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    The Trouble with Mentors & Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative

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    mybrotherskeeper

    President Obama Announcing his My Brother’s Keeper Initiative

    On May 30, 2014, President Barack Obama met with the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force to hear their 90-day report after launching the initiative. The report had all of the usual suspects as it outlined topics across the life-span from school readiness to elimination of structural barriers. Mentoring will figure as  an important part of the White House initiative, and t is my hope that we begin to get mentoring right. President Obama seems to have it about right when he stated,

     so that these young men, young boys, know somebody cares about them, somebody is thinking about them, and that they can succeed, and making America stronger as a consequence.

    The President seems to recognize the need for a community of caring, but I hope the “somebody” mentioned in his quote is cumulative. For mentors, I hope it is somebody who cares and who is thinking about the mentee while figuring out how to help them succeed. Only through implementing a structure of multiple mentors can we model and sustain success through mentoring.

    President Obama’s initiative for Black boys has renewed a discussion on the plight and structural barriers to success faced by minority males in the United States. Let me first clear up the only criticism that pundits have been able to advance to date: What about women and girls? The fact is The White House Council on Women and Girls was created March 11, 2009 through an executive order from the President in addition to host a White House Summit for Working Families later this month. Now, let’s get down to the work at hand.

    I had the opportunity to spend some time with Freshman at Tennessee State University giving a symposium on financial literacy. In all my presentations, I remind audiences that I know the best mentor alive: me. A student came up afterward and stated, “I have a mentor, but do you think I can get some help from you as well?” The question reminded me that many people still feel that having more than one person helping you out is the opposite of loyalty. The truth is successful people have many people who support them…in many and varied ways.

    My experience is that when you come from a background where loyalty, privacy, and ability to defend against invaders from outside the household is prized, you tend toward a view that “only mom” or “only dad” has my best interests at heart. If the target of the White House initiative are Black boys that grew up like me, it will be important to structure a system that educates the young person on what few adults have put into practice. I present the outline of the education here in 3 points: training mentors and mentees, systems navigation, and the power of networks.

    Training Mentors and Mentees

    I have news for would-be mentors. Your motivation for participation as a mentor may be detrimental to the sustainability of the mentee and the mentor-mentee relationship. Often, the motivation to become a mentor is to give back to another. What is implicit in that motivation is a possessiveness. As well, there is an insidious quid-pro-quo: If I give of my time and mentoring, you will do what I say and praise me as the person who was there for you. This is a natural human need–to be rewarded or at least appreciated for the contribution you have made. The problem with this is that it is not consistent with the realities of the world. If mentors and mentees are not taught another way, mentors will burn out attempting to be everything to their mentees. Mentees will focus on a single mentor as a matter of loyalty missing the lesson of network development.

    Instead of the simple pairing of mentor to mentee, a more sustainable process would be to build a network of mentors. Each with specific expertise and access. Sponsor open events that allow mentors to set up booths and pitch their expertise and networks to the mentees. Allow mentees to collect multiple business cards based on their interests. Have a life coach sit with the mentees later and map out a life plan listing each of the mentors and how they fit with the plan. The map would also identify areas that still need to a mentor assigned. This approach communicates to the mentee that mentoring is not about a one-person, focused sense of loyalty. It is about utilizing and honoring the multiple relationships needed for success.

    Systems Navigation

    Winning strategies for human development are centered in the idea of multiple mentors. The idea is that individual interaction with each system is enhanced when the individual is guided intentionally by another person. My hope is that the programs created or bolstered through the president’s initiative understand that the goal is to create communities of support, not just mentoring relationships. The goal is a community where we ALL have structural methods and opportunities to care for each young person. The goal is that no child feels that they have to succeed alone.

