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.