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The Discipline of Mentoring (Part I)

“There must always be room for judgment, but judgment aided—and even enhanced—by procedure.” Dr. Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

Any individual or organization planning a mentoring program should first read the report commissioned by The Mentoring Center in 2000, which found “two distinct areas of challenge within the general field of mentoring and the mentoring agencies that make up the field.” The first, which essentially leads into the latter and is the most striking, was the need for a general acknowledgment, among people within the mentoring community and outside of it, of the practice of mentoring as an “emerging discipline,” one with a codified body of procedures of a kind typical to any profession. The second area of challenge was the “current condition, pressures and capacities of the mentoring agencies” in the field.

The report calls for both volunteers and professionals involved in mentoring to take a critical, managerial look at mentoring as more than a hobby or a “good cause.” “Our research has revealed that the field of mentoring is generally lacking [a] systematic approach, a ‘science’ if you will…”

It would be a mistake to think that because mentoring starts with one human being positively intervening in the life of another that is where it ends. Individual judgment is only the start. What must accompany any attempt to organize a mentoring organization or group or one-on-one relationship is a disciplined, critical approach toward establishing effective procedure. The “how” is just as important as the “why”—purpose shouldn't submerge method; it should burnish it.

This means focusing on the same concepts that businesses focus on during the planning process—delivery systems, supply chains, infomatics, efficiency. One of the few differences is that a mentor’s “bottom line” isn’t monetary profit. It’s the common good. During the next several weeks, I’ll evaluate several important aspects of effective programming—with much of my research culled from Tutor/Mentor’s virtual library.

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Here is the link to my next blog that talks about the SNA analysis of May 09 and Nov 09 conference. I have mapped both the conferences on the basis of conference attendees,geographical distribution, tutor/mentor programs, donors, speakers and tutor/mentor program participants from different poverty areas of Chicago.
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Senator Moynihan's Redux

Like other intellectuals whose legacies have been marginalized, even mired, when the conditions of the world proved not very amenable, or outright hostile, to their theories, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan spent some time in the valley of misunderstanding, the fear of which, for most thinkers, is overshadowed only by total irrelevance.

His 1965 study on black poverty prepared for the Johnson administration, in which he attributed the disintegration of the black family as a primary factor in black social misery—“The breakdown of the Negro family is the principal cause of all the problems of delinquency, crime, school dropouts, unemployment and poverty which are bankrupting our cities”—opened him up to public castigation, particularly from the left. In a recent New York Times review of a book of letters by the Senator—Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, edited by Steven R. Weisman—David Brooks writes that the report “unleashed a wave of fury” and accusations that Moynihan was a racist.

Moynihan’s notion that a culture of poverty might be to blame for black failure isn’t new. Other thinkers before him, most notably Gunnar Myrdal in his 1944 An American Dilemma, acknowledged the same thing. True, Myrdal’s argument was perhaps a bit more carefully qualified and less reliant on cultural causation than Moynihan’s, with the former taking pains to assert that such a culture of poverty was itself the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy put in motion by the “false definition,” framed by white prejudice, of blacks as inferior: “White prejudice and discrimination keep the Negro low in standards of living, health, education, manners and morals. This, in turn, gives support to white prejudice. White prejudice and Negro standards thus mutually ‘cause’ each other.” Nonetheless, the cultural factor of black poverty is still hugely important in Myrdal’s thesis, if not quite to the extent that it is in Moynihan’s.

The biggest problem that most critics saw in such reports emphasizing poverty as a cultural occurrence is that, by focusing on “morals” and “manners,” they seemed to be “blaming the victim” for his condition. But this critique itself has proven to be rather short-sighted. Ralph Ellison presciently diagnosed the misguided fury of Moynihan’s critics in his review of An American Dilemma. “Indeed, the main virtue of An American Dilemma lies in its demonstration of how the mechanism of prejudice operates to disguise the moral conflict in the minds of whites produced by the clash on the social level between the American Creed and the anti-Negro practices. There is, however, a danger in this very virtue.”

