Mentoring is often described in terms of its intensity: the long arc of interactions, the deep bonds that form, the great investments made on both sides. However, when reflecting on the range of experiences that youth have in out-of-school contexts like those found in Hive Learning Networks, one can point to many instances when adults mentor youth in ways that don’t quite fit the traditional model, but are still valuable in their own right. For example: the video game designer hired to run a 7-week program, who not only provided instruction but also created a temporary conversation space to ‘geek out’ about the latest video games and the game design industry itself. Or the fashion designer invited to speak at a youth event about his journey to owning a small business. Couldn’t such “mentoring moments” be just as valuable or consequential to a youth’s learning trajectory as more sustained mentoring?
This is the question that the Chicago-based Mentoring Working Group—Tené Gray, Director of Professional Development at the Digital Youth Network (DYN), Elsa Rodriguez, program manager at Hive Chicago, and Bernadette Sánchez, associate professor at DePaul University—set out to address. Their Connected Mentor site, which launches tomorrow, represents a synthesis of rich research and practical knowledge around mentoring, including a mentoring framework that was developed specifically for the out-of-school context.
As our own on-the-ground observations here in NYC indicate that many ‘fleeting’ interactions between youth and helpful individuals do provide key forms of support contributing to the ongoing pursuit of interest-driven activities, we find this framework provides a valuable foundation to begin teasing apart and further leveraging these relationships. Furthermore, this issue of common language is something we’ve seen as important for any type of coordinated action and so we applaud this effort to develop a powerful and shared language around the practice of mentoring.
Tene and Elsa were kind enough to chat with us about their work and give us some insight into their Connected Mentor Framework.
Hive Research Lab: How did the Mentoring Working Group get started?
Tene: It really began when Nichole Pinkard [founder of DYN] suggested that I write a Hive Chicago grant to create a mentoring badging system that could support the professional development of mentors to level up in different areas. When I went to write that grant, however, I realized that there really was no framework in place for the kind of mentoring I was seeing in DYN and YouMedia spaces. There was no conceptual framework about the different types of mentors that actually exist in these out-of-school spaces. And so it made sense that there needed to be a collaboration between folks who have some expertise in this area to come together to create a mentoring framework.
[The Mentoring Working Group] began to look at the research in the mentoring literature in order to develop an understanding of what mentoring is and the role that mentoring plays in youth development. We also discussed things like where DYN’s mentoring model would sort of fit into that meta-framework and how and where other mentor models might fit different types of organizations. Overall, we wanted a framework that could really speak to the types of adults at youth-serving institutions like YouMedia, Chicago Public Libraries, museums, and other unique out-of-school spaces where there are many adults who interact with youth. From our perspective, everyone plays the role of a mentor to some degree; it’s just a matter of understanding that there are different types of roles when it comes to mentoring and each mentor has a set of skills that can contribute to the relationship and the development of this young person. With that, we began to think of mentoring in that way, asking ourselves “What are the types of adults or the roles that adults play in mentoring?” And what came out of that process is was what I’d like to call a “meta-framework” for mentoring in out-of-school contexts.
“From our perspective, everyone plays the role of a mentor to some degree; it’s just a matter of understanding that there are different types of roles when it comes to mentoring and each mentor has a set of skills that can contribute to the relationship and the development of this young person.”
HRL: What did you feel was missing in current conceptualizations of mentoring?
Tene: There wasn’t much in the research literature that spoke to a framework for mentoring with respect to different roles. And I think that felt like a big gap for us, especially, because of the type of work that we do, in terms of working in these out-of-school spaces that have so many adults, who all play different roles and contribute to a young person’s learning and development in different ways. When you review the mentoring literature, there’s a lot of writing on the Big Sister/Big Brother type of mentoring—what we were seeing here in Hive Chicago is not that type of mentoring.
Elsa: There were several reasons in my mind why this mentoring framework needed to happen. First, there seemed to be a vast array of perceptions around how mentoring was happening in programs. Second, a lot of strong youth relationship work was not being codified as ‘mentoring.’ Third, lots of program educators were unsure how either short-term staff or pop-in experts fit into this. Finally, there seemed to be a strong desire for more information on how to connect with youth.
HRL: Can you describe the components of your Connected Mentor Framework?
Tene: As we began to develop a framework we realized that young people participate in two kinds of learning spaces: unstructured or structured spaces. So let’s take a youth drop-in library space where various forms of HOMAGO participation—‘hanging out,’ ‘messing around,’ and ‘geeking out’—are possible.
In spaces where structured learning takes place, there’s someone actually providing a structured environment that speaks to the learning that young people are engaging in—there’s goal setting, skills being developed, teaching going on. In the hanging out and messing around spaces, you have the unstructured space where kids are generally learning on their own and they’re learning based on whatever they’re interested in. And within those spaces you have different types of adults who work with young people on either a short- or long-term basis, and within that context you have these different types of mentors: a natural mentor, a content mentor and a program mentor.
The program mentor is a long-term person in a structured setting. These mentors develop relationships with young people over time. The program mentor knows the kids, they know the space, they know everything about the context of that space and they know the building that the program exists in. So, for example at YouMedia, that long-term mentor not only knows the YouMedia space, they also know the Chicago Public Library and they know how to leverage the resources and people in that space to inform the learning or support the learning that young people are engaging in.
The natural mentor is also considered a mentor in that space. In a YouMedia space, it might be the security guard. The security guard doesn’t participate in structured programming with the youth, but the security guard mentors youth in an organic way and this is where young people begin to develop these long-term relationships with these types of adults based on maybe things that they’re both interested in. And again, these folks are engaging in mentoring moments and they have these interactions that lead to really deep or long-term relationships.
