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Mentoring Black Male Youth: Are Your Stars in the Game?

MARCH 13, 2017
BY: POLLY Y. GIPSON, PHD CLINICAL ASSISTANT PROFESSOR/LICENSED CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST, DIRECTOR, TRAUMA AND GRIEF CLINIC, DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHIATRY, MICHIGAN MEDICINE, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN

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.

“The Urgency to Redefine Support for Black Male Achievement in Mentoring,” was a compelling presentation delivered at the National Mentoring Summit 2017 by L-Mani S. Viney, Executive Director of the Kappa Alpha Psi Foundation. Viney challenged Black male youth mentoring programs and donors/grant funders supporting these programs to reconsider their definitions of achievement. That is, to critically think about how Black males are selected for “mentorship” and whether the criteria stem from deficit-based models. For example, were these Black males selected because they are deemed “at risk?” According to Viney, too often we fall into this trap. He challenged us to move toward asset-based models. Viney assessed which stakeholders were in the room and issued a call to educational, philanthropic and grantee agencies to shift toward an utilization of asset-based data to drive programming and funding decisions as well as practice elements. Viney strongly encouraged grantmakers to reassess their funding guidelines to broaden their definitions for mentoring programs supporting boys of color. Examples Viney provided of deficit versus asset-based criteria included, at risk vs. high achievement; low high school graduation rate vs. college completion; and drug use/gang activity vs. honors society/career advancement.

Per Viney, too often high achieving Black male youth are virtually invisible when it comes to their inclusion in mentoring programs because they are either viewed monolithically as their “at risk” counterparts, or they are considered not being in need of this level of support give their current successes. Viney illustrations were brought to life with basketball analogies in which he reminded us that the best talents are rarely left sitting on the bench. In fact, Viney indicated that a shift to be inclusive of Black male high achievers is imperative to ensure that these youths who are typically labeled as doing “ok” are not overlooked in terms of mentorship. Viney warned us about the dangers of the “tyranny of ok,” underscoring that our Black male high achievers cannot reach their fullest potential without aid from mentoring. Why should a high achieving Black male youth attend his local community college, when he could attend Harvard, Viney queried? Why isn’t he in Advanced Placement high school courses, he asked?

While Viney acknowledged that for some Black male mentees, high school graduation might be the goal, he implored us to think outside the box and raise the achievement bar! He urged us to redefine and diversify what we regard as achievement for black male youth. That is, he recommended that we look deeper beyond high school graduation as the outcome. This may require more refined training in cultural competencies, particularly at the philanthropic level. We must move beyond the individual level to the systematic and structural levels, Viney stated, to ensure that we do not allow Black male youth to become “victims of success.” That is, their broader contexts should be considered, as Viney spoke about the neighborhoods with elevated rates of community violence where some high achieving Black males may reside. The impact of traumatic exposure and stress on our Black male youth had personal resonance with my perspective as a clinical psychologist. Tragically, recent data indicates that two-thirds of youth will experience a traumatic event by the age of 17 (for full report see Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence (2012). Report of the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children’s Exposure to Violence. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved at http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/defendingchildhood/legacy/2012/12/12/cev-executive-sum.pdf).

Viney eloquently spoke about the traumatic stress that too many of our Black male youth might be experiencing. He also gave voice to Black male youth suicide sharing personal narratives about youth and their families he knew whose sons completed suicide despite outward appearances of “success.” Again a program may be too quick to regard its Black male mentees as doing “ok,” but fail to consider the broader contexts in which they live, learn and play. Research informs us that traumatic stress impacts youths’ healthy development in a myriad of ways. Like Viney I agree that mentoring programs may offer support to high achieving Black male youth impacted by behavioral health-related challenges. Having someone or someplace where Black male youth can take off their masks with the hope of lightening their burdens could be lifesaving.

So how might one elevate their achievement expectations for young Black males? Viney called for the application of diverse approaches such as individually tailored mentoring plans. He advised that mentors become more equipped with tools to co-facilitate their Black male mentees’ opportunities to achieve their maximum potential. Viney highlighted underlying factors that contribute to Black males’ academic success. For example, one recommendation was for mentoring programs to join the National Association for College Admission Counseling (www.ncacnet.org), an organization that provides greater access to college admissions staff. Viney shared personal anecdotes of the fruitfulness of NCAC for Black male youth whom he has mentored. Likewise, he encouraged attendees to not shy away from utilizing their existing connections as well as forming new connections that may catapult Black male mentees to even greater opportunities for achievement. As the Black male motivational speaker Les Brown reminds us, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars!” Let’s ensure that our Black male youth stars are indeed in the mentoring game.

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