    The idea of mentoring is best centered, not in the individual mentor, but in the community-mindedness and structural safety of the systems that touch a child each day. For example:

    • Family mentors: These are effective resources for food security, funders from which to borrow money, and sponsors for activities and trips.
    • High School/college mentors: These are system guides for successful progression, references recommending for internships and employment, and instructors on how-to do tasks.
    • Career Mentors: These offer system guides in employment, collaborators for product creation and brainstorming, and advocates for promotion or social redress.
    • Friends as Mentors: These offer sustainable ways to blow off steam, connections to new networks, and a varied pool of  ideas.

    Power of Networks

    I hope for a two-fold understanding of networks in the White House Initiative: technology as connector for mentoring AND recognition of the “who you know.” My brother’s keeper, like the Council on Women and Girls before it, is slated to have two key technological interventions. The first is an

    Administration-wide ‘What Works’ online portal to disseminate successful programs and practices that improve outcomes for boys and young men of color.

    The second is

    comprehensive public website, to be maintained by the Department of Education, that will assess, on an ongoing basis, critical indicators of life outcomes for boys and young men of color in absolute and relative terms.

    These two are critical to the success and sustainability of the initiative. I am happy to see Annie E. Casey as a major partner on this initiative. They have recently produced a major report on racial disparities among youth in the United States.

    The second understanding of Networks will sustainably be implementation of my expanded view of the cliche, “It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.” I state,

    It’s not what you know or who you know. It’s who knows you and is willing to risk their reputation to develop yours. – Michael A. Wright

    What I communicate here is mentors have the task of launching the careers of their mentees. Mentees have the task to discern the relationships that will support, propel, and sustain their success. The task of the larger community is to structure a world that makes these tasks not just possible, but probable. In order to accomplish this, we have to retrain some of our fundamental assumptions about how mentoring works. We must organize around a community of caring. This organization will show through even in the ways that we solicit and engage mentors.

    You can also view the Presidents February 27th 2014 Fact Sheet by clicking here, and you can also sign up to be a mentor.

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    Dr. Michael Wright: Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is a Social Work Helper Contributor. He offers his expertise as an career coach, serial entrepreneur, and publisher through MAWMedia Group, LLC. Wright has maintained this macro practice consultancy since 1997. Wright lives in Reno, NV.

    Health

    Study Shows Immune Cells Against Covid-19 Stay High in Number Six Months After Vaccination

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    A recent study by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers provides evidence that CD4+ T lymphocytes — immune system cells also known as helper T cells — produced by people who received either of the two available messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines for COVID-19 persist six months after vaccination at only slightly reduced levels from two weeks after vaccination and are at significantly higher levels than for those who are unvaccinated.

    The researchers also found that the T cells they studied recognize and help protect against the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the delta variant — currently the predominant strain of SARS-CoV-2 in the United States — causes more infections and spreads faster than earlier forms of the virus.

    The study findings were first reported online Oct. 25, 2021, in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

    “Previous research has suggested that humoral immune response — where the immune system circulates virus-neutralizing antibodies — can drop off at six months after vaccination, whereas our study indicates that cellular immunity — where the immune system directly attacks infected cells — remains strong,” says study senior author Joel Blankson, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The persistence of these vaccine-elicited T cells, along with the fact that they’re active against the delta variant, has important implications for guiding COVID vaccine development and determining the need for COVID boosters in the future.”

    To reach these findings, Blankson and his colleagues obtained blood from 15 study participants (10 men and five women) at three times: prior to vaccination, between seven and14 days after their second Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine dose, and six months after vaccination. The median age of the participants was 41 and none had evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection.

    CD4+ T lymphocytes get their nickname of helper T cells because they assist another type of immune system cell, the B lymphocyte (B cell), to respond to surface proteins — antigens — on viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. Activated by the CD4+ T cells, immature B cells become either plasma cells that produce antibodies to mark infected cells for disposal from the body or memory cells that “remember” the antigen’s biochemical structure for a faster response to future infections. Therefore, a CD4+ T cell response can serve as a measure of how well the immune system responds to a vaccine and yields humoral immunity.

