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New research evaluates impact of pairing at-risk youth with survivors of the Holocaust

A Social-Justice Informed Evaluation of a Mentorship-Based Program Pairing At-Risk Youth and Holocaust Survivors

Morgan-Consoli et al., 2016

Summarized by Rachel Rubin

 

Background:

Mentoring programs have been shown to have positive outcomes for youth, such as improving youths’ relationships with adults and peers. The mentoring literature specifically exploring cross-cultural community mentoring between under-represented youth and adult mentors, especially programs using a social justice programming perspective, has been less established.

One particular mentoring program–Mis Tres Caras (MTC)–conceptualized and created by Wolfson and the local Jewish federation, was developed as an approach to address social issues of marginalized youth in the community. Jewish Holocaust survivors, themselves victims of oppression and discrimination, who lived in the community felt they could offer something to these youth who were having difficulty staying in school and out of legal trouble. Therefore, a mentorship program was created pairing these Holocaust survivors with predominantly Latinx, at-risk youth in the community for six to eight weeks.

Each group in the program consisted of 4-8 participants. Mentors were not paired specifically with the youth, however, through interactions in group formats (e.g., discussions around coping with discrimination), mentoring relationships developed organically between youth and adults. Throughout the program, mentors shared their stories and youth participated in discussions and creative projects.

Although Wolfson’s (2011) report about the program revealed its positive initial benefits, the program was not formally evaluated. Therefore, this study is a formal evaluation of the MTC program. These goals of the study included 1) assessing the program’s implementation from the perspective of the mentors and mentees, 2) identifying the impacts of the program, and 3) creating a list of “lessons learned” to use to guide future program development and improvement, especially reflecting on the social justice framework of the program.

 

Method:

The program was evaluated using qualitative, community based research methodology. Participants were recruited using a purposeful sampling method in which researchers described the study to youth in the MTC program and then invited them to participated in focus groups. The MTC program director connected researchers with Holocaust survivor mentors. Participants included five youth (80% male; 15-18 years old) and three Holocaust survivor mentors (100% female).

In order to explore experiences in the program, the youth participated in semi-structured focus groups and the Holocaust survivor mentors participated in semi-structured interviews. Focus groups and interviews included questions regarding participants’ experiences with the MTC program including what changes youth had experienced from participation and what sorts of relationships developed between youth and adults. Interview and focus group data were analyzed using consensual qualitative research (CQR), a method that emphasizes participant voice.

 

Results:

The researchers identified three domains from the data: 1) program impact, 2) program recommendations, and 3) understanding of the MTC goal. These domains were broken down into categories by the researchers. In addition, youth mentee and adult mentor perspectives were separated to show the distinction in responses.

In regard to program impact, youth discussed that participation positively changed their attitude about others (e.g., increasing empathy and improving relationships) as well as their attitudes about themselves (e.g.. feeling more empowered, increasing gratitude). Mentors discussed that participation led to the formation of positive bonds with youth, an increased openness to diversity (i.e., changed their perspective about marginalized youth), and overall a gratifying experience.

In regard to program recommendations, youth and mentors both identified helpful and problematic program components. Youth discussed the group format of mentorship and projects as helpful program components that they thought improved program effectiveness. That is, youth reflected that they benefited from personal attention and storytelling, making them feel supported by the adult mentors. In regard to problematic program components, youth discussed that the initial program atmosphere was not as comfortable as it could have been (i.e., wanted an introduction before being asked to share personal experiences). In addition, some youth discussed unmet expectations, or feeling as though the MTC program did not match up with the description of what they were told to expect (e.g., an art class).

Mentors described several helpful aspects of the program including the creative activities they felt positively impacted youth, engaging teens and getting on their level, and the unique background of the survivors, which they felt facilitated the youth being receptive to the program. Mentors discussed logistical and programmatic issues such as frequent changes in MTC leadership, low youth enrollment, and transportation issues for youth as problematic program components. In regard to understanding of the MTC goal, youth and survivor mentors had different perceptions. Some of the goals participants mentioned included learning to be respectful, teaching youth to function in society, understanding prejudice.

 

Discussion:

The researchers noted several “lessons learned” that may be helpful to others interested in creating programs addressing social issues and building bridges among marginalized communities. Overall, researchers learned that this type of mentorship program resulted in a bidirectional learning process between youth and survivor mentors. The program helped youth and adults learn about the struggles each other face. In addition, youth discussed that the empathy and respect for others they gained from the program generalized to other relationships in their lives.

Further, a particularly important outcome of this study was that the extreme power differentials promoted realizations and new perspectives. For example, youth discussed learning that someone who seemed so different from them could have similar experiences while survivor mentors discussed that they gained greater empathy for Latinx youth and increased their openness to diversity.

Another important aspect of the program included youth feeling empowered by hearing the survivors’ stories, noting parallels in their own lives, and subsequently thinking that they could “do it” too. These lessons can be used by future program developers in thinking about who to include in mentorship programming.

In addition, researchers learned that attention to logistics (e.g., transportation) is an essential aspect of programming. This lesson is important for future program developers and researchers in that it is important to consider how access and other logistics affect the effects of the program. Further, researchers learned that setting clear expectations of the program is essential. That is, youth are more likely to benefit from and appreciate the program if consistent and clear ideas about the purpose of the program are put forth at the beginning.

Finally, especially when developing programs for marginalized groups, it is vital to include programming that facilitates feelings of comfort and safety. Future programs can include more “ice breaker” activities in order to help youth feel safe before being asked to engage in self-disclosure.

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