Volume 14 Number 1
The Preventative Medicine of One-To-One
01 February 2001

Karen Elliott Greisdorf examines the role of mentoring in youth and job-training in the USA

A familiar proverb reads 'Give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime.' This approach is particularly alive in the mentoring movement in the United States. With roots in the 19th century, these empowerment programmes gained new life in the mid-1980s, according to Shayne Schneider, President of Mentors Unlimited. The programmes matched largely middle-class adults with low-income innercity youth in a relationship of support and nurturing.

Schneider attributes the impetus to several converging factors, which include: the business community's need to develop the workforce; donors' and volunteers' sense of social responsibility; a mood in society that began to favour individual efforts over government programmes as a response to social problems; a growing desire among successful professionals for more meaningful interaction in their lives; and a lessening of racial tension and fear, which enabled multicultural programmes to take hold.

Schneider, a former teacher, is the founder of Mentors, Inc, a not-for-profit organization which matches adults with high school youth. She defines a mentoring relationship as one 'where the mentor acts as a trusted advisor and friend and in its fullest form encompasses the three a's of advice, access and advocacy'. With a blossoming of programmes, Schneider has seen the movement become more 'sophisticated and realistic'.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, she remembers, mentoring was 'touted as a cheap fix for society's ills'. Today organizations, such as The National Mentoring Partnership (www.mentoring.org), are collecting information on 'best practices', rather than simply focussing on how to get more people into programmes. One element of Schneider's consulting work is to 'move the direction of thinking toward viewing mentoring as a way to build on the protege's innate strengths and gifts, rather than to prevent disasters from befalling "at-risk" youth'. She also stresses the need to acknowledge 'the value (in terms of personal emotional growth) for the mentor as an important component of programme success'.

Evidence that mentoring programmes can positively affect young people is now available from the national nonprofit organization Public/Private Ventures (P/PV) (www.ppv.org). They conducted an eight year study of the US's most widely known mentoring programme, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA), which currently maintains 75,000 active matches between volunteer adults and youngsters. P/PV's study found that participants in BBBS programmes were less likely to start using drugs and alcohol and less likely to hit someone, and that their school attendance and performance, attitudes toward completing schoolwork and peer and family relationships all improved. The study is clear, however, that these benefits didn't take hold overnight, but are the result of 'specialized local programmes that adhere to well-developed quality standards'.

While Big Brothers Big Sisters and other mentoring programmes throughout the country are helping to support and nurture thousands of children and teens, the need for additional opportunities, such as job training and employment, remains great. One response from the federal government has been Youthbuild, a programme which helps 16- to 24-year-olds to work their way out of poverty by training them as construction workers while building and renovating low-income housing. 'This programme gives new hope to high school dropouts, enabling them to build housing for families in need while building new careers and new lives for themselves,' the Secretary of the US Department of Housing and Development (HUD), Andrew Cuomo said in September 2000 (www.hud.gov).

Youthbuild is an example of the federal government providing training. Other efforts, designed at the local level, are also contributing to a renaissance in the work- force and society. One example is DadsWork, a programme in Richmond, Virginia, dedicated to job preparation, placement and maintenance for men of colour who are fathers.

'In terms of getting the "disenfranchised" back to work, it goes further than simply getting a job,' says Charles Price, Executive Director of DadsWork. 'It means that the father will feel better about himself when he acquires and maintains employment, is able to support himself, assume or resume financial support, in part, or totally, for his children, and that, by working, he will be modelling an extremely important behaviour for his children.'

For such a programme to be successful, there needs to be a commitment from the participants (88 per cent of the fathers have completed job readiness training) as well as the community as a whole. While DadsWork is a project of Hope in the Cities (www.hopeinthecities.org), it works in partnership with East District Families First Initiative, Virginia Commonwealth University AmeriCorps Program, Richmond Career Advancement Center, Richmond Community Action Program, Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the Better Housing Coalition.

While mentoring is most common in programmes for children and youth, job- training programmes such as DadsWork make use of it. Another programme which offers personal support for its clients is Suited For Change (SFC) (www.suitedforchange.org) in Washington, DC. SFC provides professional clothing and ongoing career education to low-income women to increase their chances of getting and keeping jobs and thus gaining economic independence-. Mentoring occurs during professional development seminars and one-on-one client appointments. 'I like watching the differences between clients and volunteers fall away at these moments,' says Executive Director Karina Halvorsen. 'In the end, it is simply women helping women.'

In the Nineties, as studies showed that more women and people from minorities would be entering the workforce in the year 2000 and beyond, companies began to develop specific strategies to address their needs. As early as 1991, Robyn DeWees, an engineer with a global technology company, participated in a study that focussed on the advancement of minorities in the fields of computer science and engineering. She feels that there are still not enough hands-on programmes working toward bridging the digital divide.

'We need to have more computer and software manufacturers and IT companies committing time, products and personnel resources,' DeWees says. But her chief concern is with the training of tomorrow's workforce. 'Students who don't have computer access don't develop the same level of interest and also develop a lack of comfort with technology. They don't know how to use the internet as a tool. With the shortage of people with experience to fill the IT jobs, this technology gap has the potential to impact individuals, corporations, and the economy.'

Investment in mentoring and job training programmes can be staggering: one mentor-mentee match of Big Brothers Big Sisters costs roughly $1,000. Public/Private Ventures reported in its study that it is 'extremely unlikely that significant expansion could be accomplished entirely with private funds. Public funding also seems unlikely at this time, when budgets for social programmes are being drastically cut at the federal level and social policy interventions are widely viewed by the public as ineffective.'

Shayne Schneider reports that there is a growing recognition that faith-based programmes offer great value to the community. But, she says, 'There is still a tremendous, and probably healthy, resistance to government funding for such programmes. As a society, we value the separation of church and state, and we understand intuitively the risks we run when tax dollars go to church programmes.' She is beginning to see a new trend of establishing spiritually-based programmes without formal church connections, so that they can become eligible for government, as well as private, funding.

Brian Friel, a Washington DC lawyer who used to teach at a high school in South Central Los Angeles, says more money doesn't always equate with better results. Under his leadership, the law firm of Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman has sponsored a programme in a local elementary school, which involves up to 60 employees. With a relatively small outlay of cash, it has given both professional and administrative staff time off to visit the school once a week and provided a shuttle bus to get them there. They go to give academic support, but Friel feels their greatest impact is in simply showing up.

'Our schools are under complete assault and there is a huge need for companies and other firms to share not only resources but people--and that doesn't just include their professional staff,' Friel says. 'It is a question of giving back to the community in which we work.'

Whether through 'teaching someone to fish' or a sense of giving back to the community, the relationships developed by mentoring and job training programmes strengthen the health of the whole nation. The opening words of the Public/Private Ventures study sum up what is needed to practise preventive social medicine in the United States: 'Individual change and progress is fundamentally about having other individuals care, support, tend to and guide on a one-to-one basis. There is no substitute.'
Karen Elliott Greisdorf