By January 6, 2018 9 Comments Read More →

Mentoring in the age of inequality

by Jean Rhodes

For the past year, I’ve been writing a book on mentoring and, as I pull together the many threads of history, social policy, and research, an interesting picture is emerging. One that raises uncomfortable questions about mentoring in the age inequality.

Mentoring as a field can trace its lineage to the progressive era politics of early 1900’s, and the growing American discomfort with wealth inequality, which had characterized the preceding 30 years. Even now the stars of this gilded age (e.g., Rockefeller; Carnegie; Vanderbilt) remain familiar, but there were growing demands for more progressive tax policies, a breakup of monopolies, and an end to the corrupting influence of money in American politics. Under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt, a national spirit of citizenship and charity had taken hold, and young businessmen had become ad hoc champions of the less advantaged boys of their cities. Within this zeitgeist, volunteers rarely thought that a lack of grit, self-esteem, motivation, or any internal attribute was the root cause of their mentees’ struggles. More frequently, they saw delinquency and other problems as symptoms of grinding poverty, exploitive child labor practices, crowded immigrant family tenements, Jim Crow laws, and the yawning gaps in wealth and opportunity. Consequently, Big Brothers often behaved more like social workers than the once-a-week, lighter touch volunteers of today. In fact, the nation’s original “Big Brother,” Irv Westheimer, didn’t even begin helping his mentee, Tom, until he had stabilized the boy’s family.

Broad public support for more equitable economic policies extended through much of the 20th Century, during which many families enjoyed rising wages and wealth security and, by the 1930’s,  a narrowing of the gap between the rich and poor. But, beginning in the late 1970s, many factors, including a decline in American industrial jobs, a flattening of average wages, a renewed influx of money into politics, and the growth of information technology conspired to create a long, steady decline in the middle class. Reagan era reductions in income taxation and consequent retrenchment in welfare redistribution helped to further widen the inequality gap.


And, as was the case at the turn of the century, the broader social and economic context influenced approaches to mentoring . By the late 1980’s, with poverty and social problems on the rise, there was a clarion call for volunteer mentors and a rapid expansion of programs. But this time, it was not in the context of progressivism and concerns about rising income inequality. Instead, mentoring was seen as a relatively cost efficient way to address the needs of the growing ranks of youth who were being thrust into poverty while minimizing tax-intensive government expenditures on public education, health, housing and safety nets. Consistent with the times, the public embraced formulations and solutions that highlighted individual frailty and redemption over structural impediments and change. And, because mentoring located the problem (a lack of role models) and solution (deployment of predominately middle-class volunteers) at the personal level, it fit neatly popular notions of equal opportunity for upward mobility. Psychology’s growing attention to children’s attitudes and attributes aligned with this focus on the decontextualized child. Social psychologists refer to our tendency to focus on individual, dispositional factors and to deemphasize the social context as the fundamental attribution error. It draws our attention away from the profound opportunity gaps and structural inequalities, and from the cultivation of positive resources in children’s broader environments.

Consequently, whereas Westheimer first helped to stabilize his mentee’s family and then opened his social network to his mentee, the focus of the modern mentoring movement has been squarely on the child. To the extent that families and communities are considered, they are generally seen as the benign or even risky backdrop to the mentor and youth dyad. With a few notable exceptions (e.g., Professor Renee Spencer, Thomas Keller), the role of parents and families has also been largely absent from the research literature on formal youth mentoring.  The same goes for children’s neighborhoods and schools—which are often seen as problems to escape rather than settings to strengthen and cultivate (Hurd & Albright, 2016; Schwartz & Rhodes, 2016).

Ernest Coulter, another key founder of Big Brothers, once wrote that a society that “warps, thwarts, and denies the future citizen basic rights is to blame,” and that “every crowded, ill-ventilated tenement is a tax upon the future.” He urged people to see the society, not just the child, as “delinquent.” Such critiques were less risky when they aligned with the prevailing sentiments of the times. But the modern day mentoring movement was launched and continues to operate during a period of rising inequality, and formulations that privilege individual deficits over structural impediments. Of course, much has improved in our society and our mentoring programs over the past 40 years. But, as we celebrate our successes in mentoring, we must also retain the courage to challenge the forces of inequality.