    In their study, Blankson and colleagues found that the number of helper T cells recognizing SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins was extremely low prior to vaccination — with a median of 2.7 spot-forming units (SFUs, the level of which is a measure of T cell frequency) per million peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs, identified as any blood cell with a round nucleus, including lymphocytes). Between 7 and 14 days after vaccination, the T cell frequency rose to a median of 237 SFUs per million PBMCs. At six months after vaccination, the level dropped slightly to a median of 122 SFUs per million PBMCs — a T cell frequency still significantly higher than before vaccination.

    The researchers also looked six months after vaccination at the ability of CD4+ T cells to recognize spike proteins atop the SARS-CoV-2 delta variant. They discovered the number of T cells recognizing the delta variant spike protein was not significantly different from that of T cells attuned to the original virus strain’s protein.

    Although the study was limited because of the small number of participants, Blankson feels it pinpoints areas that merit further research.

    “The robust expansion of T cells in response to stimulation with spike proteins is certainly indicated, supporting the need for more study to show booster shots do successfully increase the frequency of SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells circulating in the blood,” says Blankson. “The added bonus is finding that this response also is likely strong for the delta variant.”

    Along with Blankson, the members of the study team from Johns Hopkins Medicine are study lead author Bezawit Woldemeskel and Caroline Garliss.

    This study was supported by the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Vaccine-related Research Fund.

    The authors do not have financial or conflict of interest disclosures. 

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    Health

    Poverty, Racism and the Public Health Crisis in America

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    Although extreme poverty in the United States is low by global standards, the U.S. has the worst index of health and social problems as a function of income inequality. In a newly published article, Bettina Beech, clinical professor of population health in the Department of Health Systems and Population Health Sciences at the University of Houston College of Medicine and chief population health officer at UH, examines poverty and racism as factors influencing health.

    “A common narrative for the relatively high prevalence of poverty among marginalized minority communities is predicated on racist notions of racial inferiority and frequent denial of the structural forms of racism and classism that have contributed to public health crises in the United States and across the globe,” Beech reports in Frontiers in Public Health. “Racism contributes to and perpetuates the economic and financial inequality that diminishes prospects for population health improvement among marginalized racial and ethnic groups. The U.S. has one of the highest rates of poverty in the developed world, but despite its collective wealth, the burden falls disproportionately on communities of color.” The goal of population health is to achieve health equity, so that every person can reach their full potential.

    Though overall wealth has risen in recent years, growth in economic and financial resources has not been equally distributed. Black families in the U.S. have about one-twentieth the wealth of their white peers on average. For every dollar of wealth in white families, the corresponding wealth in Black households is five cents.

    “Wealth inequality is not a function of work ethic or work hour difference between groups. Rather, the widening gap between the affluent and the poor can be linked to unjust policies and practices that favor the wealthy,” said Beech. “The impact of this form of inequality on health has come into sharp focus during the COVID-19 pandemic as the economically disadvantaged were more likely to get infected with SARS CoV-2 and die.”

    A Very Old Problem 

    In the mid-1800’s, Dr. James McCune Smith wrote one of the earliest descriptions of racism as the cause of health inequities and ultimately health disparities in America. He explained the health of a person “was not primarily a consequence of their innate constitution, but instead reflected their intrinsic membership in groups created by a race structured society.”

    Over 100 years later, the Heckler Report, the first government-sanctioned assessment of racial health disparities, was published. It noted mortality inequity was linked to six leading causes of preventable excess deaths for the Black compared to the white population (cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, infant mortality, chemical dependency and homicide/unintentional injury).

    It and other reports led to a more robust focus on population health over the last few decades that has included a renewed interest in the impact of racism and social factors, such as poverty, on clinical outcomes.

    The Myth of Meritocracy

    Beech contends that structural racism harms marginalized populations at the expense of affording greater resources, opportunities and other privileges to the dominant white society.

