Great mentoring ideas from Adoptment

[Obligatory apologies for neglecting this blog.]

I’ve been meaning to write about an idea coming out of the Adoptment program to bring more structure into their mentoring sessions. The group has recently handed over the planning of one session to each mentor/mentee pair. Aside from allowing young people to take more responsibility for driving the agenda, this strategy has the added benefit of easing the administrative burden on the program coordinator.

The first participant-planned session was a hit! It involved a game of Jeopardy where each of the categories was purposely tailored to the knowledge areas of each youth in the program. These categories included obvious topics such as “entertainment” and “sports,” but to play to the strengths of everyone involved, the mentor/mentee pair spent some time combing through Facebook posts to brush up on everyone’s interests.

During “half-time” the entire group got together to discuss one question: “What is one thing related to your experience in foster care or adoption that you haven’t yet shared with the group?” The stories that arose were so profound that group continued their conversation even after the second half of the game.

Congratulations to A. and J. for their creativity and thoughtfulness in planning the session!

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Tightening up the self-portrait activity

I’ve been thinking of ways of making my identity self-portrait activity a bit more rigorous. The results from the pilot were useful because it revealed what young people tended to leave out of their portraits when representing their identities. In an earlier post I mentioned how I really had to push the youth to think about elements in their identity that linked them to a larger community, and in relation to that, another one of the most glaring omissions was a lack of engagement with race and gender. Even if those aspects of the self aren’t necessarily at the forefront of one’s self-concept, I think it’s valuable for young people to wrestle with them a little. Personally speaking, I don’t move through this world primarily as “Asian woman,” but I’ve had that label foisted on me often enough to know that my appearance affects how strangers perceive me. And it’s worth some thought to tease out the implications of that.

I think the defining the role of the mentors in this activity will be key to executing it properly. Before the session I had emailed the mentors a list of sample questions they could use in conversation with their youth during partner work.

  • Are there competing identities that they have to manage or decide between? 
  • Are there identities that they are trying to outgrow or resist? 
  • Do they feel locked into certain identities? 
  • Are there ones they would like to “try on”? What seems to fit? What doesn’t feel authentic? 
  • Do they feel pressure to conform to certain group identities (with family or peers)?

Since I tend to want to give people a certain level of freedom in my classroom, I presented these questions merely as suggestions. Now I see that I need to be a bit more forceful about structuring their discussions, and include a few more questions about race and gender in there. It might even be worth dedicating an entire session to the question of what it means to be a man/woman (in a specific community). One of the comics that I use as a warm-up for this activity deals specifically with different models of masculinity, and I think it can be a good springboard to a full session on gender identity.

Building identity self-portraits

One of the things I love talking to young people about is their budding identities. There are a couple of Zits comic strips that I like to use to explore the theme. One of them involves Jeremy standing before a mirror, assuming different flavors of masculinity, only to turn into a little boy when his mom catches him in the act. Seeing Jeremy try on different identities is a great way to get a conversation started about identity exploration. We all “try on” different identities or emphasize certain aspects of ourselves at different times, and it can be a bit awkward and embarrassing when someone calls us out on it—especially when we are in our teens.

When I ran a discussion on identity for a writing workshop, we kept the group discussion on a largely abstract level, and then I had the youth write about their personal experiences afterward. With the mentoring group I work with, however, I redesigned the activity as a partner exercise with youth and their mentors. Each young person would write a list of the most important elements in his identity, and then represent that visually in his self-portrait. During presentations, the group would then respond to the portrait, by commenting on what was interesting or surprising about it, or naming other characteristics that they thought were fundamental to the presenter’s identity.

To model the exercise, I very quickly sketched out an impromptu identity self-portrait. Do pardon the scrawl: Continue reading

Where are the services for young adults?

I just got off the phone with someone from Mentoring USA to find out if she had any words of wisdom for mentoring older youth/young adults. As it happens, Mentoring USA is trying to develop their own program for that demographic, since one of their interests is to help youth age out of foster care with a connection to a caring adult. One of the avenues they are investigating is a peer-mentoring model where  25-year olds might mentor youth between the ages of 18 and 20.

We got to talking about how the young adults coming out of the mentoring program Adoptment still find themselves drawn to the group long after their twenty-first birthdays. Similarly, many members of the Youth Advisory Board at New Yorkers for Children expressed the desire to continue on even after heading off to college and aging out of the foster care system. There is a real need for social services and a shared space for people in their early twenties who are just beginning their adult lives and looking for a ways to participate and serve in a community setting. If anyone knows of programs that target this population, let me know!

We are trying to figure out what a professional mentoring program for YAB would look like. There are a lot of logistical details we need to work out, such as how and how often matches would be in contact. I know that the YAB members are busy enough with school and/or work that it takes real effort for them to attend monthly meetings with any sort of consistency. I’d like to set up a program that will work with everyone’s schedules. In contrast to the iMentor model, which relies largely on e-mentoring (weekly emails are supplemented by monthly in-face meetings), Mentoring USA runs programs where mentor matches meet one-on-one for two hours twice a month or four hours once a month. Off the top of her head, the woman from Mentoring USA said that NYFC might consider a three-tier model where board members might mentor the officers of the YAB, who in turn could serve as peer mentors for the other members. We are going to keep in touch to see if we might be able to help each other get something off the ground.

