Winner takes all?: Mentoring programs in the age of inequality

By Jean Rhodes

In his recent best-selling book, Winner Takes All, writer Anand Giridharadas sheds light on the complexities and potentially self-serving nature of focusing on individual solutions and one-off opportunities in an unjust world. Through this lens, private solutions, including youth programs that promote skills, can be seen as a counteroffer to essentially public problems.  Indeed, lurking behind every discussion of such programs are upstream economic inequalities, and all that they entail for families—housing instability, schools with inadequate resources, limited health care, and unsafe and stressful neighborhoods. The list goes on. Program staff are well aware of poverty’s oppressive backdrop in their mentees’ lives and how it undercuts their volunteers’ ability to help. Yet, as Giridharadas argues, corporate and philanthropic support for social programs and other “bite size” solutions can create a moral safety valve that essentially relieves pressure on the beneficiaries of today’s economic system to grapple in more meaningful ways with poverty or to make the kinds of real sacrifices (e.g., changing school zoning or tax laws) that might actually alleviate inequality. 

From this perspective, mentoring and other youth development programs’ emphasis on skills like “grit” and self-regulation can seem victim blaming. Although having such skills is often vitally important, the unintended consequence of this narrowcast may be to essentially expect mentees to muster the skills to blunt the effects of racial and economic inequality. As UCLA education professor Mike Rose asked, “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?” And, if marginalized children believe that the systems in which they grow up are fair, they may come to believe that they deserve their disadvantage and are themselves to blame for their struggles. In fact, a recent study found that sixth graders who adhered to the myth of meritocracythat hard work and perseverance lead naturally to successhad lower self-esteem and increased behavioral problems by the time they were eighth graders than counterparts who didn’t have such beliefs.

Taking stock of such issues in youth mentoring, Gary Walker the then president of Public/Private Ventures wrote:

“At its core, mentoring is a charitable act, a kindness to a stranger, improvement in the life of people one at a time—whereas what we need is social change, where change comes to larger groups of individuals all at once and….Mentoring as social policy, under this critique, is diversionary at best, reactionary at worst. Even if it is effective and does build confidence in social policy, it remains diversionary and/or reactionary because what it builds confidence in is the capacity of individuals to help individuals; it blunts the fundamental need for broader social change.”

As he points out, however, helping a young person while also doing what we can to address the broader contexts is not a zero-sum game. In fact, when equipped with targeted, evidence-based interventions, a well-trained volunteer mentor is one of our best hopes for “giving psychology away,” expanding the reach of effective mental health and other care to youth who need it most. Effective interventions have the potential to resolve early problems; they may even prevent a negative cascade of more severe difficulties. As Malcolm Gladwell observed: “A critic looking at these tightly focused, targeted interventions might dismiss them as Band-Aid solutions. But that phrase should not be considered a term of disparagement. The Band-Aid is an inexpensive, convenient, and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems.”

In other words, it is possible to hold an appreciation of the broader context and support for social justice, while also doing the immediate individual work that is absolutely essential to help young people thrive. And, by creating and supporting meaningful connections between middle-class adults and vulnerable youth, the field of mentoring is uniquely poised to bridge perspectives. In our increasingly class-, age- and culturally-segregated world, mentoring programs provide a channel for mutual understanding and respect across widely diverse ethnic, cultural, and economic lines. People tend to feel stronger empathy toward those who are similar to them and, from a distance, it is easier to dehumanize and blame. Mentoring can help counter that tendency. As advocates of mentoring, it is our moral obligation to do all all we can to understand and lift young lives while also working to create safer, more equitable contexts for healthy  development.