    “Public discourse has been largely shaped by a narrative of meritocracy which is laced with ideals of opportunity without any consideration of the realities of racism and race-based inequities in structures and systems that have locked individuals, families and communities into poverty-stricken lives for generations,” she said. “Coupled with a lack of a national health program this condemns oppressed populations such as Black and Hispanic Americans, American Indians, and disproportionately non-English speaking immigrants and refugees to remain in poverty and suffer from suboptimal health.”

    Keys to Improvement

    The World Health Organization identified three keys to improving health at a global level that each reinforces the impact of socioeconomic factors: (1) improve the conditions of daily life; (2) tackle the inequitable distribution of power, money and resources; and (3) develop a workforce trained in and public awareness of the social determinants of health.

    The report’s findings highlight the need to implement health policies to increase access to care for lower-income individuals and highlight the need to ensure such policies and associated programs are reaching those in need.

    “Health care providers can directly address many of the factors crucial for closing the health disparities gap by recognizing and trying to mitigate the race-based implicit biases many physicians carry, as well as leveraging their privilege to address the elements of institutionalized racism entrenched within the fabric of our society, starting with social injustice and human indifference,” said Beech.

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    Mental Health

    When Giving Thanks, Don’t Forget Yourself

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    As we give thanks at the holidays, it’s easy to overlook someone important: your past self.

    While it’s well documented that gratitude toward others can improve wellbeing, two University of Florida scientists find that gratitude toward your past self also has benefits.

    Does thanking yourself seem a bit…selfish? The researchers, UF psychology professor Matt Baldwin, Ph.D., and undergraduate student Samantha Zaw, think not.

    “Despite the fact that past gratitude is self-focused, it reminds people that they’re part of a bigger story and that they have the power to grow,” Baldwin said. “It’s possible this promotes a pay-it-forward type of mentality.”

    Gratitude is what psychologists call a self-transcendent emotion, one that lifts us out of the everyday and expands our perspective, which can help us get along with each other better. In a recent experiment, Baldwin and Zaw asked participants to write brief gratitude letters. The first group thanked someone else, the second thanked themselves, while a third, the control condition, wrote about a positive experience they’d had. Zaw and Baldwin then surveyed the participants about their self-perception after writing the letter. Although the results are not yet published, early analysis shows that the exercise gave the other- and self-focused gratitude groups a sense of redemption and helped them feel they were morally good people. However, the group that wrote to themselves scored higher on both measures.

    The past-self group also saw a benefit the others didn’t: an increase in the self-awareness measures of clarity, authenticity and connectedness.

    “Unlike gratitude toward others, being appreciative of ourselves carries an added benefit of truly understanding who we are and feeling connected to ourselves,” said Zaw, a McNair Scholar who has been working with Baldwin since her freshman year as part of UF’s Emerging Scholars Program.

    Zaw and Baldwin’s research — the first known data gathered on past-self gratitude — was inspired by a Reese’s cup. When Baldwin’s co-worker, boredom researcher Erin Westgate, returned to the office after pandemic lockdown, she was delighted to discover a peanut butter cup she had squirreled away in her desk.

    “She texted me like, ‘Oh my gosh, my past self left my future self a Reese’s,’” Baldwin recalled. “I was like, ‘Wait a second. You’re expressing gratitude towards something your past self had done. We have to study this.’”

    As Zaw and Baldwin dug into previous studies, they found plenty on gratitude toward others and a few on self-compassion, but nothing on past-self gratitude. They designed the letter-writing experiment to test its effects, presenting their findings at the Society of Southeastern Social Psychologists in October and at the upcoming meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in February.

    If you’re curious about the benefits of self-gratitude, Zaw offered a way to try the experiment at home, maybe as a new Thanksgiving tradition. Take a few minutes to write a thank you message to someone else, and another to yourself for something you did in the past. Sharing what you wrote could foster connections between loved ones, she said, but the exercise can also pay dividends if you try it on your own.

    “At Thanksgiving and Christmas, we focus on other people, but self-care is really needed too, especially if we want to feel more clear about ourselves,” she said. “Maybe it can even lead to a better vision for ourselves for the next year.”

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