Recommendations for applying a social justice lens to youth mentoring

Albright, J. N., Hurd, N. M., & Hussain, S. B. (2017). Applying a Social Justice Lens to Youth Mentoring: A Review of the Literature and Recommendations for Practice. Society for Community Research and Action. DOI 10.1002/ajcp.12143.

Summarized by Karina DeAndrade and Harry Bayly

Notes of Interest

  • The authors reviewed literature on youth mentoring initiatives that intentionally incorporated a social justice lens.
  • Social justice principles need to be implemented in mentoring to improve outcomes for youth.
  • Areas to improve, detailed in the article, include program design, implementation, and evaluation.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Youth mentoring interventions are often designed with the intention of promoting improved outcomes among marginalized youth. Despite their promise to reduce inequality through the provision of novel opportunities and increased social capital to marginalized youth, youth mentoring interventions hold the potential to reproduce rather than reduce inequality. In the current review, we explore literature on youth mentoring that has incorporated a social justice lens. We conclude that there is a need for greater attention to principles of social justice in the design, implementation, and evaluation of youth mentoring interventions. After reviewing the literature, we make recommendations for research and practice based on a social justice perspective and explore alternatives to traditional youth mentoring that may allow for better alignment with social justice principles.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Collectively, the findings of this body of research suggest that applying a social justice framework to mentoring programs may facilitate reaching traditional program goals (e.g., academic achievement) among marginalized adolescents who are contending with structural oppression. Moreover, research findings indicate that applying a social justice framework is critical if programs are committed to preventing damaging relationships, empowering youth to reject negative societal messages, and helping youth to become critically conscious agents of social change. While mentoring may have been originally conceptualized as a process through which to reduce inequality, it appears that the language and practices adopted by programs may, at times, work against this original and foundational goal (Colley, 2003; Hillman, 2016). In the absence of programmatic efforts to prevent the re-creation of oppressive structures within mentoring programs and relationships, mentoring interventions may be ineffective, at best, and harmful to youth, at worst. However, mentoring programs that help youth reject negative messages and stereotypes about their abilities, capitalize on preexisting assets and resources, and develop a positive identity hold the potential to narrow disparities across a variety of domains (Diemer & Blustein, 2006; Gaddis, 2012; Garcıa Coll et al., 1996; Stanton-Salazar & Spina, 2000). Marginalized youth who are equipped with tools to understand and challenge oppression may be the most effective advocates for social change. As a result of oppressive structures, however, marginalized youth may not have sufficient access to information, skills, and tools needed to become critically conscious social activists. Well-trained formal mentors could become significant resources for catalyzing this aspect of their proteges’ development. Yet the burden for preparing mentors for this feat rests on mentoring programs, who must turn their attention to careful recruitment, screening, and mentor training practices that better align with principles of social justice.

The potential for mentors to cause psychological harm due to misguided or inappropriate approaches to working with marginalized youth is arguably left unexamined by traditional screening processes. Mentors who lack understanding of power, privilege, and oppression may be particularly at risk of engaging in practices that could contribute to poor relationships or premature termination. Unfortunately, very little work has attempted to outline ways that programs might filter out individuals who are likely to cause psychological harm. While there are clear instances in which mentors should be turned away from mentor programs (e.g., history of having harmed a child), determining a person’s capacity for becoming a mentor who can provide appropriate support for marginalized youth from a social justice perspective may be difficult, and programs with long waitlists may be reluctant to turn volunteers away. Nevertheless, mentoring programs and their funders should be careful not to presume that the mere presence of a mentor is better than no mentor. Previous research, indeed, has found that proteges do not benefit from poor quality mentoring relationships and moreover, mentoring relationships that terminate prematurely can be harmful to youth (Grossman & Rhodes, 2002). A shift in recruitment and screening practices might be one way to increase the likelihood that the adults who volunteer as mentors will be amenable to learning how to employ principles of social justice in their relationships with young people.

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