So I have “mentored” three young men for the past twelve years. They rank in the top five joys and blessings of my life. I love them so much and think they are just so amazing beyond words. That said, it has been hard. Very very hard. For them. For me. These are my thoughts on that process and on the “afterschool tutoring”/”mentoring disadvantaged kids” trend that is quite popular these days. This is a tad long, but I think worth it, as it is one of the areas I am most passionate about and actually know a little about.
First a note on terminology: I put “at risk” and “work” in quotes because I’m not sure if either of those are the greatest terms to describe what I am talking about, but I can’t think of others that work better. I think we label inner-city and/or minority kids “at risk” and it turns them into Those At Risk Kids rather than just people trying to make their way in the world. That said, kids whose families are poor, kids who grow up in the inner-city, and/or kids who are part of a minority ethnicity/race, face a whole host of factors that stack the cards against them, and it is important to acknowledge that they are up against a lot that has really nothing to do with who they are and everything to do with the way our society is structured. I say “what does it take to make mentoring “work”?” because the whole idea of what is a “success” that has really “worked” makes it seem like mentoring is meant to churn our “good” members of society. This is a problem. I wanted the boys I mentored to be happy, safe, and feel loved, like most people want for people/children who they care about. Part of this is the hope that their criminal record would be non-existent or minor, that they wouldn’t have children earlier than they were ready, that they wouldn’t be involved in drug sales (one of the only lucrative jobs available to them with the sort of sucky inner-city education they got), that they could have a job that make them happy and feel secure, that they would find a partner they loved, etc. This is different than the grappling, desperate hope of preventing “those kids” from becoming criminals, which is the underlying message/goal of lots of inner-city mentoring/after school programs.
So, enough with terminology. I think you get the point.
The main thing I wanted to raise in this post is that afterschool tutoring programs and mentoring programs mostly serve the purpose of exposing privileged teenagers to social injustices. The best result of this is that they are more aware of these social injustices and aware that they are structural issues (and not because poor/minority folks are lazy or bad parents, etc.). This is actually important because I can’t think of any other way to get privileged people to understand their privilege, and to understand social injustice other than getting to know people different from them. Volunteer programs help with this and the good ones help volunteers reflect on this, and integrate it into their world view. The idea would be to produce volunteers who will be moved enough by their experiences to want to change the world.
What these programs usually don’t do is actually help the kids have any more stability in their lives, get better grades or be less “at risk.” I know that there are exceptions, but by and large, these programs do not actually help the kids. The best programs realize this, and instead do the programs with the knowledge that it is mostly about volunteers learning from communities, with a sometimes side-benefit of actually supporting those communities in the struggle for the justice that they deserve.
The programs mostly don’t work because, first, the schools that poor and minority kids go to are so bad that a little tutoring here and there by high school students cannot even begin to compensate for the inadequate education that kids from inner-city schools get. (How do I know this? The book Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol deals with this extensively, and I did the research for the book so I’ve poured over these stats and narrative accounts, and studies, um, a lot.)
Another reason they don’t work is because, there is a lot of talk about “loving the kids” and “building relationships” in these programs, but this doesn’t work if you volunteer for one semester, or even a year or two. As cute as the kids may be, “loving them” involves more than showing up once a week to tutor them. And they know it. Many kids from the inner-city have seen hundreds of people come and go, bearing gifts of bicycles, candy, fun games, parties, tutoring books (and often the message of Jesus). They are onto the game. They live it up. Play along. Hug you and smile, but they know that when it gets hard, the tutoring people aren’t around. Not when Dad goes to jail. Not when Mom looses her job, when the phone gets cut off, when the shots ring out.
Someone said something like this to me early in my conversion to Christianity when I was still trying hard to do everything everyone at my church told me to. They said, “Lots of people come and go in these kids lives. You need to be there for them.” So, when I got my first group of tutoring kids I decided, “Okay, these are my kids.” This is not to say, “Oh what a hero I am” but to say that mentoring can’t work unless it is for the long haul. Late night calls. Money transfers. Going out to Chucky Cheese even when you are so tired and just want to rest. Answering the hard questions and confused tears about why we are always stopped by the police – black kids with a white girl. Explaining to the people at ice cream store that we will not leave and you can’t just ban people from your store just because. Knowing when to be the tough big sister or when to just listen. Not having any idea what you are doing and needing to just keep going anyway. And explaining for the five millionth time why you cannot call each other gay even if you “don’t mean anything” by it.
Is mentoring some sort of answer? I would say absolutely not. It is great if you can do it. If you stick with it, love unconditionally, are willing to help financially, emotionally, even on those days when you are tired, and even when the mentorees make the ten thousandth bad decision (as most kids will do), it can “work.” It is the most rewarding thing in my life – the young men bring me more joy than I can put into words. I LOVE to laugh with them, and I am not a huge laugh-er. I think my presence and never-ending-even-when-it-seems-stupid belief in them has made a difference. But they still struggle SO MUCH because being poor in the United States is hard. Being black is hard. It’s like no matter how hard they try, there is often something else that just knocks them down. And there is only so much I can do, they can do, their moms can do. And my love and commitment to them hasn’t done much or even almost anything to change the system. And it has taken a whole lotta energy. I do it because I love them and they love me, but it is so so so frustrating to see that EVERY OTHER KID they know and I know from the tutoring program where I met them is not doing well. Pregnant very young. Shot. Jail. Abused. No decent educations. We sometimes go over the kids that we all knew, and we can’t come up with anyone doing well. It is depressing.
I don’t mean this to be some sort of authoritative article on mentoring or that I am some sort of guru. It is just that I don’t hear a lot of people sticking with the mentoring thing through elementary school all the way to college. It makes me upset to see mentoring programs that are all self-congratulatory and then don’t even have a long-term way to maintain contact with the kids. That is FINE if you don’t want to be in it for the long-haul, but if you want to make a difference, the long-haul is what it will take. I guess I am looking for more honesty about what these sorts of mentoring/tutoring programs can and can’t do for communities and their children. And honesty about what it really takes to make a dent in the numbing barrage of injustices that far too many children face every single day.
May we continue to do the hard work of love and justice wherever and however we can.