiding conversations about political issues just for the sake of avoiding conversations about politics is unadvisable. We have learned from our own students that when their teachers don’t acknowledge stressful events or communicate explicit support for their students in the context of acts of bigotry, students take this to mean that at worst, their teachers are in support of the bigoted acts, and at best, their teachers don’t care about how the bigoted acts affect their students. If this is generalizable to mentoring relationships, it seems likely that mentor silence on noxious current events will be construed as mentor support or callous disregard of the ways in which these events affect their protégés. Youth want the important adults in their lives to acknowledge these distressing current events- even if adults don’t know exactly what to say or fully understand the implications of these events. Mentors do not have to know all of the right things to say to their protégés but they need to be able to listen and validate the experiences their protégé shares with them. This only requires active listening and empathy. So often, the experiences of members of marginalized groups are discounted or trivialized. Mentors can support and reaffirm, which can be a powerful experience among protégés who have few safe spaces to work through their feelings about toxic current events.

Third, mentors can seek ways to more actively support their protégés and partner with them to affect social change. The traditional approach to mentoring narrowly emphasizes the mentor-protégé relationship as the factor that will yield improved youth outcomes. Unfortunately, protégés from marginalized groups are facing challenges that cannot be solved solely via a supportive relationship. Mentoring relationships in their current form do very little to mitigate structural disadvantage facing marginalized youth. Fortunately, there are alternative models, such as critical mentoring, that place a greater emphasis on addressing societal problems. A critical mentoring approach dictates that mentoring relationships should aim to empower youth to take on leadership roles in social activism. Mentors can support and encourage youth to get involved with local, regional, and national social change movements. Mentors can provide a listening ear as youth are engaging in the long road of activism, serve as a guide, and help youth access resources to benefit their social change work. Additionally, mentors can work alongside their protégés to advance the rights of marginalized youth.

Being marginalized often means having someone else’s ideas, processes, and structures imposed upon you. In Trump’s America, negative stereotypes about marginalized youth are pronounced loudly and more boldly, with disregard for targeted youth and the communities to which they belong. All too often, the intentional perpetuation of negative stereotypes about marginalized groups becomes a meta-narrative that chokes and silences. Critical mentoring provides an opportunity for marginalized youth to reclaim power, celebrate their identities, and take ownership of their narratives. Critical mentoring also encourages the mentoring field to embrace opportunities to improve the circumstances facing the youth we serve. Ultimately, if we want to be maximally effective in fostering success and well-being among protégés, the mentoring field will have to move beyond a limited focus on helping youth to overcome disadvantage to a greater emphasis on helping to eliminate disadvantage.