acknowledge the role of ongoing racial oppression and the barriers to the pursuit of her dreams (CITE). Indeed, mentors are sometimes advised to avoid engaging in discussions about what might be considered difficult or taboo topics, such as money, politics and religion, or class, race, sexual orientation and culture.
Yet avoiding such topics may signal tacit acceptance of glaring social injustices (Bonilla-Silva, 2014). In their silence about just how difficult it is to grow up in the context of racism, violence, and extreme poverty, mentors might be communicating that this is “just the way things are.” As a field, our collective minimizing of facets of multicultural identity and related experiences may help to maintain those very injustices. In the words of Desmond Tutu, “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” When inequality is taken for granted, and youth internalize the norms and standards of those who hold power, they can fall prey to blaming themselves when they fail to meet societal expectations and definitions of success (Bonilla-Silva, 2014). In fact, a recent study found worsening trajectories over the middle school years in students who held fast to the myth of meritocracy–i.e., that hard work and perseverance will naturally lead to success. In fact, the more strongly marginalized youth held onto those beliefs in 6th grade, the more deviant they became and the more steeply their self-esteem and behavioral regulation dropped by the time they were 8th graders (Godfrey, Santos, & Burson, 2017). Although younger children are often aware of race, status, and bias, these constructs become much more salient as adolescents develop more advanced cognitive skills and can more fully grasp the racial bias and discrimination that they face (Godfrey, et al., 2017). The negative effects of these “system justifying ideologies,” continue through late adolescence and into early adulthood (O’Brien, Mars, & Eccleston, 2011; Sellers et al., 1998; Smalls et al., 2007). The corollary of a belief that the system is fair is the implication that they deserve their disadvantaged place and that setbacks are of their own making.
Such issues are particularly important to consider in the context of programs designed to cultivate social and emotional skills like self-regulation and grit. What happens when students like Kayla, who face violence and racism are encouraged to simply be more tenacious or mindful? This is an important question as mentoring programs explore ways to incorporate training in social and emotional skills into mentors’ toolkits.
There are several best sellers on the topic (e.g., Grit, by Angela Duckworth, Resuiient by Paul Tough) which have fueled both enthusiasm for such efforts as well as debate among those who worry about the message when the the problem and solution are located . Educational psychologist, Ethan Ris (2016) makes the point that concepts such as grit were never intended as a solution to the hardships of disadvantaged youth – indeed, it was originally applied to privileged children who lacked such hardship as a means of toughening them up. Nonetheless, the public embrace of this and related ‘soft skills’ training programs overwhelmingly focus on grit’s salience for low-income children and, to the extent that issues of racism, unsafe neighborhoods, or poorly resourced schools are discussed, they are presented as the foils that the particularly gritty children can conquer. In fact, the forces of inequality that undermine children’s success are sometimes cast as contexts for developing tenacity and strength. Youth who buckle down and achieve despite the obstacles of neighborhood crime and poorly-performing schools are seen as exemplars of Horatio Alger-style grit. Yet, when we consider how many problems stem from poverty, this can amount to essentially blaming young people for their failure to deal with it. UCLA Education Professor Mike Rose (2014) writes, “Can you imagine the outcry if, let’s say, an old toxic dump was discovered near Scarsdale or Beverly Hills and the National Institutes of Health undertook a program to teach kids strategies to lessen the effects of the toxins but didn’t do anything to address the toxic dump itself?” (p. 115). As educational psychologist, Ethan Ris (2016) argued, such children already have ample hardship and this focus draws attention and resources away from more structural changes.
Not all youth want or are ready to talk about these broader social justice issues – some just want to focus on the specific skills or activities. However, given the particular disparity in mentors in race and social class, when the conditions are right, mentoring relationships represent valuable contexts for bringing these issues to the forefront. This might involve discussions of power and inequality, and a recognition that they are socially produced, they also realize that these systems can be changed. Building on this, Ginwright and Cammarota (2002) argue for a “Social Justice Youth Development Model” through which teachers, mentors, and other caring adults find ways to place struggles within the broader context of political, economic, and social forces and to encourage civic engagement. Can you say more about this? Is it evidence -based. I’d like to point readers to particular programs that they can turn to for this sort of training
Accordingly, mentors should calibrate their approach to their mentees’ particular backgrounds and circumstances. This might include role playing new skills in youth-generated scenarios and explaining approaches in ways that makes sense within the youth’s culture. Mentors should also be aware of what they bring to the relationship, including their privilege and cultural background, and how those characteristics might influence their interaction with the youth. This may sound straightforward, but in practice it can be a challenge. A few years ago, I took a leave from academia to serve as a match coordinator in two different Boston-based mentoring programs. One evening I arranged a meeting in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood to introduce 22-year-old, Connor, a white Boston College junior to his mentee, Dominick, a black, fifth grader. Given the demographic realities of mentors, cross race matches like this are not uncommon. In a recent study of 6,468 matches across 170 representative U.S. programs, we found that 60% of youth served by mentoring programs were children of color, (two thirds of whom were black) (CITE). By contrast, 64% of mentors were white, 65% female , resulting in nearly of 40% of the matches, like Connor and Dominick, made across race.