Youth mentoring in New Zealand: first thoughts

The last leg of my journey as a 2018 Churchill Fellow has taken me to New Zealand – first stop, Auckland – the biggest city in the country, growing and diverse. The contrasts with the UK at this time of year are striking – it’s coming up to mid-summer and it just feels weird to see the huge Santa in the sunshine adorning the side of a building on the main shopping street. But meeting those who lead the field of youth mentoring, the similarities with what I’ve heard in Canada and the USA are clear even if the programme responses differ.

For all the caveats in understanding any area of social change, I think the youth mentoring equation comes down to Relationships + Opportunities = Positive Impact. I’ve just read a tweet from Scotland by the former head of the Violence Reduction Unit, John Carnochan: whatever the question, the answer is relationship. Mentors can only make a positive difference to young people if they are skilled in building effective relationships. These are the foundational element, without which change won’t happen. But they aren’t enough. They have to go somewhere. Unlocking opportunities (which would probably not be easily accessed otherwise) is key to keeping motivation going and makes goal-setting authentic.

The first meeting I attended was with the National Youth Advisory Group, hosted by the Graeme Dingle Foundation It brought together 10 young people who have taken part in at least one of the Foundation’s mentoring programme. They came from across New Zealand for a two-day residential. Some take part in Project K, which supports them to mentor younger students preparing to make the transition between intermediate and high school. (Like North America, New Zealand has three school stages with two transitions).

The programme is rated as promising in rigorous impact assessment and it’s not hard to see why. Some of the youth advisers told me they had lacked confidence in their own ability and in voicing their opinions before getting involved with Project K. But here they were brimming with ideas for adapting the programme. And they had clear views on what makes a good mentor: they need to listen well, adapt to what’s happening in their mentee’s life, make a genuine connection and lighten up! The stakes are already high enough in terms of subject choices, exams, career planning, college and university applications…mentors can help by supporting young people with their goals but making it fun along the way. This was an impressive example of a charitable foundation moving towards co-design of programme planning which others can learn from.

The next day I travelled to Otara in South Auckland, a large neighbourhood of mainly Pasifika and Maori people. There I met Shana Malio of the Great Potentials Foundation (pictured). Shana is Director for MATES – a mentoring and tutoring education programme which last year matched 188 under 25s with 95 mentors from the University of Auckland.

MATES occupies a distinctive place on the spectrum of youth mentoring approaches. Undergraduate students are screened, trained and matched to work as paid mentors. They each work with two mentees across 10 months of the school year, in either Junior or Senior programmes. MATES serves 15 ‘low decile’ schools in Auckland and Hamilton, with mentors taken to schools for a two hour session each week. The programmes target two transitional stages when young people are preparing to enter and leave high school. Matching is based on academic need plus personal and career goals.

While the tutoring element maintains a focus on academic progress, Shana told me the programme is moving towards strengthening the mentoring relationship. This explains why we met at SouthSeas Healthcare and were joined by Chief Executive Silao Vaisola-Sefo. As a health provider to communities facing high levels of material need (including highly transitional housing and over crowding), Silao and his colleagues grasp the importance of understanding lived experience in the round.

As a result they have developed MySTORY, a grassroots story-telling movement with around 200 community members taking part in training so far. It is faithful to the values and practices of the Nuka system in Alaska and has caught the attention of New Zealand’s Children’s Commissioner and Government officials. Shana has seen the potential to improve the quality of mentoring by making this a core part of training for MATES mentors. If mentors know how to share their own story safely and appropriately, it may encourage and validate young people doing the same. It’s an approach designed to humanise the process rather than narrowing it down to a transaction. The impact will be worth watching out for.

* This travelling blog is only made possible by a 2018 Churchill Fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

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With college and work in mind: middle and high school mentoring in the USA

Probably the only good thing about posting this very belated blog* is having more time to think. In this case, about what people told me at two well established agencies in Los Angeles and at the Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring in Portland, Oregon back in July.

All of this has got me thinking about the ‘bandwidth’ of experiences for young people. For some, this needs to go beyond 1:1 support within the school timetable. The theme is picked up here with the help of mentoring programmes which start early to reduce the barriers to college and work.

