The slogan, “America First,” championed by President Donald Trump and echoed in many of his administration’s recent policies, is an inherently divisive statement. It infers the exceptionality of Americans above and beyond citizens of the rest of the world. It energizes a cycle of separation, disconnection, and fear.
The Southern Poverty Law Center monitors in its HateWatch a national rise in hate crimes in cities and towns across the country, which represents a physical demonstration of divide. Close to 12 million have watched the Facebook video of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.Mass) reading aloud a letter from Coretta Scott King, a reading that took place outside the Senate during the confirmation hearings of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. The Pew Research Group reports a greater ideological divide at present than any time in the prior two decades. These divisions represent an America wrestling with the slogan of “first” in the context of an increasingly global, diverse, and pluralistic world.
In this climate, citizens of all sides of the divides can learn from research on mentoring relationships between adult volunteers and youth, often people interested in building relationship but coming from different cultural, economic, and social backgrounds.
Mentoring creates relationships that bridge differences, crossings built across all states and many sectors. Mentoring takes place in schools, businesses, and social services. These bridges create change. Youth who participate in these programs demonstrate a reduction in risk-taking behavior and depressive symptoms. In popular culture, on TV shows such as “The Voice,” highly successful singing stars choose and mentor aspiring talented singers. In the business world, the millionaire investors on “Shark Tank,” choose the innovators to invest in their ideas, products and services and mentor them to success. Across these worlds, mentorship programs can not only provide role models to imitate, but can also benefit the young person with a decreased negative health symptoms and improved relationship skills.
Such bridges are challenging to build, even for the most committed adults. Indeed, more than half of youth relationships with adult volunteers established through formal programs end prematurely, and many of those end poorly. When these relationships go well, research encourages mentors to assume a hybrid role, offering friendship and counsel. Strong mentors attune to their young person, reading what the young person is trying to say, even if they are saying it nonverbally. Attunement also requires regulating oneself and adapting if necessary in order to see the perspective of the other.
These skills, though not easy, prove teachable. Youth development professionals report increased listening skills, increased empathy, and decreased reactivity following training and practice of these skills. And mentees paired with attuned volunteer mentors report declines in depressive symptoms and aggressive behaviors. Physicians report increased empathy in connecting with parents following attunement training, and mental health workers focus on attunement in their work with infant caregivers during the stressful early months of a child’s life.
To be sure, many of us are not particularly interested in spending time attuning to those who are different than ourselves. This is in part due to values that we hold dear and central to our identities. Connecting with people across these “value lines” can be threatening, and to some may feel like a compromise of character.
Yet, building these bridges pays off, both at the individual and societal level. Attunement is not only important to helping relationships; it is also critical to public discourse and well-being. Connecting with people of difference can help build empathy and understanding, which is associated with increased happiness and well-being.
None of us are attuned to others in every interaction. None of us are immune to the desire to comfort ourselves, at least temporarily, with the superficial luxury of putting ourselves first. We gravitate toward people who are similar to us, and are reassured by the idea of prioritizing ourselves, even at the inevitable expense of excluding others. And yet, there has not been a time in modern history when the need to be open to others of difference is so vital.
Julia Pryce, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in Social Work at Loyola University Chicago and a Public Voices Greenhouse Fellow. She is an expert in the study of relationship process in adult-youth relationships and has published in Youth & Society, Journal of Adolescent Research, and Children & Youth Services Review.