People, especially youth who feel marginalized by socio-economic status or ethnicity, tend to disconnect from themselves and others due to the harsh realities they face. Their journeys become paths to isolation. It may start small, being the only kid without the shoe of the moment, or being the only student whose parent doesn’t show for a school function.
As the child grows, so does the isolation-skipping class, school expulsion, unemployment, incarceration-these are what further disconnects young people, especially young males, from being able to experience meaningful relationships that would lead to better outcomes. High school programs, in particular, benefit from a solid team of mentors.
Mentors are instrumental in helping to foster “five good things,” a term developed by relational cultural theorist Judith V. Jordan Ph.D. one of the founders of relational cultural theory. Those five good things have been identified as (1.) increased zest, (2.) greater clarity of self and others, (3.) increased ability to take action, (4.) increased empathy for others, and (5.) a desire to build more relationships. To the lay person, these things definitely sound like a path to emotional health, and a meaningful life.
One important component of mentoring is mutuality. Since much of the isolation of disadvantage comes from experiencing a lack of social power, it is important to establish relationships with mentors and youth where both are benefitting from the exchange. They both come to understand the influence each person has on the other’s well being.
In short, we don’t mentor, or serve from a place of superiority. Mentors usually have more information, more experience, and at times, more resources growing up, but that doesn’t make them better people. When it comes to potential we are all on the same playing field. It’s only opportunity and caring relationships that we lack. And, it’s caring relationships and opportunity that we want to provide to help our youth realize their true potential.
The pilot program Operation Exodus recently launched, with students taking part in a 10 week playwriting project, paired mentors with students to help them tell stories in their own words without rules or corrections. These plays are being performed by adult professional actors, which will heighten their sense of value, and establish that the student’s opinions and thoughts are valuable.
Connections with mentors formed quickly, through fun exercises and games. During the writing sessions, mentors were coached to remain in the background and simply honor the stories being told. At times, they would ask leading, open ended questions to help students when they stalled. “What happens next?,” was a recommended question, and “how does the character feel about that,” were usually all it took to get students writing again.
While the success of the program can’t be accurately assessed until its over, from what we witnessed, the project added tremendous value, both in terms of education, and relational benefits. Students spent well over 30 minutes once a week writing quietly, side by side with mentors. They used critical thinking skills to solve problems with plot lines, and had to use their cognitive skills to be successful at the games that were used to loosen everyone up. And that’s just the beginning.
This Thursday, May 5th, Exodus student plays are being performed at an established theater in mid-town, with each student playwright witnessing audience reactions to their work. The event is being used as a fundraiser to support the Operation Exodus summer program, which this year will be focusing on arts education as a way to work on literacy and other academic skills.
The event, “Mi Historia, Mi Corazon,” we hope will give many people a glimpse into the lives of young people in Washington Heights who are growing up “in the hyphen,” seeking their identity as they toggle between Dominican and American cultures, which can sometimes be at odds.
This project has been a very simplified introduction to a very complex theory, the relational cultural theory, which actually aligns nicely with biblical principles. We are all lost, flawed beings in need of God’s grace, and each other. Faith and fellowship must come first, so learning and growth can take place. This is the message that Operation Exodus consistently needs to deliver to students, mentors, parents and to ourselves, the staff.
If we can do that successfully, we will continue to build a community of people working together for the greater good of our youth, and the positive outcomes we all long for.
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