Mentoring youth in care

According to a study by the EMT Group, the national outcomes of youth leaving foster care are as follows:

  • 75% work below grade level
  • 60% of girls have a child within 4 years
  • 50% do not complete high school
  • 45% are unemployed
  • 33% are arrested
  • 30% are on welfare at ages 18–24
  • 26% spend time in jail or prison
  • 25% are homeless
  • 10% are on probation

If handled properly, a mentoring relationship can boost the outcomes for youth who have been in the foster care system. Though results are uneven, researchers have indicated that youth who have been mentored for at least two years between the ages of 14 and 18 are more likely than their unmentored peers to report overall health, and are at a lower risk for STDs, violence, suicidal thoughts, and other dangers. Statistics for participation in higher education and vocational training also seem to promise a significant monetary ROI for mentoring programs.

Here is the caveat you knew to expect: program managers should tread carefully, for a mentoring relationship can cause significant harm if set up improperly. Continue reading

Heaven’s Battle Front

The funny thing about the name E. chose—Heaven’s Battle Front—is that his is a peaceful tribe. They are not warriors, but explorers, he said, and anyone over 16 (who grew up in the tribe) could join. E. described the tribe as a large, family-like community that was divided into sub-tribes, each with its own leader, and all of whom comprised a council of leaders. Members of the tribe were expected to be family-oriented, adventurous, ingenious, resourceful, and courageous. The test for initiates is to set out on what E. called a “pilgrimage,” but is actually more properly a quest. There would be no time limit, but each aspiring member would head out into the world with the purpose of bringing back something of value—something like a new technology or a technique. Everyone is sent out with only a few resources: a map, a little money, and a compass. After finding something of value, they then return and present it to one of the leaders. You need to be a bit savvy about choosing which one, though E. admitted that it’s common for leaders to accept your find “out of kindness.” He was equally quick to point out, however, that your fellow tribesmen would hold you in a certain regard depending on what they thought of your contribution.

E. only needed the slightest prompting from his mentor to decide on his tribe. One thing she said that was helpful was to ask about an “emotional tribe”—a group that shared a set of interests or values. They tossed around ideas like sci-fi fans or video gamers initially, but E. settled on something else entirely. He finished his ritual well ahead of everyone else in the group, leading me to think that he’d already had a pretty good idea of his ideal society. I love how each member is expected to make a concrete contribution to the tribe given scant resources. I also love how each one needs to go out into the world and “explore lands or ruins.” But I did want to know if the contribution could also be the invention/creation of the initiate, rather than something discovered in a foreign civilization.

Rites of passage for the Costa Familia

When I designed the Tribal Rites of Passage workshop I wondered if any of the young people would choose to imagine their tribe along ethnic lines. It wasn’t something I actively wanted to avoid or encourage, but during mentor training I mentioned that to help their partners think about the tribes they belonged to (or wanted to belong to), they should be somewhat creative in asking questions. Where do you fit in? What type of people do you admire? Do you participate in any sort of community? Whatever tribe they chose, I wanted it to be something deeply meaningful, rather than just an automatic or default answer.

C. was the only one in the group (aside from one of the adults, and I’ll get to that later) who wished to define her tribe ethnically. Continue reading

The Minaj Tribe

The first person who presented—let’s call him A.—decided just to stand up and describe his ritual without any visual aids (he and his mentor both claimed to be “unable to draw,” and since content was my first priority, I saw no reason to object). He was the one I mentioned who was a bit anxious during the first session. Since he has trouble writing, his mentor wrote down all his ideas and just served to prompt him with a question here and there whenever he paused during his presentation. As A. started describing his ritual, I realized that he was describing a quest. He imagined a tribe of explorers and hunters in NYC. To gain membership, initiates—15 males and 15 females—had to be between the ages of 15 and 18. The boys have to dress all in dark blue sweats, sneakers, and tank tops. The girls are similarly garbed in black. They would be divided into two mixed-gender teams and instructed to search for two different pairs of 8-in rare blue diamond-encrusted stilettos. One pair would be hidden in Manhattan, the other in Brooklyn. Rather than competing with each other, each team would be assigned to one borough and they would have to face people outside the tribe who have been hired by the tribal leader to hurt or mislead them. Since the challenges involved include strangers trying to harm them physically or lie and mislead them away from the shoes, initiates have to have “mental strength” in addition to physical strength, in order to keep their wits about them and locate the shoes in three days, with the only hint being that they should look at any store that sells shoes. Each team must come back intact. Even if someone finds the shoes, it doesn’t count unless everyone returns alive. (A. did not articulate this explicitly as a value, but he obviously prizes loyalty, cooperation, and caring for your companions.) The individuals who do locate the shoes then get to be celebrated in a special ceremony. Although they do not get to keep the stilettos (they go to the leader’s daughter), they get a brand new set of clothes: the men are given a crown, a suit, and dress shoes; the women a dress, high heels, and a tiara. Then they get to feast at a banquet with all kinds of food (A. loves to cook and wants to be a chef), surrounded by bright lights and rainbow-colored balloons. After the celebration they are considered adults who are ready to go out on their own, get a job, and take on anything the world has to offer.

You might notice that very visual and narrative nature of this ritual. Indeed, when I later spoke to A.’s mentor, she said that he was very interested in film and that she helped ease his anxiety about the activity by telling him that he didn’t need to write or draw, but just envision everything in his head as if it were a movie. I hate to sound so hyperbolic about this, but that is world-class mentoring. She is the reason why A. was able to deal with his anxiety productively during the follow up session. As much as I’d love to take all the credit for how well the Tribal Rites of Passage workshop went, so much rested on the relationships already established between the adults and the young people in the group.

Indexes of engagement

I don’t yet have the evaluations in hand from the last workshop, but based on the energy in the room and the output of the young people, I could safely say that the Tribal Rites of Passage activity was a success. Even though some people could not make it back for the second session due to personal and work issues, several things indicated that the participants were in fact engaged by the last session. Continue reading