I am just returning from a day-long summit at the White House. The summit was sponsored by FLOTUS’s office and was titled Beating the Odds: Successful Strategies from Schools & Youth Agencies that Build Ladders of Opportunity. The summit was part of the First Lady’s Reach Higher Initiative(https://www.whitehouse.gov/reach-higher) which broadly focuses on encouraging ALL youth to seek post-secondary education as a means to support a successful transition to adulthood. Mentoring was well represented in attendance at the summit (mentoring researchers in attendance included David DuBois, Nancy Deutsch, Noelle Hurd, Thomas Keller, Renee Spencer, and Patrick Tolan) and in the content of presentations and conversations throughout the day. David DuBois spoke on an invited panel regarding the role of volunteer mentoring in helping youth successfully transition to adulthood. His talk highlighted the importance of training mentors to attend to youths’ sparks (i.e., hidden strengths) and to effectively model a growth mindset (i.e., the idea that with practice, effort, and support from important others, we can grow our most basic abilities).
Beyond specific attention to volunteer mentoring, it was compelling to see how often other presenters mentioned supportive relationships with nonparental adults as fundamental to promoting successful transitions to adulthood, particularly among marginalized youth. A morning panel featured individuals who had “beat the odds” by successfully transitioning to adulthood despite experiencing extreme adversity in their childhood. Though the panelists each experienced unique challenges throughout their youth, one commonality across their experiences was the central role that one or several supportive adults played in their lives. They talked about various program staff who showed them they cared by setting high expectations for them and committing to doing “whatever it took” to help them achieve those expectations. This theme continued to re-emerge throughout the day across various panels and breakout sessions. Youth workers talked about the challenges they experienced in providing support to the least-resourced youth. They also described their passion and unwavering commitment to make a difference in the lives of young people who had tremendous potential but unequal opportunity due to poverty-related stressors, institutional discrimination, and limited access to resources.
Toward the end of the day, I attended a breakout session focused on the role of program staff in helping youth succeed in the face of adversity. We heard from a number of experienced program staff as well as individuals who had benefited from the specific efforts of effective program staff. We wrapped up the session by outlining various recommendations for practice and policy. Some key recommendations that emerged included
- the need for greater support and resource provision to program staff (e.g., mentoring for mentors)
- screening and training of program staff to ensure that they are passionate about their role and authentic in their interactions with youth
- the cultivation of opportunities for junior leadership and youth voice in youth-serving programs and
- the need for program staff to engage with youths’ families and entire communities.
Notable policy recommendations included
- a move toward professionalizing youth workers such that this becomes more of a viable career path
- federal funding for more comprehensive place-based programs that may not be widely scalable but that provide intensive services to specific populations of youth in communities experiencing heightened disadvantage and
- the provision of a tax credit or student loan reduction to individuals who volunteered to work with marginalized youth
On the whole, the summit strongly underscored the role of supportive relationships with nonparental adults in helping youth facing adversity to “beat the odds.” Yet as one panelist noted, there is a need to move the conversation from “beating the odds” to “changing the odds.” In essence, opportunity structures should not be unequal and we need to think more about policies and practices that can be put in place to ensure that all youth have equal odds to succeed. As much as informal and formal mentors may be a part of the “beating the odds” equation, we should think more about their role in “changing the odds.”