How can we actually measure mentors’ cultural responsiveness? New NMRC report has answers

By Savannah B. Simpson & Amy J. Anderson, Reprinted from the National Mentoring Resource Center

While there are high rates of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) families and youth looking for support from mentoring programs,[1] the disproportionate number of White volunteer mentors in the U.S. presents considerations for mentoring practice to effectively serve BIPOC families, such as mentor cultural responsiveness, supervision, training, and education. An analysis of data from the Volunteering Supplement of the Current Population Survey (sponsored by the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) found that the majority of volunteer mentors identified as White (77%), female (57%), and college graduates (50%).[2] Furthermore, youth who are typically referred to mentoring programs are male BIPOC individuals from socioeconomically disadvantaged families.2,[3] This demographic difference between mentors and youth not only presents a need to equitably recruit a more diverse pool of volunteer mentors, it also raises important questions about the potential impact of assigning White mentors to work with BIPOC youth and their families.[4]

In light of this common demographic difference and its implications, our research explores a critical question: How do White mentors’ beliefs about race, ethnicity, and culture affect the mentoring relationship? Recently, Simpson and colleagues (2023) conducted a study to investigate this question and discovered that White mentors’ beliefs about racial/ethnic discrimination can have varying effects on the mentoring relationship depending on whether mentees are BIPOC or White.[5] Specifically, the study found that White mentors who strongly believed that discrimination limits opportunities for Black Americans felt less anxious about their relationships with White mentees, but more anxious about their relationships with BIPOC mentees. This finding suggests that White mentors may feel uncertain about their ability to effectively support BIPOC youth in a culturally responsive way or indicates a potential understanding of their own racial biases, elicited by a heightened awareness of the racism Black youth face. Mentoring organizations may want to assess and address mentors’ cultural responsiveness, or the behaviors that mentors engage in that demonstrate their awareness, understanding, and respect for the cultural backgrounds of the young people they mentor. After all, we want mentoring to make a positive impact on all youth.

But how can we actually measure mentors’ cultural responsiveness? There are a limited number of reliable and valid behavior-based measures that address race, ethnicity, and culture within the mentoring relationship. One recent study conducted in 2019 used a measure to assess mentors’ behaviors that support youth’s racial/ethnic background, culture, and identity.[6] Some of the behaviors assessed in this measure included mentors expressing interest in their mentees’ racial/ethnic backgrounds and cultures, and helping mentees learn new things about their racial/ethnic backgrounds and cultures. This measure stands out as one of the few tools available to evaluate mentors’ culturally responsive behaviors, as many of the existing measures focus on other essential components like mentor societal awareness and self-efficacy. Measuring mentors’ behaviors is important because it can provide a clearer picture of mentors’ interactions with youth.[7] Mentors’ attitudes and beliefs can be insightful, but may not always align with actual behaviors. For example, a mentor might highly value cultural diversity yet be unaware of how to communicate effectively across racial/ethnic differences.

By focusing on mentors’ culturally responsive behaviors (e.g., providing culturally relevant resources, learning about mentees’ cultural background, collaborating with mentees’ family and community), we can better understand how mentors are actually engaging with youth. Mentors’ behaviors are key components of their interactions with youth, and these behaviors can influence the quality of the mentoring relationship. We also want to know if mentors are displaying negative behaviors (e.g., microaggressions, minimizing mentees’ experiences of racism, dismissing mentees’ perspectives and unique experiences) toward their mentees in order to address it through trainings and match support. Therefore, behavior-based measures can provide actionable steps for mentoring programs. For instance, a mentor who has been found to consistently mispronounce their mentee’s name, may benefit from trainings specifically targeted at reducing microaggressions. On the other hand, if a mentor intentionally and persistently mocks a mentee’s name, they may not be a suitable candidate for a mentoring program. Mockery reflects a deeper level of disrespect and is incompatible with the supportive and nurturing environment that a mentoring relationship should foster. Focusing on observable actions can help assess and address mentors’ behaviors that may cause harm and impede positive youth outcomes.

We need more measures that assess mentors’ culturally responsive behaviors within the context of mentoring relationships. In an upcoming research project, Simpson will develop and test a new behavioral measure. Youth mentees will respond to survey items to indicate how often their mentor engages in culturally responsive behaviors. The development of a new behavior-based cultural responsiveness measure will be beneficial in three important ways:

1. Intervention: Advancing science to create nurturing mentoring relationships that are culturally sensitive to youth’s individual backgrounds.

2. Practicality: Assisting mentoring programs in managing the quality of mentoring relationships, determining when to dismiss mentors from the program who demonstrate harmful behaviors, and deciding when ongoing coaching, support, and training for mentors is needed.

3. Social Justice: Shedding light on mentors’ potentially harmful behaviors that may influence the quality and impact of mentoring relationships.

It is imperative to prioritize the development of robust measures that assess mentors’ culturally responsive and potentially harmful behaviors. These measures can help to create a more equitable and inclusive future by ensuring that mentorship promotes positive change and creates an environment where everyone feels respected and valued.

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[1] Vázquez, A. L., & Villodas, M. T. (2019). Racial/ethnic differences in caregivers’ perceptions of the need for and utilization of adolescent psychological counseling and support services. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 25(3), 323–330.

[2] Raposa, E. B., Dietz, N., & Rhodes, J. E. (2017). Trends in volunteer mentoring in the United States: Analysis of a decade of census survey data. American Journal of Community Psychology, 59(1–2), 3–14.

[3] Herrera, C., Grossman, J. B., Kauh, T. J., & McMaken, J. (2011). Mentoring in schools: An impact study of Big Brothers Big Sisters school-based mentoring. Child Development, 82(1), 346–361.

[4] Albright, Hurd, N. M., & Hussain, S. B. (2017). Applying a social justice lens to youth mentoring: A review of the literature and recommendations for practice. American Journal of Community Psychology, 59(3-4), 363–381.

[5] Simpson, S. B., Hsu, T., & Raposa, E. B. (2023). Trajectories and impact of White mentors’ beliefs about racial and ethnic discrimination in a formal youth mentoring program. American Journal of Community Psychology, 71(3-4), 465–479.

[6] Sánchez, B., Pryce, J., Silverthorn, N., Deane, K. L., & DuBois, D. L. (2019). Do mentor support for ethnic–racial identity and mentee cultural mistrust matter for girls of color? A preliminary investigation. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 25(4), 505–514.

[7] McQuillin, S. D., Lyons, M. D., Clayton, R. J., & Anderson, J. R. (2020). Assessing the impact of school-based mentoring: Common problems and solutions associated with evaluating nonprescriptive youth development programs. Applied Developmental Science, 24(3), 215–229.