Is Mentoring a Noun or a Verb?

Since this past July's Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring when our group of researchers, practitioners, and technical assistance providers spent a week discussing traditional and non-traditional mentoring designs, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of mentoring in general. As someone who has been both a mentee (informal) and mentor (informal and formal) and have devoted a big part of my adult career to this concept, I know there can be great benefits as well as significant drawbacks, especially when mentoring is not done well. I also value models outside of what is considered traditional (one-to-one, community-based, voluntary), when they are implemented with intention and quality. However, during the SIYM week, for the first time, I really started thinking about the value of mentoring as a verb more than as a noun. (Thanks to SIYM Director, Dr. Tom Keller, for the exceptional phrase!)

In exploring several non-traditional mentoring programs, including the National Guard's Youth ChalleNGe, Friends of the Children, Check and Connect, My Life and Better Futures Projects, and Blue Ribbon Mentor Advocate, and in conversations with my esteemed peers and colleagues, the idea of supporting youth in developing their own futures through mentoring became clearer to me. 

An article that recently appeared in the New York Times, Obama Vs. Poverty, reminded me of this concept that I'm still thinking through: are non-traditional mentoring relationships more effective and in what contexts? In the article, several young people from the Chicago neighborhood where President Obama spent his community organizing days are profiled. Some are connected to adult mentors through Youth Advocates Programs, Inc. (YAP). YAP would be considered a non-traditional program: mentors are paid staff, they live in the same neighborhoods, and have experienced many of the same experiences as the youth, and the mentors often act in advocacy or even parental roles. While the article isn't focused on whether or not mentoring is helping, I would imagine that it does - in certain aspects that can help those young people be more resilient and develop their social networks, as well as the support to complete or continue their education. What I also wondered about is would this program work as well if the mentors were more typical of volunteers from what we see in most youth mentoring programs: white, upper-middle class, well-educated women? Or is there something the mentors profiled in the article bring - like modeling how to succeed from those environments or even just looking like the mentees - that other mentors couldn't?

Another thought from the SIYM: we know that mentoring is not a one-size-fits-all intervention already, but maybe what we think of as the essential concept of mentoring is not one-size-fits-all either. I've always felt strongly that traditional programs shouldn't expect their formal mentoring relationships to last a lifetime - sometimes they do and when it does, it's pretty remarkable! But, in emphasizing this one relationship that will provide everything mentoring possibly can (guidance, consistency, trust, fun, new opportunities), maybe we miss out on helping the young person understand something that may have a greater and longer-lasting value: knowing that this mentoring relationship can be replicated in future relationships. And how can we do this while not turning the relationship - the intervention - into something prescribed or artificial?

As you can tell, lots of great research, conversations, and connections from the 2012 SIYM!


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