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Preparing Mentors to Work with Native Youth

JUNE 27, 2016

Several federal agencies have been engaged in supporting efforts to ensure that Native youth are matched with mentors. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and Department of Education have been leaders in encouraging mentoring in Native communities. Boys & Girls Clubs on reservations have had a long history of offering mentoring for the youth they serve. This is very good news. For the past 20 years, I have been engaged in the design, development and implementation of trainings and providing resources for many organizations serving Native youth. Through my work, I have acquired knowledge of what works and what is not relevant for this population. Those lessons are reflected in the blog that follows.

 Preparing Mentors to Work with Native Youth

Mentoring is natural in many Native communities. Anna M. Latimer (Ya’Ta’L’whet), a longtime advocate for Native youth, reminds us that “mentoring was part of the natural systems found in communal life to awaken the sleeping gifts in our most precious resource – our children. Today more than ever, we are being asked to become conscious of ourselves and our communities and to help our youth develop their gifts.”

The Elements of Effective Practice for MentoringTM serves as the guide for creating mentoring programs in Native communities. While potential volunteers come from all walks of life, recruiting from the ranks of the Tribal Council, Elders, Tribal employees, housing agencies, spiritual leaders, Native colleges, and Native child welfare agencies has yielded positive results. Native American paraprofessionals, 4-H groups, Juvenile Justice Authorities, government officials, AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers and the Bureau of Indian Affairs are also excellent resources from which to recruit mentors. Volunteer recruitment efforts that engage mentors who are part of or have experience with the community being served will yield positive results. Commonality is a key factor to ensure establishing trust and long term mentor-mentee relationships. Nevertheless, there are many examples of mentors who know the community but are not Native and have a great relationship with mentees, and they should also be considered.

A critical factor in creating programs for Native youth is to ensure that mentor training incorporates culturally relevant components. There is a difference between Western and Native American viewpoints on mentoring that must be considered and discussed as part of mentor training (Carr, 2006 as cited by Weinberger, 2007):

Western Mentoring Native American Mentoring
Diagnostic listening Listening for understanding
Focus on outcomes Focus on the journey
Focus on the experts Focus on inner wisdom
Focus on action Focus on reflection

The traditional topics that are embedded in all mentor training based on the Elements can be enhanced to specifically address the needs of the population with whom mentors will be working. One portion of mentor training should be dedicated to the Native customs, traditions and language specific to the community being served. When these are shared with mentors for understanding and appreciation, especially by members of the community themselves, it prepares mentors to relate better with their mentees. Mentees often teach their Native language to their mentors. Mentors who are Native also do the same. This helps to create a special bond of trust and confidence.

One of the most critical topics to include in training is health and wellness. Native communities have long faced the epidemic of diabetes with rates 2.3 times greater than the general population. The toll from this deadly disease has been so great that a federal diabetes program was launched more than 13 years ago. Providing strategies during training around self-esteem, good body image, and comfort with one’s own feelings, healthy peer groups, life values and encouraging mentees to ask questions are important first steps. First Lady Michelle Obama created Let’s Move! in Indian Country (LMIC) dedicated to solving the problem of obesity within a generation. Tribal health programs, community members including mentors and organizations are doing their part together to address childhood obesity and improve the health of Native youth. Training should include what a mentor can do to initiate discussion around this topic and offer help.

Addressing tobacco, alcohol and use of other drugs is another sensitive training topic. Methamphetamine use is a problem infiltrating and devastating our communities throughout the United States. Unfortunately, however, this drug has disproportionately devastated Native communities. Native communities now experience the highest meth usage rates of any ethnic group in the nation. Tribal leaders have been at the forefront of new and creative solutions and approaches. Mentors should be made aware of the problem, solutions, and how they might assist.

Additionally, gang involvement impacts youth in Native communities just as it does youth in other communities across the country. Gangs, substance and alcohol abuse and family economic issues all go hand in hand. The inclusion of tips and strategies to assist mentors working with this population will help to prevent or reduce these serious issues affecting youth and their families.

While a mentoring program is not a “fix-all” for many of these community-level issues, nevertheless, when resources, tips and strategies during mentoring training are made available to mentors working with Native youth, these will surely enhance both the relationships and outcomes. When mentors help youth to set short and long term goals and check on progress frequently, I have observed great success.

Finally, while mentor training includes numerous examples of activities in which mentors and mentees can engage, there are many more that relate and are fun for mentoring Native youth. For example, I have observed mentors and mentees enjoying attendance together at leadership councils and conferences, participating together in Tribal Youth Day activities, health screenings, Pow Wow clubs, and engaging in singing, dance, and cultural events. Additional activities have included fishnet events with local fish and game departments, cultural fry bread-making, cultural camps, beadworks and learning Native languages.

As you develop or expand your program’s mentor trainings to include suggested activities for mentors and mentees, make sure that you consider those activities that are the most relevant for the population you serve. These will ensure program sustainability and great relationships.


Comments (2)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Thank you for this thoughtful post, Susan. Just this past week I visited several Native Boys & Girls Clubs in Minnesota. One of the mentors I met there was a student at the local Tribal college who had never worked with youth before, but her...

Thank you for this thoughtful post, Susan. Just this past week I visited several Native Boys & Girls Clubs in Minnesota. One of the mentors I met there was a student at the local Tribal college who had never worked with youth before, but her personal knowledge of the local community was a huge asset to the program and the youth she mentored. I agree that training non-Native mentors to work with Native youth is important, and feel that another crucial element of any successful mentoring program serving Native youth is ensuring that the overall program model is adaptive to Native culture, and that non-Native program staff are encouraged to learn from Elders and other community leaders about the specific community that the program will serve.

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Lindsey Reed
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Lindsey, Keep up your good work. We need more folks like you!

Dr. Susan G. Weinberger
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