New study examines how social class bias influences youth mentoring relationships

Spencer, R., McCormack, M. J., Drew, A. L., Gowdy, G., & Keller, T. E. (2021). (Not) minding the gap: A qualitative interview study of how social class bias can influence youth mentoring relationships. Journal of Community Psychology.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • It’s common for mentees from low-come families (many who are also of color) to get matched with White &/or middle/upper-class mentors in formal mentoring programs.
  • A significant number of formal mentoring staff members come from similar backgrounds as the mentors.
  • There’s limited research that examines how race and social class affect mentor-mentee relationships.
  • This qualitative study assesses whether and how social class bias was conspicuous in the way mentors, caregivers, and staff members talked about their experiences with community-based youth mentorships.
  • Although there weren’t any explicitly negative statements about being low-income, there were still hints that some mentors and staff members had some bias against the mentees’ & their family’s social class.
    • More specifically, some mentors and staff members 1) had deficit-based perceptions of mentees & their families, 2) assigned individual-level attributes for low-income families & blamed caregivers for their financial situations, and 3) perceived caregivers to be underappreciative of mentors for their efforts.
  • Although raising awareness about social class bias (via more intensive training and match support) won’t be enough to resolve the issue, it’s the first step to bridge this social gap.
  • It is essential for caregivers, mentors, and staff members to have a mutual understanding.
  • Future research needs to explore how the intersections of classism and racism affect youth mentorships.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

This study sought to examine how social class bias may be enacted by mentors and mentoring program staff within community-based youth mentoring relationships and how these biases may influence the mentoring relationship. A narrative thematic analysis was conducted with interviews from mentors, mentees’ parents/caregivers, and mentoring program staff representing 36 matches participating in a larger, prospective, mixed-methods study examining factors associated with early match closures. Findings indicate that although some mentors were able to partner with the youth and family to effectively navigate challenges related to the family’s economic circumstances, other mentors and some mentoring program staff held deficit views of the youth and their family that appeared to be at least partially rooted in negative social class-based assumptions about attitudes and behaviors. Specifically, we observed tendencies on the part of some mentors and program staff toward (a) deficit-based views of families and youth, (b) individual-level attributions for the family’s economic circumstances and blaming of caregivers, and (c) perceiving mentors as being underappreciated by the youth’s caregiver. These deficit perspectives contributed to the minimization of parent/caregiver voice in the mentoring process and negative interpretations of parent/caregiver and, in some cases, youth attitudes and behaviors.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Given that participants in most youth mentoring relationships are confronted with “minding the gap” in social class status, we took a systemic approach to examine whether and how social class bias was evident in how mentors, caregivers, and mentoring program staff described their experiences in these relationships that comprise the mentoring system. Signs of common negative views of people living in poverty were evident in many of these participants’ narratives. In some cases, these disparaging perspectives appeared to have disrupted the development and continuation of the mentoring relationship. Derogatory comments were most apparent in the narratives of mentors but also could be detected in the views expressed by a number of PSP. In addition, some parents/caregivers indicated that they perceived the mentors to be judgmental or fault-finding.

We did not tend to observe overt negative statements tied directly to the family’s income status; rather, we found commonly held negative views reflected in participants’ descriptions of their everyday interactions and reflections on their mentoring experience. For example, mentors indicated that they felt offended by changes in plans necessitated by some of these families’ complex needs or lack of resources to address them (e.g., having to rely on public transportation). The quickness with which mentors made negative, individual-level attributions in these circumstances (e.g., describing a parent/caregiver who is slow to respond as “not on top of it” or a youth asking for more treats on an outing as “greedy”) seemed to reflect an othering process potentially fueled by deficit views of people living in poverty. In most of these cases, such ready-made explanations went uninterrupted by program staff, or mentors showed resistance to reframing when program staff attempted to do so. Even when mentors and PSP were aware of the significant challenges and material hardships with which the youth’s families were contending, it still seemed difficult for some to consider these contexts and circumstances when interpreting youth and family behaviors and interactions. Indeed, bias has been shown to be difficult to change at the individual level (Lai et al., 2016), with some evidence pointing to the greater influence of the larger social context. This would suggest that changing mentoring program culture and messaging about families might prove to be more effective than trying to change the attitudes of individual mentors (Vuletich & Payne, 2019).

To access this article, click here.