The danger was not necessarily inherent in Myrdal’s tome, or even in Moynihan’s report. The danger lay in the American public’s overreliance on abstract explanations of sociological phenomena, which might lead it to take the bleak realities presented in Myrdal’s and Moynihan’s studies as proof that blacks actually were inferior and, because of this, their fate sealed from birth. The reports, while ostensibly conducted in order to mitigate black poverty, would in reality work to perpetuate the self-fulfilling prophecy

“Since its inception,” Ellison wrote, “American social science has been closely bound with American Negro destiny.” The late nineteenth century popularity of Social Darwinism; the controversy surrounding Richard Herrnstein’s and Charles Murray’s 1994 book The Bell Curve, which posits innate cognitive ability, as opposed to culture, as the determining factor in black poverty; and the 1996 welfare reform battle all bear this out. For most of American history, the national perception of poor blacks, and the prevailing reasons for their poverty, has often been aligned with whatever sociological or economic theories are most popular at the time, with the result that poor blacks are rarely perceived by the wider society as being more than an assemblage of pathologies—victims, criminals, miscreants, “welfare queens,” etc.

But whether a liberal castigation of culture as “blaming the victim” or a conservative focus on a “culture of poverty” that seeks to transfer the responsibility for being poor from the markets to the man—both views miss the mark. And the present resurgence of the view for which Moynihan was ostracized in 1965 illustrates precisely how.

A New York Times article this week notes that Moynihan’s thesis is gaining traction again among academic circles. This is in light of recent news that the poverty rate of Americans has risen to its highest level in 15 years; a “collection of papers on unmarried parents, a subject, it noted, that became off-limits after the Moynihan report,” released by Princeton and the Brookings Institution; as well as, I suspect (though this isn’t mentioned in the article), a Brookings report on the rise in the rates of suburban poverty (in which black and brown suburbs predominate).

“With these studies come many new and varied definitions of culture, but they all differ from the ‘60s-era model in these crucial respects: Today, social scientists are rejecting the notion of a monolithic and unchanging culture of poverty. And they attribute destructive attitudes and behavior not to inherent moral character but to sustained racism and isolation.” As I mentioned, this neo-Moynihan thinking is not all that “neo” at all. Moynihan himself, like Myrdal, was quite aware of the pernicious effects of racism and wasn’t necessarily laying blame in the laps of poor blacks. What is new, however, is the way more people are beginning to define culture—not as something exclusive to a set of manners or morals or mores, but as something that encompasses all parts of a society. As William Julius Wilson notes, “I realized we needed a comprehensive measure of the environment, that we must consider structural and cultural force.”

Furthermore, while it seems pretty straightforward, the academy is finally beginning to realize what "lesser lights" have known all along—urban poverty is the result of the Goliath of symmetrical disadvantage working against the David of asymmetrical advantage. For every child born into urban poverty, the stars are symmetrically aligned for him to fail and asymmetrically aligned (i.e. not aligned at all) for him to succeed—his family unit is broken from the beginning, his mother is often out of the home working, he is practically raised by his peers, he goes to school hungry, he notices that he has more of an incentive to sell drugs in order to make quick money to eat or buy clothes than he does to concentrate in school, he begins to sell drugs—right at this moment, the cultural and the systemic meet in perfect synchrony—he gets arrested, meets an overzealous prosecutor doing the dirty work of a politician eager to show that he’s tough on crime, runs into an overzealous code of drug laws, goes to prison, and if he has a child, he leaves behind a cycle that will begin anew…

"Lesser lights"—nonprofits, activists, teachers, mentors, tutors, volunteers—have understood for a long time now that the best real world response to symmetrical disadvantage is not symmetrical reform, that’s not possible in the short- or even intermediate term; but rather, asymmetrical reform. This means that while so-called cultural factors such as attitudes, values, and behaviors might not be sufficient explanations for an all-encompassing theory of urban poverty, the best and sometimes only means of reform for teachers and administrators at the KIPP Academy in the Bronx, for instance, is to emphasize these cultural factors as if they’re all that matters. It means counteracting an attitude of academic indifference and incuriosity by overemphasizing the importance of learning, or mitigating the influence of gangs in the lives of children by providing a surfeit of after-school and out-of-school activities and programs. For reformers whose laboratories are in the streets and not in the ivy towers, often times culture is the only determining factor, because it’s the only factor they can directly control.

Perhaps by de-stigmatizing the cultural explanation, legislators and policymakers will finally come around to realizing how critical asymmetrical organizations such as mentoring and tutoring groups are in the fight against urban poverty and start funding them accordingly. That’s an essential first step toward turning symmetrical disadvantage into symmetrical advantage, which would include measures such as incorporating mentoring and tutoring into the educational curriculum in school districts of need.

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Goal Management Resources for Mentors and Youth

Every day, youth in mentoring and tutoring program are setting goals and trying to reach them. Whether it’s earning an A in Biology, making the marching band, applying to colleges, or learning how to cook something other than grilled cheese, talking about goals is an important part of any mentoring relationship. Research from around the world has shown that youth with strong goals and strong goal-directed behaviors have the most positive development and the least negative outcomes. However, there are not many research-based tools out there to help mentors build these critical life skills in young people.

