Support for Mentor Advocacy

*Note: The National Mentoring Resource Center makes these “Insights for Mentoring Practitioners” available for each program or practice reviewed by the National Mentoring Resource Center Research Board. Their purpose is to give mentoring professionals additional information and understanding that can help them apply reviews to their own programs. You can read the full review on the National Mentoring Resource Center website.

The use of mentors as intentional advocates is one of the more exciting developments in the mentoring field over the last decade. There is so much emphasis placed, and rightly so, on the interpersonal bonding aspects of the mentor-mentee relationship. We have much reason to believe that the trust, mutuality, and deep personal connection between mentors and youth are often the drivers of personal growth (for both participants) and program outcomes. But sometimes lost in the desire to emphasize this special connection is the notion that mentors must be active, that they must provide something tangible that no other adult in the child’s life is positioned to do. Good mentoring may frequently be as much about instrumental support and providing access to opportunities as it is about giving advice or offering emotional support, and programs that use their mentors in a formal advocate role are well positioned to bring a balanced approach to the mentor’s role.

As so beautifully illustrated in Robert Putnam’s recent book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, one of the deepest needs that many American youth have is for more social capital, for the connections, networks, and concrete forms of assistance that come from having a group of successful, caring adults in a young person’s life. Research and experience tell us that these types of connections and relation-based opportunities are often essential in helping youth overcome challenges and successfully transition in to young adulthood. This social capital, often in the form of direct advocacy, may be instrumental in helping youth interact effectively with institutions and may provide solutions to problems. But Putnam also clearly demonstrates that the youth in America who need it the most are the least likely to have this rich social capital and advocacy in their lives. If mentoring programs are going to be connecting caring adults with youth who need more social capital to draw from, preparing those mentors to advocate on behalf of their mentees seems like a logical extension of that role.

Obviously, asking mentors to play this role will have an impact on many aspects of program implementation. These include:

Mentor Recruitment and Screening

  • The need to emphasize certain personal traits in mentors, such as the ability to problem-solve, communication skills to engage other adults about their mentee, and a willingness to provide the mentee access to other adults and institutions in the mentor’s personal network.
  • Messages that realistically portray what these advocacy activities look like in action.
  • A potential emphasis on finding mentors with a history of helping youth overcome challenges.
  • Screening protocols that assess whether mentors have the time and capacity to take on this deeper level of support.

Mentor Training

  • Developing curricula that explain the advocacy role to new mentors and illustrate the boundaries of when and how they can most appropriately advocate on behalf of their mentee.
  • Information about how to interact with institutions and other providers or caring adults in the child’s life.
  • Chances to practice what may be an unfamiliar role and think through appropriate responses to situations where some direct advocacy may be in order.

Match Support and Closure

  • Opportunities to receive extra guidance from program staff or referrals to other youth services.
  • Processes for information sharing with the program, parents, or other adults so that the best outcomes can be achieved for the youth.
  • Guidance for the mentees themselves so that they have a voice in when and how their mentor advocates on their behalf.
  • Teaching mentees to find other caring adults who can advocate for them in the future once their current mentoring relationship ends.

The big question for mentoring practitioners is to figure out how much, and what type, of advocacy makes senses for their program. There are several obvious examples of the types of programs where direct advocacy would seem to be clearly in order:

  • Programs in which the youth are “system-involved,” such as the child welfare or juvenile justice systems. Mentors may play a huge role in advocating for youth as they interact with these institutions, helping ensure that youth are treated fairly and that the outcomes for mentees are optimized.
  • Programs in which the youth is making a major transition, such as moving into higher education or early career paths. A mentor may be instrumental in helping a youth navigate an unfamiliar environment or build a network of other caring adults that can offer ongoing or additional support.
  • Programs in which the youth are trying to overcome a barrier to their success, such as trying to improve academically in a dysfunctional school or living in a family trying to overcome poverty or homelessness.

One important consideration for mentors who are taking a more formal advocate role is to avoid lapsing in to “fix it” mode on every problem the mentee encounters. The potential exists not only for mentors to overstep their bounds in relation to the parent’s child or program rules, but also to wind up inadvertently negating the voice and wishes of the mentee for whom they are advocating. These considerations suggest that mentors must remember to “share power” when it comes to advocating for the mentee and make sure that the youth is driving the action and learning to advocate for themselves too. These considerations remind us that, optimally, advocacy means that mentors help find solutions and expand possibilities, not inappropriately take control of situations or narrow options.

By encouraging mentors to advocate for youth, practitioners may help to better ensure that youth are represented in areas of life where they can’t effectively walk alone and that they have someone who is looking out for their best interests in ways that are empowering and youth-centered. It’s no surprise that the review of the evidence found this to be a promising practice. When done well, it’s the living embodiment of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s famous observation that, for a youth to find success, “someone’s got to be crazy about that kid.”

For more information on research-informed program practices and tools for implementation, be sure to consult the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™ and the "Resources for Mentoring Programs" section of the National Mentoring Resource Center site.

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