My experience bringing mentoring to tribal communities

By Crystal Aschenbrener, National Mentoring Resource Center

The NMRC has this great new evidence review on mentoring American Indian and Alaskan Native youth up on the website (co-authored by yours truly), and before you read it, I want to share just a bit about some of the things I have learned that worked in my career. This context will help you understand some of the areas of emphasis in the larger review.

First, I have been sincerely inspired by the Native American culture and their traditions, values, and spirituality. Each time I implement my mentorship intervention, my heart for this culture grows. I will note that my experiences doing this work are limited to one tribe in South Dakota and one in Wisconsin and thus, my perspective is not reflective of all Native American tribes or traditions. This is a “culture” that respectfully encompasses many different languages, traditions, and values spread across the full geographic scope of Native America.  I will probably only scratch the surface of the rich diversity in my career.

But in my experiences working directly with tribes and Native communities. I know that oppressive hardships from the historical trauma of assimilation practices (boarding schools, foster care/adoption, relocation to reservations) as well as today’s social barriers of wide-spread poverty, alarming suicide rates, overwhelmingly low graduation rates, and limiting geographic isolation have influenced many Native American communities to be hesitant and fearful of outside help and supports. Their past experiences with outsiders there to “help” with “supports” has led to those words often being associated with injustices and periods of history that were anything but helpful to their communities.

Mentoring practitioners from outside tribal communities can possibly establish good working relationships with tribal leaders and elders if they approaching the mentoring project as a collaborative endeavor that respects Native culture, values, and structures. This review we have authored offered many tips for program developers in these situations. From my mentorship intervention, I have found a few things that work for me in establishing a relationship or partnership with a tribal school and its community.

  • First, with both partnerships in the communities where we implemented this program, the process started with a college student and I very carefully exploring a possible collaboration with the tribal community. This college student was Native American and from a neighboring tribe. The college student and I then found one key representative from the tribal school and we fostered a partnership with this one representative. They then slowly introduced my mentorship program to more and more members of the tribal school and community. They facilitated my presence in the community and I’ve found having a Native American face in the initial conversations made a real difference.
  • Second, we ensured the partnership was mutually beneficial for all. We wanted to make sure they knew this was not a “handout” program—it was not deficit-based or about anyone offering charity. It was a win-win proposition: While the youth mentees learned and were motivated by their college student mentors, the college student mentors also learned and gained value for the Native culture, including its traditions, language, and values, from the youth mentees.  By fostering this mutually beneficial approach, everyone was positively impacted and the taint of outsiders being “saviors” was removed.
  • Third, the intervention was always youth-centered, strengths-based, culturally-sensitive, future-focused, and educationally-grounded, which was respectfully expected by the tribal school, the culture of the community, and, specifically, this program coordinator. The whole program built on, and honored, everything about the tribal ways of life and ways of knowing. There are great examples of how mentors can do this in the full evidence review, including research that demonstrates the value of this approach.
  • Fourth, for planning meetings or program check-ins, we always went to the partnering members in their community and never expected them to come to me. This demonstrated my commitment, ensured they were in a safe and comfortable environment, provided me an opportunity to learn more about them and their community, and ensured everyone had access to the information about the mentoring program, and no one was left out of the loop due to transportation barriers and other factors. To serve a community well, you must be there and truly embed your work in the fabric of the way of life.
  • Fifth, everything we did was approved by the partnering members, from the main components of the mentorship intervention program, to the schedule, to development and implementation of research surveys – this helped to ensure everything about the program was a true partnership, was school approved, and was culturally-attuned.
  • Sixth, we ensured that my college student mentors learned a majority of their knowledge of the culture directly from the tribal community, via celebrating important ceremonies (sweat lodge and pow-wow), listening to guest speakers on important topics that pertain historically to today (historical trauma, boarding schools, and current social services programs), and participating in cultural activities (playing traditional games and making dream catchers).

For the past 10 years, I have implemented the Today & Beyond Program:  An Educationally-based Mentorship Intervention. At first, we just called it a service project for the college student mentors but it quickly developed into so much more than that. As we completed a program evaluation after each implementation, we naturally found things we wanted to improve. I found myself turning to other research on youth mentoring as a means of advancing and improving this partnership and intervention. However, I found myself having to modify many of the core research-based practices we see in the mentoring field in order to meet the needs of the tribal school I was partnering with. I was surprised at how little the existing mentoring research spoke to the work we were doing. For example,

  • We settled on one semester in program length, not one academic year;
  • Our program was a group-model approach, not the more common and well-researched one-on-one model;
  • Our program required a fundamental focus on incorporating Native culture holistically, most other programs we found in the research didn’t have a cultural component in their best practices at all;
  • This program was rural-based, not urban-located, which presented more limitations related to transportation, available volunteers, and so on. So we found ourselves facing challenges rarely talked about in the research, which has largely focused on large, urban service providers.

Thus, while research offered the program opportunities to do more and be more, we had to add our own best practices to it, through trial and error and conducting our own evaluations to make it the Today & Beyond Program. The good news is that this program is now a mature model and is contributing to the scholarly research and body of knowledge on youth mentoring. We are starting to fill in the gaps with research that speaks to the Native experience and how mentoring can best be structured to meet the needs of both tribal communities and tribal youth who are living outside of tribal lands. We are now able to provide support to similar tribal mentoring partnerships and the evidence review you can download through the NMRC is an excellent summary of all we have learned not only from my program but from the work of other scholars, tribal leaders, and mentoring work with indigenous people from around the world. I hope the evidence review is helpful to both program developers and mentors of tribal youth alike!


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