We Meet Them Where They Are: The Importance of Mentoring as a Component of Youth Gang Violence Intervention

By National Gang Center, Reprinted from the National Mentoring Resource Center

Gangs meet kids where they are. We have to do the same thing” (Amber Govan, Carter’s Crew). This statement captures the valuable relationship between youth violence intervention professionals and the young people with whom they work. When people think about violence intervention efforts, they commonly focus on the specific programs being implemented or actions taken to mediate conflicts and connect youth affected by violence to appropriate services and supports. While these are important for youth well-being and violence reduction overall, is this truly where long-lasting impact lies for young people? Or is it in the relationships they develop with youth violence intervention professionals, who assist with making positive mindset shifts and navigating pathways to success? While youth violence intervention professionals might engage in crisis response, gang mediation, and service provision, they are ultimately there to “help youth be successful within any area they [the youth] choose . . . to make sure they are fully equipped to not only survive but thrive in life(Youth Advocate, Brotherhood Crusade).

Effective, high-quality, and enduring mentoring is associated with the capacity for youth to engage in high-quality social relationships, to have great academic achievement, school engagement, and school adjustment, and to view their futures more positively.” (Rhodes, Spencer, Keller, Liang, & Noam, 2006). This is often the type of relationship formed between youth violence intervention professionals and the young people they support. Day to day, intervention professionals serve as valuable mentors who help youth to navigate challenges in life, exercise their own agency, and define and achieve positive life outcomes.

For youth impacted by or involved with gangs, this is particularly important. According to practitioners in the field, “youth impacted by gangs usually join to feel safe or a sense of belonging” (Christopher Ruffin, Youth Advocate, Brotherhood Crusade) or are seeking “love, attention, or respect” (Brandon, Youth Advocate, Brotherhood Crusade). Just as gangs appear to respond to those needs, “a caring mentor can provide all of these things [as well]” (Christopher Ruffin, Youth Advocate, Brotherhood Crusade). A youth violence intervention professional can serve as that mentor and offers a unique understanding of specific gang-related concerns that a youth might have, in addition to other life challenges they may face.

Through the mentoring relationships, young people can seek guidance and support on a range of topics.

  • Self-worth and self-esteem
  • Decision-making skills
  • Positive mindset shifts
  • Career readiness and exploration
  • Impulse control and anger management
  • School, including educational barriers and academic achievement
  • Life skills
  • Police interaction
  • Communication
  • Health and hygiene
  • Conflicts with others
  • Family dysfunction
  • Positive coping mechanisms
  • Trauma

Several youth violence prevention and reduction programs funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) make mentoring a priority as a part of their outreach and intervention efforts. Their insights shed light on what this relationship looks like, how mentors empower young people, and why mentoring is valuable for the youth they serve.

Mentoring is a “a two-way street in the sense that we are both in the relationship in order for me to help our youth. I will learn from [the youth] and they will learn from me—we are in it together,” according to Deborah Spencer-Chun, president and chief executive officer of Adult Friends for Youth. Through outreach and mentoring, Adult Friends for Youth seeks to “provide the youth with opportunities, a safe space, a means to healing the trauma and pain, so they can develop a sense of worth.” This is especially important as “many of the gang youth we come across are angry due to a lot of violence they see around them and feel it is normal.

One credible messenger from Project Imagine in Danville, Virginia, shared how they “use their past to help [a client] with their present, walk them through situations by having them think first, and most of all keep realistic expectations and goals from all involved” (Shakeva Frazier). As a result of their mentoring efforts, they help young people “develop good decision-making skills” (Credible Messenger, Project Imagine) and “aid in growth . . . mental, emotional, physical, educational, and so forth” (Shakeva Frazier, Community Liaison/Credible Messenger).

A 16-year-old participant in Project Imagine, Destiny, has worked with Shakeva Frazier for more than a year and shared how mentoring means “someone who supports me, provides feedback, advice, and helps me define and reach my goals.” As Destiny works toward goals of getting a car, getting a bank account, finishing school, and completing probation, she says, “My mentor makes sure that I have a positive mindset . . . my mentor raises my confidence and lets me know I can do anything I put my mind to.” For more information about Project Imagine, read this recent article highlighting its impact.

At Brotherhood Crusade in Los Angeles, California, youth advocates demonstrate how their mentorship relationship looks with their clients:

The mentoring relationship between my client and me is built on trust, understanding, and care. Trust allows them to be able to confide in me and creates an agreement that our relationship is a safe place. Understanding provides for the relationship to be judgment free. Care . . . ensure[s] that I am keeping their best interest in mind always. This creates room for judgment-free mentorship, honesty, and vulnerability, leading to self-actualization and the habitualization of positive traits.

(Youth Advocate, Brotherhood Crusade)

The relationship I have with my clients looks different depending on the needs of my client. However, the foundation I have built for our relationship includes emotional safety, compassion, and advocacy. Some days my clients need someone to listen, others they need encouragement for the storm they are enduring, while other days they deserve some joy in their lives—either through a meal, an event/field trip, or fellowship.

(Ashlen Whitehead, Lead Youth Advocate, Brotherhood Crusade)

Through mentoring, advocates “help youth continue to push forward through adversities and sit with them as they self-identify who they are, what they want or do not want out of life, what they are passionate about, and what barriers they have, while also providing necessary resources to support their journey” (Ashlen Whitehead, Lead Youth Advocate, Brotherhood Crusade).

Sadly, the concept of “mentoring” is identical in gang culture. Our organization’s purpose is to be the antithesis of gang culture. We serve as positive role models and provide productive support for these same young men. Research has shown that positive role models significantly reduce the involvement in gang activity and help to prevent youth from engaging in and joining gangs.

(Marvin Lawton II, Senior Vice President, Brotherhood Crusade)

For Carter’s Crew in Jacksonville, Arkansas, it is important to “meet the youth where they are, which is usually in the streets or in their neighborhoods,” and “model the behavior that they want youth to mirror.

[Mentors] provide support to the kids who need it, giving them a different perspective than their own. Mentors eventually become like family and are respected by the family as a whole. Teens join gangs for family and protection, we need to provide that need to the teens instead.

(Amber Govan, Founder/Executive Director)

One young participant at Carter’s Crew shared the following about their mentor:

Though you were a stranger when we first met, you’ve motivated me to go hard in any field I choose. You also showed me regardless of where you’re from or your past choices, I can accomplish anything as long as I put forth effort and keep an open mind.  It never crossed my mind that past decisions are not the dictation of your future. I will continue to strive towards excellence just like you.

(N. W.)

At Partnership for Child Health in Jacksonville, Florida, through mentorship, youth violence intervention professionals establish “trust and rapport” with youth to help them “build and achieve healthy goals” (Korey O’Neal, Program Coordinator). Mentoring through outreach and intervention efforts offers an “alternative” for youth impacted by or involved in gang violence.

These insights reinforce the importance of mentorship as a part of youth violence intervention. The meaningful relationships formed between youth violence intervention professionals and young people create pathways for positive youth development and provide meaning and context to the opportunities provision, crisis intervention, and other activities that occur as a part of violence reduction efforts. Through mentoring, professionals are “intentionally helping youth become their authentic selves and to be able to independently navigate life on their own” (Mykol Lewis, Director of Boys and Young Men of Color, Brotherhood Crusade) so they can achieve long-term success.

The following are other OJJDP-funded projects that leverage mentoring as a part of their youth violence intervention efforts.

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