Over the past year, a team of researchers at Tufts University in Massachusetts has worked to fill that gap. Dr. Ed Bowers and his team designed a set of tools that make talking about and eventually achieving goals through a mentoring relationship easier, more fun, and more effective in promoting youth’s positive development. We call this system Project GPS, and we’ve based it on the most cutting-edge research on youth development as well as feedback from youth-serving professionals from around the country.

Project GPS includes a comprehensive series of quick and easy measurement tools, known as rubrics. There are also nearly thirty fun activities, several inspirational videos of young people talking about how they achieved their goals, and much more.

Right now, Dr. Bowers and his team need mentoring programs to participate in an upcoming evaluation of Project GPS, which will provide each participating program with free access to the entire suite of tools, as well as valuable data regarding the goal-directed behaviors and positive development of the youth in your care. Project GPS can be adapted to work with the particular structures and objectives of different programs.

To find out more about Project GPS and how you can promote goal management skills in the youth in your program, email Mimi Arbeit at to set up an informational phone call.

Project GPS is a project of the Institute for Applied Research on Youth Development, directed by

Dr. Richard Lerner.

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Strained Suburbs

In the suburbs, where I live, there is an entire shadow population of impoverished citizens that is rarely mentioned in studies on poverty—an issue that most people seem to associate with the inner-city. But poverty is no respecter of jurisdiction. Dan’s recent blog post alerted me to a new Brookings study that fleshes this reality out; noting that, while poverty in suburban areas grew over the past several years, there was little institutional support to mitigate its effects. “Suburbs were home to a large and fast-growing poor population in the 2000s, yet many don’t have an adequate social services infrastructure in place to address the challenge.” An important reason for this neglect is the tremendous difficulty of, coupled with the lack of critical attention given to, implementing effective social networks in places where the poor aren’t nearly as concentrated as they are in the city. The logistics become that much more complicated. This is all the more reason why TM/C's maps are so essential in the fight against poverty.

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Analysis of November 08 Conference

I have created a set of maps to analyze the November 08 conference and to compare it with the May 08 conference. The maps show geographical distribution of the organizations with respect to T/MC and various attributes such as programs, speakers and relative distance are mapped in those plots. Here is the link to the blog
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Waiting for Superman...In Vain

The issue of education reform has gained considerable traction in the media, thanks in no small part to the documentary that Dan mentioned about a week ago called “Waiting for Superman”. I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently the scene on which the film’s raw emotional power hinges takes place in a school auditorium where, as New York Times columnist Gail Collins writes, “parents and kids sit nervously…holding their lottery numbers while somebody pulls out balls and announces the lucky winners of seats in next fall’s charter school class. The lucky families jump up and down and scream with joy while the losing parents and kids cry. In some of the lotteries, there are 20 heartbroken children for every happy one.”

This is one of the scenes that were previewed on an episode of Oprah last week. I saw it. And Collins’s description doesn’t quite do what I saw justice. There was every bit of nervousness; of exultation; of disappointment; of despair, sure. But what Collins’s description lacks are the more nuanced emotions of apathy I saw on many faces, before the lottery and after; of confusion over why a lottery was being conducted in the first place; of quiet resolve contoured with contentment—all feelings nurtured in an atmosphere that is only suitable for escaping.

I’ve heard lots of talk about the schools—their lack of funding or excessive funding, their short years and short hours, how their manacled by the teacher’s unions, their lack of innovation in the classroom—but little talk about the reason parents are compelled to resort to putting their children’s names in a lottery in the first place. People didn’t go to that auditorium because the public schools were failing their children, per se. People went to that auditorium because the streets were all too successful. And yet, as Dan rightly mentioned, this point seems to have been entirely overlooked in the national discussion that “Waiting for Superman” has provoked.

Mediocre schools just aren’t very powerful incubators in neighborhoods where poverty rates hover over sixty percent. The winning question, in turn, should be how can schools in low-income neighborhoods, where most “dropout factories” and many poorly performing schools are clustered, make their students as street-repellant as possible? The answer won’t just come out of thin air. And you’re just as unlikely to get it from the people running things, as Geoffrey Canada discusses in this enlightened clip. Reform, if it’s to work, will require a community approach; an all hands on deck effort from citizens and nonprofit organizations and community development corporations and business people…In other words, Superman isn’t coming—change is up to you.

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