LA Team Mentoring uses a group model with between 10 and 12 children aged 10-14 and 3 adult mentors – from school, college and business. About 1300 ‘at risk’ children across 11 schools serving ‘the most troubled neighbourhoods’ are served by LATM. The programme runs for 30 weeks of the year, using creative activities with embedded growth of cognitive, emotional and goal-orientation skills. I met Maria Melton and William Figueroa who told me many young people are more comfortable in a group: “It brings down the barriers quicker.” It makes sense in terms of using limited resources and if one adult misses a week, the activities still carry on. These include field trips to colleges and work places and a week-long summer camp to work in future goals.

But early encouragement to stick in at school, get the grades and go to college isn’t nearly enough, and LATM isn’t starry eyed about the effect of raising aspirations in a vacuum. Showing young people what’s on their doorstep won’t make much difference if the lived reality of their families and neighbourhoods is brushed aside. The data reveals families living on very or extremely low incomes, with high rents and little in the way of public childcare. By 12 or 13, some children are looking after younger siblings while parents work. By 14, some drop out and don’t return. LATM develops core knowledge about how to succeed after school that other families take for granted – including how to apply for funding to reduce the costs of studying.

Signs of success include eighth grade participation doubling. Wind forward four years and those who were in a mentoring group had better attendance and significantly better school graduation rates than average. That’s a striking finding for a programme that stops at age 14. LATM goals now are to learn more from the data, serve more young people and attract more business mentors.

Among the various mentoring programmes led by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles is Beyond School Walls. This matches high school students as mentors with ‘littles’ in nearby elementary schools for an hour a week after school. Like LATM, the target group is those facing adversity, attending schools with high rates of free meal eligibility.

High school students in their final year can then be matched with a mentor of their own through the workplace strand. Partnerships with the Mayor’s office, businesses like Comcast and Universal and a Women In Entertainment strand (Hollywood is knocking at the door!) have generated a wider pool of mentors able to share their workplace experiences first hand during visits by their mentees. This distinctive chain enables young people to contribute as mentors as well as gaining support at a key time.

I asked CEO Olivia Diaz-Lapham and her team where they would want to be in five years. Growing from 1800 children served to more like 3000 is a priority. Attracting more men of colour to become mentors is another. BBBSLA has a waiting list of women, ready and willing to be mentors. Greater capacity to match them faster is needed. And for those young people not going to college, an expanded offer on workplace mentoring would be valuable.

The final examples are from two community leaders who are innovating with school-age mentoring methods, adapted to their local context. In both cases, they serve ex-industrial cities and counties with an uncertain outlook for jobs. Here you can watch Carla Wellborn at Winning Futures in Michigan and Carlos Lejnieks at BBBS in three counties of New Jersey explain in their own words how mentoring can become more focused on college and work preparation. Which is by no means regarded as the only or most important goal in mentoring circles. And that is definitely one for another blog…

* Like a good malt whisky, ideas need time to distill. But only for so long since I’m now on the next phase in Canada and need to write about the new insights from here. Otherwise, this will have to be titled #BlogOnTheRocks

(If you’re going to) San Francisco

The first stop on my travels as a Churchill Fellow: the Golden Gate city. It’s a thriving, diverse place where even on a hot day in July the temperature can drop by 20 degrees when the sea fog rolls in. It’s a city of extraordinary wealth and destitution. San Francisco has the highest house prices in the USA. Low and mid income families are moving to Oakland and further afield to Sacramento to make ends meet.

Last week, I spent time with two youth mentoring programmes. Apt for a place of photogenic beauty was First Exposures which uses photography as its medium for mentoring. Director Erik Auerbach explained its goals: to make a long term difference in the lives of underserved, high-need 11-18 year olds by enhancing confidence, developing creativity and gaining a passion for learning. ‘Under-served’ is a common shorthand for hard-pressed families due to poverty, being in foster care or experiencing other forms of distress. In the Bay Area, this means predominantly Asian American and Latin/a American families. It offers 1:1 mentoring each Saturday morning during the school year and a twice weekly group mentoring programme during summer. This has a ratio of 2 mentors to 5 young people.

