Mentor Training for Cultural Competence

*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.

When the nation’s mentoring programs ask adults to mentor children in their community, they are often asking them to do something that American adults don’t do very often: build a deep relationship with someone of a different culture. One of the more subtle, if not disturbing, trends over the last several decades is the fact that Americans are more likely to interact with individuals and communities that are most like them. We increasingly live in communities that reflect who we already are and find ourselves limiting, by choice, the types of cross-cultural interactions that can broaden our perspectives and engender understanding with, and empathy for, others in our society who may be different. Given the demographics of those most often served by mentoring programs, as well as those who have the free time and capital to most easily volunteer, it seems as though youth mentoring represents a counter to that trend by giving adults an opportunity to connect with a child or family that may be very come from a very different culture, class, and worldview. Mentoring is often an explicit invitation to cross those cultural lines in a genuine way.

But because crossing those lines is something that Americans do infrequently, it has left the nation’s pool of potential mentors perhaps a bit rusty in terms of navigating the intersection of their culture and that of their mentees. As noted in the practice review, the work of qualitative researchers like Renee Spencer has found that challenges in crossing those cultural divides appears to be a significant factor in premature closure of mentoring relationships. In keeping with this finding, recent years have seen a real push to include cultural competence training in the suite of trainings offered to mentors as they begin and progress through their relationships.

Although there is little direct research on the value of cultural competence training in mentoring program contexts, other research noted in the review tells us that offering this has the potential to be beneficial⎯in particular the conclusions by Sanchez and colleagues that youth pick up on the cultural competence (or lack thereof) of their mentors and that it impacts the closeness of their relationships with them. There are also outspoken critics of traditional youth mentoring that see a lack of responsiveness to issues of culture and race as almost being an assault against the culture and ethnicity of the youth being served by programs.

Given that the aim of promoting cross-cultural understanding and respect is a given in most mentoring programs, how should practitioners approach this aspect of their work? There are a few key ideas practitioners may wish to consider putting into action if they want to address this directly:

1. Get cultural competence training for your staff first.

If anyone doubts that those running programs and working with youth directly could use this type of training themselves, please see this fascinating research by Jennifer Lindwall detailing her interviews with mentoring program staff and others who work directly with youth. It is clear that program staff members – regardless of identified cultural background - also bring their individual backgrounds and biases to the work. Arguably, they may have little chance of helping mentors and youth navigate the choppy waters of cross-cultural understanding if they have not explored their own positionality, struggles, and assumptions in this space first. The qualitative research of Spencer and others has also uncovered evidence of some disturbing aspects of how program staff tend to see the families and youth they serve, often unaware that their own “dominant culture” perspectives (as Lindwall puts it) may interfere with their ability to effectively meet youth and family needs. Training staff offers one logical starting point for any program that wants to be stronger in this area.

2. Assess mentors’ cultural competence and understanding at intake.

There are many surveys and tools for assessing cultural competence and practitioners can likely find many examples with just a bit of online searching. They could even borrow an idea from one of the studies noted in the practice review and assess mentor’s confidence around interacting with and supporting a youth from a different culture or whose family speaks a different language (see the Peaslee & Teye study for details). Not only can this information about each individual help with matching decisions it can also help understand what level of training is needed. Mentors who already feel confident may benefit from a training that focuses in on some very specific concerns, whereas those who express widespread concern about their ability to connect across cultures may need a longer or more in-depth training. If programs don’t spend any effort to assess where their mentors are at with these issues, it could be argued that they are simply hoping that their matches don’t become harmful and short-lived due to cultural conflicts⎯and that easily can be viewed as not acceptable given the ethical imperative to “do no harm” in mentoring services.

3. Partner with other community organizations and professionals to design and deliver cultural comptence training for mentors.

It can feel daunting for a program’s staff to develop a strong training on this topic from scratch or even to deliver a training that they obtain from another source. An arguably better – that is, possibly easier and more effective  path is to partner with local cultural groups or service providers to offer relevant training to your mentors. Chances are that there are already groups or professional consultants in your community who could offer this type of training directly or lead program staff through a train-the-trainer approach to develop capacity to deliver this training in the future. These types of partnerships connect a program’s mentoring work to others in the community who think about these issues and can bring some instant credibility, authenticity, and cultural nuance to the training that is offered to mentors. Especially when a program feels a bit intimidated by the topic (which is entirely understandable and, in fact, an encouraging sign of cultural awareness itself), seeking out others who know what they are talking about and finding a way to partner is an important strategy to consider.

For those who have trouble finding quality partners to assist in this work, please note that there are some resources available online to help with this type of training. For example, MENTOR and the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance have released several online trainings designed to address issues of cultural competence in mentors working under that initiative. This is also a topic that the nation’s mentoring programs can request free technical assistance from the National Mentoring Resource Center in addressing. So even in remote communities, there is no reason to “go it alone” when it comes to offering this type of training.

4. Consider offering culturally-themed training to mentees and their families as well.

Unfortunately, this type of training is often thought of as something that applies only to members of dominant (most often “white) culture. The truth is that everyone should be able to benefit from this type of training and the youth and families served by the program are no exception. They are also being asked to cross cultural lines in the mentoring relationship and equipping them with understanding and strategies may go a long ways toward negating cultural mistrust and misunderstandings. For programs that are going to require this training of their mentors, it is advisable to give careful consideration to also requiring it, at some level, of youth (and their parents, if they are going to be interacting directly with the mentor or staff).

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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