Mentoring and politics: Some resources and expert advice

by Jean Rhodes

Mentors are often instructed to avoid discussing politics.  But, in this political climate, is it even possible or advisable to avoid politics altogether? With the midterms, contested runoffs, and legal battles, and next presidential race saturating the media, many young people want to understand and engage in conversations with their mentors.  Mentoring and other youth development programs provide training, guidelines and support around many topics but, as University of Colorado Boulder psychologist, Ben Kirshner noted,

[w]hat is less well-articulated in youth development practice or theory is how these caring adults should engage in conversations with youth – those 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” (p. 29, 2015).

Connie Flanagan, Professor of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the book, Teenage Citizens: The Political Theories of the Young (Harvard University Press), encourages mentors to discuss the political issues that affect their mentees’ lives and society,

It is very appropriate for mentors and mentees to discuss politics. And not just every few years. National elections are moments in history when political issues and the direction we want the country to go are on the minds of most Americans.  If a mentee raises a topic in the news, the mentor should ask the young person what his/her opinion is on the issue and why. This helps the youth to clarify where they stand what they understand about the topic or might still need to learn. Listening to the mentee’s views also sends a message that his/her opinions are worthy of respect, that adults should pay attention and take those ideas seriously.”

But, as NYU professor, Niobe Way makes clear,

“Listening is not just simply about shutting up. It’s about engaging with people around their questions. Learning from someone else about the answers to your own questions. Valuing interpersonal curiosity. Seeing connection not just as connecting on social media, but actually allowing someone to be seen, and heard, and listened to.”

Regardless of whether mentors agree or disagree, as long as the exchange is respectful, political discussion is a way to deepen understanding. In fact, when mentors discuss political issues with their mentees, they can show that disagreements don’t have to divide us and that politics doesn’t have to be so bitter–that we can work together, despite our differences. As Flannagan notes,

“If we want the younger generation to be informed and to vote when they’re old enough, we should engage with them in civil discussions of politics and current events when they are young.”

Of course, not all youth want or are ready to talk about these broader political or social justice issues. But, if the conditions are right, and if mentees and mentors are so inclined, mentoring relationships may provide a context in which youth can feel their voices heard and wrestle with complexity.

P.S. There are many websites that are helpful for opening and informing conversation and engagement around today’s topics, including– Learning Media, and  Let’s Vote.