First Exposures is marking 25 years of mentoring and has around 30 mentees each year. Some have taken part for 4 years and most mentors for at least 5 years. Sitting in on the Monday afternoon group, I met 8 of the summer participants. Some had picked up a camera for the first time only a few weeks before. A trip to the museum and an exhibition of their work were being planned.

Contributing to high school completion and college enrolment is never far from the minds of youth mentoring programmes, even if not an explicit objective. On these measures, First Exposures fares strongly. But I heard a note of caution against reducing the frame to these single outcomes. There is enough pressure on young people to get the right grades and make the right move after school. Programmes like this offer some space, some relief from the pressure and a means of being creative.

What does the future hold? Many would like to see the programme scale up, to benefit many more. But Erik is clear: mentor recruitment takes time, the process is rigorous and ratios need to be kept low to maintain quality. More likely is it will ‘scale out’ and influence others. The growth goal is to pilot a transitional youth programme for 18-25 year olds ageing out of foster care, recognising that many who are ‘flying solo’ as young adults would benefit from 1:1 mentor support while in college or work. For Erik, the starting principle is clear: “You can’t design it without involving someone who has lived it”. He plans to develop the pilot with a young graduate now in her mid 20s who at the age of 13 put herself into foster care and became a mentee with First Exposures.

Spark was the second stop in the Bay Area. It provides 1:1 mentoring support to middle school children from workplace ambassadors. This is a weekly programme over a school term taking place after school. Groups of 10 children are paired with mentors in companies. Executive Director Jennifer Rider and Program Director Jessica Bryan told me how Spark is seeking to build a ‘possibility movement’ for children and families, companies and schools – to develop early knowledge and experience of feasible job opportunities which they might otherwise be disconnected from.

In the Bay Area, this means targeting medium and large employers including tech, energy and finance. Spark does this the year before children go to high school, encouraging them to start thinking about subject interests and eventual career options. It’s one extra transition we thankfully don’t have in Scotland or the rest of the UK, but also an opportunity for early exposure to the world of work. The trick lies in serving children from disadvantaged backgrounds in target school sites and good matching with mentors.

Spark is currently in four cities with plans to serve eight in the near future. It has secured data-sharing agreements with school districts which will allow a longer view of impact to emerge in the years ahead. Will early experience of the workplace feed through to better attendance, high school completion and destinations after school? What can we learn from this confident engagement with employers back home? Will we commit to tracking of impacts beyond programme participation, however tricky it may be to attribute outcomes to support received? And can we amplify the voices and views of young people as agents of change, not merely as the targets of ‘programme intervention’?

These are are themes I’ll cover in later blogs. Next stop: Los Angeles to meet large-scale programmes serving middle school through to college.

If you have a desire to improve practice in a field you’re committed to, take a look at the 12 themes plus the Open category for 2019 and apply to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust until 18 September.

A journey into mentoring

Later this year, I’ll be heading off to Canada, the USA and New Zealand. And I’m pinching myself to have the support of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust in the shape of a Travelling Fellowship.

The focus: to encounter some of the best mentoring programmes for young people facing barriers in life – ones that have been evaluated and shown to have clear, positive benefits for young people. These could be for education, life skills, training or the things that help along the way – better mental health, a sense of connection and control.

The point: to seek out lessons for practice and for policy that could be relevant back home in Scotland…where MCR Pathways in Glasgow, Breakthrough Dundee, InTandem and a host of projects supported by the Scottish Mentoring Network are developing many ways of making a difference.

The motivation: as a mentor in Glasgow, I’ve already had many positive experiences. I believe that well matched mentoring can make a difference both to young people and mentors. But I’m also acutely aware that the ‘bandwidth’ of how we work with young people is pretty limited – e.g. to an hour a week during school time. Even a glimpse of the approaches taken in Oregon, Alberta and Auckland reveals group-based mentoring for girls, community mentoring for Pacifika and First Canadian youth, peer led mentoring by young people who have left foster care, digital mentoring in remote places. It’s hard to know how many lessons contained in these examples would feel right in a different cultural context. But we have nothing to lose from searching out new connections.

I’m going to blog on my travels, introducing the people and places I learn from as we go. If the theme is of interest to you or someone you know, please follow the blog and feel free to get in touch with any ideas. Thanks for your interest!