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Are Current Mentoring Models Bad for Kids’ Health?

MARCH 7, 2017
BY: BERNADETTE SÁNCHEZ, PHD, NMRC RESEARCH BOARD MEMBER & PROFESSOR AT DEPAUL UNIVERSITY

Editor's Note: Several members of the NMRC Research Board participated in the 2017 National Mentoring Summit this past February, leading a research track that featured OJJDP-funded research and totaled 13 workshops across the multi-day event. We asked several Research Board members to share their key insights from the event based on a workshop they lead, an innovation they learned about, or a conversation they had with an attendee that made them think about the mentoring field in a new light. We will run several of these stories over the months of March and April in the NMRC blog to bring the Summit to life for those who could not attend.

Recent longitudinal studies show that Black adolescents and adults from low socioeconomic backgrounds who are resilient are also more likely to get physically sick. However, White adolescents and adults from similar backgrounds are immune to this negative outcome. For example, a study of Black, low-income adolescents revealed that those who were resilient (as demonstrated by high aspirations, unwavering persistence, investment in education, and avoidance of activities that sidetrack success) were also more likely to have type 2 diabetes as adults compared to Black adolescents who didn’t have these resilient traits. This trend didn’t emerge for White, low-income adolescents who were resilient. Other studies show similar patterns between White and Black participants. What explains these trends? Researchers speculate that Black, low-income resilient youth may feel enormous pressure to succeed, may feel socially isolated as they transition to new settings (e.g., college), and may encounter racism, which could ultimately leave them exhausted and neglect their physical health.

What do these studies mean for the mentoring field? Are we teaching mentees skills to help them be resilient despite their stressful environments? Perhaps mentoring programs will help them achieve positive behavioral outcomes (e.g., better grades), but will they also make them sick?

I attended a critical mentoring workshop by Torie Weiston-Serdan and Steve Vassor at the National Mentoring Summit earlier this year, and they stated that, “current mentoring practices are teaching youth to assimilate to toxic environments.” Many mentoring programs target poor, Black and Brown kids who face many stressors in their homes and communities. Weiston-Serdan and Vassor argue that rather than teach mentees the skills to deal with their toxic environments, we (e.g., mentors, program administrators, executive directors, educators) should help to change these environments. They argue that there are 3 parts to critical mentoring: a) youth centrism, b) intersectionality, and c) altered mentoring conversations.

Youth centrism means that mentees have leadership roles in developing and implementing mentoring programs. For example, in a school-based mentoring program that I helped to evaluate, the Brotherhood, students play a leadership role by generating session topics and designing and carrying out some of the mentoring sessions. Other organizations may have youth sit on their Board of Directors (e.g., Youth Mentoring Action Network). Intersectionality means that mentoring programs consider the overlapping and interdependent social categories (e.g., race, class, sexuality, religion) that influence youth’s experiences. Thus, Weiston-Serdan argued that mentoring programs targeting boys of color shouldn’t only consider race and gender, but sexuality and (dis)ability too, for example. Finally, altered mentoring conversations refer to conversations in which the focus is on the needs of youth; that is, mentors ask, “Why do you want a mentor? What do you need from me?” This reminds me of Morrow and Styles’ (1995) classic study that found the importance of developmental relationships between mentors and mentees, in which mentees had a say in the activities they engaged in and mentors were also attentive to mentees’ needs. Altered mentoring conversations also means that mentors encourage youth to get involved with social activism to help change their toxic environments; just like when elders encouraged young people to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The mentoring field needs to revisit the purpose of mentoring and how we can make a bigger and healthier impact on kids. How can our field advocate for social justice? We need to do more than teach our kids skills to put up with their toxic environments.


Bernadette Sánchez, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology at DePaul University, and a member of the NMRC Research Board. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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