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9 Comments on "Mentoring in the age of inequality"

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  1. Colin MacFarlane says:

    Absolutely brilliant article and resonates with a lot of the thinking that is taking place in Scotland right now. The idea of challenging the social situations for our young people, families and communities seems to be taking root with some of our statutory partners. Organisations like the NHS are beginning to relate the Adverse Childhood Experiences, (ACE’s), that young people face with significant health issues in later life, while our colleagues in the Police are trying to downstream work to prioritise early intervention.
    Let’s keep trying to support our young people to critically think about the society they are living in, while engaging with them to develop their full potential.

  2. April Riordan says:

    Looking forward to your book! Thank you for this post.
    And so glad to already have Torie Weiston-Serdan’s work on #criticalmentoring to guide our work.

  3. Colleen OKeefe says:

    Recently I heard a podcast talking about a long term study of mentoring that showed that although there were short term gains, there wasn’t long term gains as we imagine. I think of the importance of natural, permanent, non-paid adult supports in youth’s lives and wonder how we can utilize those relationships better. So often there is an end date for a mentoring relationship. Youth need forever adults in their lives. And yes, early childhood, family supports, youth activities are all critical.

  4. Thanks for the historical perspective. I started leading a volunteer based tutoring program in Chicago in 1975, after joining as a volunteer tutor in 1973. Over my first few years of leading the program I recognized that our volunteers were mentors first, trying to help young people build aspirations and motivations that might help them be more successful learners. As that happened, they then could offer tutoring support.

    I started using the term “tutor/mentor” instead of “tutor” or “mentor”.

    Since our kids lived in a high poverty neighborhood I also learned that as kids grow up many family and community influences that are not common in more affluent areas affected youth in many negative ways. Thus, a volunteer was frequently mentoring, to help the young person cope with things happening in his/her life, before she could be tutoring.

    Over time I began to see that some volunteers became much more involved in the lives of kids and families and schools. Others became more involved in helping keep the program operating from year to year.

    Thus, I began to think that there were many roles volunteers might take beyond the one or two hours a week they were spending with kids, and I began to believe that without taking these roles, our programs would have less impact on long-term futures than was needed.

    As a result I’ve been building a library of research articles, along with “how to” articles, since the mid 70s. In my weekly newsletters I encouraged volunteers to look at these articles. In 1998 when I built the first Tutor/Mentor Connection web site I began to put this library on line and my newsletters to volunteers and fellow programs encouraged them to read this research, and to share it with others. That library now has more than 2000 links, divided into four main categories, which are shown on this map.

    One of those links is a 2010 paper by Civic Enterprises titled ” Untapped Potential: Filling the Promise of Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Biggs and Littles they Represent.”

    I think it shares this “need” to do more and applies to more programs than BBBS.

    I don’t know how many programs have a strategy of on-going education of volunteers about issues kids (and the programs) face, but hope many will develop this.

    Our volunteers represent an huge resource of talent and influence who could be consistently going back to their work, family, faith and alumni networks to educate others about the reasons tutor/mentor programs are needed, where they are needed, and the many challenges kids and families face. Over time this could lead to much larger, broader and more consistent support for kids, and the programs that seek to help them.

  5. Steve Hamilton says:

    Thank you, Jean. The very real and very appealing aspects of close one-to-one relationships can distract attention from the inequitable contexts in which young people grow up. I heard Urie Bronfenbrenner’s voice in the background while reading your essay, and George Albee’s, of course.

  6. Thank you for this thought-provoking and challenging message- it’s one I think we need to keep hearing. For someone who works in a mentoring program serving families who have been homeless, your call to look at systems (schools, housing, neighborhoods etc) is welcomed. I also appreciate your focus on recognizing the role systems play and the call to strengthen and cultivate those systems which can either support or hurt families. THank you- I look forward to reading your book!

  7. Jimmy Volmink says:

    Spot on Jean! I work with youth in Khayelitsha, a shanty township near Cape Town and see the dire effects of social disadvantage on young people who are trying hard to improve their lives. As mentors we must absolutely focus on both the individual and the context.

  8. Bill Cox says:

    I am in the second year of being a mentor to a now sophomore at an academy for “under privileged youth”. He came to high school woefully unprepared, low reading skills, low self esteem, and low motivation and no idea of what
    he wanted for his future. As I learn more about his history, I often feel like I am fighting a losing battle as his background has largely shaped who he is. The goal of the mentor2.0 program is to help prepare the student for
    college or a trade school. I fear he may not even be able to graduate.
    Your article hits home for me. Early childhood education, family counseling, availability of youth activities are in dire need of assistance.

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