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

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.

Published by

Dr. Michael Wright

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. View all posts by Dr. Michael Wright

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