The role of youth mentoring in building sustainable community

This installment of this irregular journey is the relationship between adult-youth mentoring and fostering sustainable community. I’m particularly interested in the role adults and elders play in shaping the development of sustainability values and practices among youth in their various communities. What opportunities exist? Where are they lacking? What stigmas surrounding adult-youth interactions keep us from providing vital guidance to youth in our community? These are questions I have; not sure I have answers per se, but I’ll have emerging experiences as I take on the role of a mentor to a young immigrant boy.mentor-boy1

I recently connected with a mentoring program for eastern European youth, and have taken on the (enormous?) responsibility of mentoring a 13 year old boy from Uzbekistan who’s been in the States for about three years. We met for the first time this week. His English is quite good, sounds mostly like a native speaker, which assuages my hesitation about a language barrier. It may not yield much for my Russian learning, as I don’t get the sense he wants to teach me Russian. I could be wrong. We’ve had one meeting. He’s quite energetic, with an unsurprising lack of focus and hyper attention.

What it’s doing for me so far is examine the interest I have in counseling youth who are expanding their sights into the future – college prep, thinking about “career,” and/or stymied by the possibility that there’s life beyond school and what they’ve learned to date may not bear much relevance or provide a substantive skill base to cope with making major life decisions. The notion they can seek guidance and advice from someone other than their parents may seem completely alien or is simply unseen. To that end, I had requested to work with someone in the 16-18 year age range, because it seems those kinds of expansive questions are more alive and relevant at that age, and the faculty has developed, or is still in process, that causes one to question direction and purpose in life. I don’t get the sense that such faculty exists in 13 year olds, nor is the (seriously taken) question of “what do I want to be when I grow up?” being asked or explored. Why, then would I agree to take on such a responsibility with a mentee who should just enjoy being thirteen?

Following that thread, I’m musing on how and where our crystallizations are formed around our values, worldviews, career and professional interests, attitudes toward adults and peers, etc. Is it possible that, by age 18, we’ve already developed rigid ideas about the world and our place in it, such that the decisions we make about our future (college, job, relationship, etc.) are largely constrained by those crystallizations? Are they already formed by age 13? Or is the playing field still open at that younger juncture, such that exposure to new ideas, experiences, places, people, and so on help expand the field in which later choices will be made? It’s not in my immediate interest or time availability to go read up on child psychology as related to these questions, but I remain open to receiving new perspectives and ideas.

What does this have to do with community building, let alone sustainability? Clearly, sustainability is most often placed in an intergenerational frame, basically, the idea that we are saving the world for our children and their children. So, clearly the values, actions, and responsibilities that we beget in our children shape the way they interact with the world and realize sustainability within their generation. I could tangent into my own analysis of social woes resulting from the breakdown of mentoring, rites of passage, and elder-adult-youth interactions, but that’s not necessary. It’s central, however, to the theme of this post:  building sustainable community means strong intergenerational relationships and clear tutelage and nurturance being given to the youth of the community.

I left open questions at the beginning of this post about the breakdown of mentoring and “eldering” opportunities that I’m hoping readers will discuss and help fill in the blanks. I have my own perceptions about barriers, whether real or perceived. Do youth turn off adults as being “too old” or “nags” or in the same universe as their unfortunate parents? I run across so many postings online where youth indicate they don’t want to talk to anyone over a certain age, usually 18 or 21 or, at most, 25. That’s surely fair. But am I right or wrong that youth perceive some adults as predators, as creeps, or otherwise malign them as someone to avoid like the plague? Where do the opportunities for informal interactions with youth exist outside a tight-knit community or family structure? Schools are an obvious and limited case, where students often look to their teachers for little more than complex information and the grief of homework. Many teachers are emotionally capable of giving their students counsel and a willing ear when trouble arises. Unfortunately some are not.

I’m engaged in a formal relationship that was created through a social service organization, which allows for the building of trust between service provider, mentor, and mentee, with ongoing check-ins and support. While my original question was about creating informal interactions, this formal approach does provide a much needed service in the community to connect experienced adults with eager youths. What breaks my heart is that funding to sustain these programs (there’s that age-old sustainability challenge) is under scrutiny and the axe now more than ever. In fact, my own program is up for grant renewal and the prospects are challenging. Thus, the creation of informal structures for elder-adult-youth mentoring and guidance is even more essential in the face of economic cataclysm. In fact, it’s the key to ensuring that sustainability is sustainable and continues to involve the very people we care most about in the framework of sustainability: our children.

“Given half a chance, the youth will take their steps and trust the river of life. The bigger question may be whether a village can be created that can truly accept and receive them. Those who wish to work as mentors and elders have to keep one eye on the youth—and another on conditions in the village.”    Michael Meade, Elder & Storyteller


1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    SwampLily said,

    This fits in very well with a concept that I stated in the last Heart Circle that we had, i.e. that we possibly hold an Elders Circle to explore exactly what that looks like. Not just from the perspective of the elders, but that of youth also. What is it to be an elder? Do we wish to take on those roles? What are they? Do the youth see any value in having elders? What do they want from elders? Do the perceptions of elders being creepy and as predators come from other elders who live in fear and pass them on to the youth? Are we as elders really those things? What are the barriers, limitations? Let’s talk.

Comment RSS · TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: