Rethinking Mentor Recruitment to Promote Equity
Mentoring is a big part of what we promote and support at Youth Collaboratory, and equity is a lens through which we operate. As anyone in mentoring knows, one of the biggest challenges is recruiting mentors; however, we may not often think about how our recruitment strategies impact the communities we serve. We’re too busy trying to find qualified adults (or sometimes, youth peers) willing to devote considerable time and effort into becoming mentors. While this is a challenge in itself, few would deny that there is a disparity between the youth we serve and the people who mentor.
Most mentoring programs are serving young people who have been in some way marginalized by society: youth at risk of exploitation, delinquency or academic failure, who are missing one or both parents, or who lack the social supports we know are critical to developing into healthy adults. The majority come from lower-income communities, many of which are communities of color, and a high percentage of the youth we serve are boys or young men. Historically, the people most likely to approach our programs as potential mentors tend to be white, middle-class women. For years we’ve lamented that these are just the people who volunteer, the ones who respond to our call for action, but research has shown that when controlling for social and human capital, there is little to no difference in the probability of volunteering between white people and people of color (Mesch, et. Al., 2006). Other studies indicate that whether or not individuals of color volunteer often depends on whether they were asked (Bryant et al., 2003; Musick et al., 2000). It’s time for us to seriously look at the way we recruit our volunteers.
First, we should examine WHERE we’re recruiting. Are we tapping into organizations, groups, and resources within the community of youth that we serve? For example, if you rely heavily on recruiting university students to mentor (as we all do), are you looking at community colleges near the neighborhoods you serve, or are you going only to the state university several miles away? Are you working with local churches and businesses to recruit people who live and work in the areas where your youth live? If you serve young people from low-income neighborhoods, have you considered working with the local housing authority to identify potential mentors who live there?
Maria Campos, Program Director of a youth mentoring program in Texas, says her agency has become more intentional about recruiting mentors from diverse backgrounds. Recruiters present in front of neighborhood groups where the youth they serve live, and join or post in Facebook groups for target neighborhoods. “[We knew that it was] a little more challenging to recruit mentors in communities where mentees live, so recently we presented in front of an East Austin community group and they were really excited about [the program],” she says. Because of the positive reception they got, mentor recruiters are now building relationships with the leaders of other neighborhood groups to set up presentations. “I always relied on my [established] networks or partners or community organizations for recruiting,” she says. “I don’t know why I never thought about going into neighborhoods and talking to people, which is such a natural.”
Next, think about WHO you’re targeting with your recruitment messages. There is a common assumption that the best mentors are middle-class, college-educated professionals that appear to have their lives in order. The reality is that every community has potential mentors, and adults with life experiences similar to those of our mentees often are the best choices to serve as role models. Especially for youth who been impacted by systems such as the foster care or justice system, or the child welfare system, having a caring adult who understands their experiences can also help them navigate these systems.
In a recent pilot study, the Midlands Mentoring Partnership (MMP) worked with youth experiencing high-risk situations through a Youth-Initiated Mentoring (YIM) program, where youth helped to identify adults they knew to serve as mentors. MMP helped the young people engage with these potential mentors, then provided training and a formal program structure to the matches. While the results are not final, some of the findings are that YIM can increase youth’s comfort level with mentoring, and can ease some of the initial struggles of mentoring, such as building trust. Also interesting is that many of the mentors involved said that the main reason they volunteered was that they had been asked by a particular young person, which has broad implications for mentor recruitment.
After examining where and who we recruit, we should look at the WHY – why do we recruit the way we do? We need to examine our recruitment policies and how they might be perpetuating inequity in recruitment. This can be as simple as decisions on where to hold trainings that might lead to transportation issues for some potential mentors, or be as complex as screening policies that state that anyone with a past conviction is ineligible to mentor. While safety is a critical concern for mentoring programs, proper and multidimensional vetting of volunteers could make it possible to open up mentoring opportunities to those with prior misdemeanors or other non-violent offenses. Creating partnerships that can help mitigate the expense that often comes with mentoring could also open up the experience to people who might think they can’t afford it.
And finally, HOW. What are the techniques we use to recruit? Does your recruitment staff reflect the population you serve? Sharon Gill, Mentoring+ program coordinator at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mississippi, points out that relatability is key in engaging potential volunteers. “Since I am a person of color, it’s not too hard to recruit [mentors of color]!” she says. Gill says when trying to recruit diverse mentors, she goes to where they are. “College campuses are excellent, especially Historically Black Colleges and Universities. We also tap into black churches and activities that are in their neighborhoods.” Gill also states that police departments, fire stations, and other community agencies often encourage their employees to volunteer, and make great partners. “But mostly.” She says, “it’s word of mouth by parents, teachers, social workers, and so on.”
Another method to consider is using an adaptation of the promotor model, where members of the community serve as recruiters – or a type of ambassador – for your program by hosting coffees or lunches in their neighborhoods to talk to their friends and family about becoming mentors. The model has worked well in community education and public health campaigns and is a good way to engage parents and caregivers in your program as leaders as well.
Youth Collaboratory is committed to promoting equity in all we do and will examine other ways we can work in our communities and beyond to create a more equitable and just society. Recruiting more diverse and representative mentors is just one way mentoring programs can promote equity and social justice. Over the coming months and years, we’ll explore other dimensions of equity and how we can all work together reach this critical goal.