This research asks whether a new mentoring has emerged in lower-income African American communities - or at least a mentoring with new historical significance - in which lower-income adults mentor lower-income children. Many people, when they think of mentors, think of middle-class, educated people helping lower-income children learn marketable skills. They picture a self-reinforcing cycle of poverty and think that mentors should help a child exit a culture that perpetuates this cycle.
In our research, we are seeing something very different. We are seeing lower-income adults helping lower-income children learn and value their own culture and community history, with the goal of building the child’s self-esteem and teaching mutual respect, cooperation/teamwork and peaceful conflict resolution. And building on this self-esteem, the grass-roots mentors insist that the children do well in school to acquire marketable skills. While the mentors may not be able to teach these skills themselves, they help children find tutors if necessary.
We have been talking with grass-roots mentors working in cultural fields like brass band music or social aid and pleasure club parading, in sports activities, or in other activities that attract kids, like computer programming. The mentors are disturbed - and have often been directly impacted - by poverty and violence, and they want a new generation to be able to avoid these outcomes.
But is this mentoring really new? Mentoring has been important in lower-income communities for a long time, and mentors have long known they can reach children in their communities better than middle-class outsiders can. Yet many of the mentors we talk with believe there is something new afoot - and significantly, that increasing numbers of young men are interested in mentoring. Two things may be especially important: (1) A generation or more after the Civil Rights era, the mentors know that society's doors are no longer closed to poor children who get an education and interact well with others. Earlier generations fought oppression with resistance. Today, many mentors see aspiration as a more viable response to continuing problems in the community. Also (2) African American culture is much more widely celebrated in middle-class society today than it was a generation or more ago. Mentors can use this culture to attract children and build their self-esteem in a way that was more difficult earlier. And a child is less forced to chose between identity and success. As one mentor told us, "Today, you can have it all."
If these things are true, the implications are huge. Even though a substantial black middle class has grown since the Civil Rights era, observers have struggled to understand why concentrated poverty and violence have so stubbornly persisted in other parts of the African American community. Yet what if the vicious cycles began to erode from the inside? What if these new mentors succeeded in getting growing numbers of children onto productive paths? Could the African American community increasingly resemble immigrant communities that have experienced upward mobility? If destructive activities become less attractive to children, and constructive activities that lead to opportunity become more attractive, a beneficial tipping point could be reached and a vicious cycle could turn into a virtuous cycle. The vicious cycle has persisted for a long time, but it may not be as entrenched as it seems if incentives shift and people increasingly take advantage of the new incentives. We don't know if things will go this way, but the new mentors are trying hard to put things on this path. As one mentor told us, "One time I was going through so much, and I said, ‘I can’t do it, Lord, it’s too much.’ And the Lord said – a voice came and said, no, you can’t let them go. You’ve got to stick with them."
Our research is exploratory and ethnographic, and we are videotaping interviews and mentoring activities where possible and appropriate. We met a number of mentors while doing research on community recovery from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. We are now talking to and working with mentors in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and the West Side of Chicago.
The following are a few video portraits of mentors
The Roots of Music, after-school music program for middle school kids
Derrick Tabb in Treme, where he grew up.
Derrick is snare drummer for the Grammy-winning Rebirth Brass Band
and Director of the Roots of Music after-school music program
for kids age 8-14, which I helped him start.
In this clip, he describes the culture he is working to preserve.
A Father Talks about
the Roots of Music.
Walter Givens, who has worked in law enforcement,
says the kids feel loved, and they form life-long friendships,
even across different sections of town where gangs often otherwise form.
Sue Press of the Ole & Nu Style Fellas on Mentoring.
Sue Press is founder & president of the "Ole & Nu
Social Aid & Pleasure Club in Treme.
Here she discusses the importance of mentoring young people
and giving them positive alternatives.
The Gardere Youth Alliance
Coaches Darin Fontenette and Allison Fitchett
Lead a youth sports program in the Gardere area in Baton Rouge.
Gardere is a high-poverty, high-crime neighborhood,
and Coaches Fontenette and Fitchett provide love and support through sports
to kids who are looking for structure and direction .
(edited by David Maddox)
(videos on this page shot by David Maddox and Rick Weil)
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