And finally you have the content mentor who’s the content expert who comes into the space for the day or two days or maybe six weeks to incorporate some sort of program and or learning experience for young people and they also have mentoring moments with youth.
And so what we’re trying to convey here is that there are best practices and things that you need to consider when you’re interacting with young people within the context of each of those roles.
HRL: Can you talk a bit more about the importance of natural mentors and mentoring moments, especially in light of prevailing opinions that mentorship requires close enduring relationships that take time to foster?
Tene: Natural mentoring refers to those relationships that develop organically within a youth’s social network. These are different from formal or volunteer mentoring relationships in which an adult and youth (who don’t know one another) are matched to form a mentoring relationship. So youth can develop natural mentoring relationships with existing adults in the settings in which they already participate—spaces such as an after-school program, school, neighborhood, or library. Within these settings, there might be opportunities for youth and adults to interact and have a mentoring moment. For example, a lunch lady and a student who see each other frequently at school might have a meaningful conversation one day after she notices that the student was picked on by other kids in the cafeteria. This brief interaction can be really important for the youth and it’s possible that they will have more mentoring moments that would facilitate them forming a closer mentoring relationship.
Elsa: I would add that mentoring moments also foster a positive youth-development environment where youth begin to see adults in that environment positively because of several “mentoring moments” that have occurred between them. In a way, mentoring moments can stand alone as positive youth-adult moments, but in many instances are the on-ramps to a longer relationship.
“Mentoring moments can stand alone as positive youth-adult moments, but in many instances are the on-ramps to a longer relationship.”
HRL: On the Connected Mentor website, you mention something called “critical ingredients.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Tene: As we began to delve more into the research, we came across some wonderful articles that talked about critical ingredients that adults need to consider when they are working with youth (Li & Julian, 2012; Rhodes, 2004). Combining what we learned there with our focus group sessions with Hive Chicago members, we came up with four critical ingredients for a successful mentoring relationship:
- Connection. Making connections and building rapport with young people whether it’s in the short- or long-term.
- Reciprocity. We learn from young people as much as they learn from us. And that reciprocal learning takes place within the context of not only that adult-youth interaction, but youth-to-youth interactions as well.
- Progressive complexity. This speaks to the creation of learning experiences that scaffold learning and that support the development of knowledge and skills and the application of those knowledge and skills.
- Empowerment. This is about empowering young people to really understand what they know and to have the confidence to continue to pursue whatever it is they’re passionate about.
We took those critical ingredients and tried to contextualize them for each type of mentor, which lead us to create charts that include factors connected to that mentor role, examples of who represent that role and examples of how individuals playing that role might enact these four principles of effective adult-youth interactions.
HRL: How do you see educators, researchers, designers, and policy makers using the Connected Mentors website?
Tene: We hope that the information on the site could be helpful during program development and training. For instance, if someone develops an after school program, the person can be intentional about the different kinds of roles that they would like to see adults play in that context. And they could create positions and hire folks to fulfill those roles. The important thing to note is that even if someone comes in for a short period (e.g., to deliver a workshop), there is always the opportunity for that person to provide a mentoring moment for that young person. No matter who the adult is, if they work with youth, their interactions with youth are part of what could have a positive impact on youth development.
Elsa: I agree the model is great for reflection and planning for youth-serving organizations. It is also a great reflective tool for individual practitioners to consider what their role might be within programs or with individual youth.
This work is all ultimately in service of continuing to support youth along any path(s) they chose. In a broad context, there is more here than simply information for the practitioner. There is information about how organizations hire and train their youth-facing staff. The type of space, practices and cultural set-up of organizations that can promote stronger relationships. Some implicit recommendations on how one might structure an organization so that staff seems less hierarchical and may connect better with each other AND youth and thereby improve the working environment for both youth and staff. There is also information here about the amount of time dedicated by staff to youth, which can be considered when thinking about staff necessary to execute strong programs. Finally, our work launched under the assumption that improving relationships in programs increases program impact. This advocates a shift in the typical way that impact is measured to one that incorporates these typically qualitative factors, which in turn advocates that funders begin to consider this factor as strongly as other elements.
HRL: What’s been your favorite aspect or outcome of the project?
Tene: I think I’m most excited about the prospect of beginning to create shared language and a common understanding around mentoring among youth-serving organizations that work in out-of-school programs and possibly even in-school programs. This is in a conceptual stage right now and I’m excited about maybe what this can garner in the future—for example, maybe a community of practice could form around exploring intentional mentoring or this kind of mentoring, and how it could serve as a mechanism not only for Connected Learning but youth development as well. I would also love for people from other organizations to pilot our framework and maybe we could research how it gets played out in an organization: whether or not it’s effective; what happens as this framework gets applied in a specific context.
HRL: What can folks do if they have any questions about Connected Mentors?
Tene: People can email firstname.lastname@example.org if they have questions or would like to discuss the mentoring model, critical ingredients or any other parts of the site. We’d like to get some thoughts and feedback and actually talk to people about how they might use it. There’s a section for resources and we’ll continue to add and build on the resources as the year progresses.
HRL: Great! Thanks so much for your time!
Li, J., & Julian, M. M. (2012). Developmental relationships as the active ingredient: A unifying working hypothesis of “what works” across intervention settings. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82(2), 157.
Rhodes, J. E. (2004). The critical ingredient: Caring youth‐staff relationships in after‐school settings. New Directions for Youth Development, 2004(101), 145-161.