Billie James, Mentoring Lead at The Way Wolverhampton Youth Zone, shares her experience of youth mentoring, and shows that safe, stable and nurturing mentoring relationships have a significant and transformative impact on young people.
‘Failing to invest in children and youth triggers substantial economic, social, and political costs resulting from negative outcomes such as early school drop-out, poor labour market entry, risky sexual behaviours, substance abuse, and crime and violence’ (United Nations Youth, 2013).
Many young people across the UK face an ever-growing amount of personal, social, economic and educational barriers on their journey to adulthood. With 61 per cent of local authority districts containing at least one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK (2019), it is not uncommon for young people to grow up without access to positive role models in the form of mentors, leaving many underprepared for life as an adult.
Safe, stable and nurturing mentoring relationships are shown to have a positive impact on the negative effects of adverse childhood experiences and can significantly help young people to realise their full potentials (2018), in comparison to those without access to mentoring support. Youth mentoring, with its ability to establish and maintain the formation of meaningful and long-term relationships, can provide young people not only with these essential role models but can also, when employed effectively, have a significant and transformative impact, improving long term health, well-being, education, employment and overall quality of life.
In 2017, I joined the team at The Way Youth Zone and began designing our new EMCC award-winning mentoring programme, providing individualised 1:1, group and peer mentoring support to young people aged 8 to 25 years old. Inspired and motivated by the quote ‘Treat a child as though he already is the person he’s capable of becoming’ (Haim Ginott) I was able to apply my own experience of youth provision, avoid the implementation of strict eligibility criteria and rigid mentee goals, and ensure that our programme was accessible to all young people. The focus of the programme is on where young people are currently, and where they want to be in the future.
Our mentoring programme is committed to supporting everyone who is part of it – including all mentees, mentors and staff – to see what they are capable of. I believe that by continuously promoting a cyclical culture of mentoring, we can all experience its associated benefits, and in particular our young people can receive the support they deserve.
However, one of the main challenges we have encountered is what appears to be a very varied and skewed perception of what youth mentoring actually is. Mentoring can be perceived as a privileged or corporate opportunity that you can only access from a position of employment or further education. At the other end of the spectrum, mentoring may be perceived as an intervention for young people who are experiencing severe personal, social or behavioural difficulties.
Neither of these perceptions are inclusive and neither are relevant to what mentoring actually is, or has the potential to be, for young people. When youth mentoring is employed with a focus on the individual, and is led by the unique needs of each mentee, it has the ability to build strong and lasting personal foundations, enabling young people to really expand their aspirations regardless of the barriers or limitations surrounding them. This in turn can have incredibly positive outcomes for socio-economic development, social inclusion and community cohesion.
Based on my own experiences as a mentee, a mentor, and a mentoring lead, if I was to provide any advice or recommendations for youth focused mentoring programmes it would be as follows.
Invest in your mentors as whole individuals
One of the main reasons our mentoring programme has been able to have such an impact on young people’s lives is because our volunteer mentors have committed a substantial amount of their own time, energy and experience to support their mentees. Our team of volunteer mentors are genuinely the most inspiring, motivating and unique group of people I have ever met, and it is the energy that they all continuously bring to the programme that makes all the difference and changes lives.
It is imperative that mentors are invested in as whole individuals. It does not take much to show a genuine interest in a person, taking time to acknowledge them as the individuals they are and showing a sincere awareness of what is important to them. It is mentors who are the backbone of mentoring programmes across the UK, and it is crucial they are supported holistically and aided in accessing opportunities relevant to their own aspirations as well as their own personal lives. By investing in our mentors on a personal and humanistic basis, they are better equipped to invest in our young people as whole individuals.
Expand your reach and remove limitations
This year we have really worked hard to ensure our programme meets the diversity of our wider community, and as a result we have provided mentoring support to young people on a wider scale of individual needs, across a wider age range and geographical location.
Mentoring young professionals within universities and workforces is important and it is essential that we ensure these young people are given avenues and opportunities to progress and develop. However, there are many more young people who are not able (or have not been supported) to access further education or employment. Many of these young people come from working class backgrounds in areas labelled as deprived, and they are incredibly ambitious, entrepreneurial and passionate.
All young people are entitled to be supported to recognise that their aspirations are attainable, and it is on all of us who hold relevant resources and lead mentoring programmes to remove as many barriers as possible and, where feasible, take our support to those who need it.
Youth mentoring should be youth led
There is an ever growing number of youth focused mentoring programmes in the UK, all with varying focuses and goals. While it is remarkable to see such a variety of provision, we should remember that, generationally, we perceive the world around us differently in contrast to the young people we support. Because of this, everything we offer must be led by the voices of young people, while at the same time we, as older generations, take the responsibility to change and evolve. This might mean having the courage to overhaul or close down ineffective mentoring programmes, relocate resources, and recognise when what we are doing needs to change.
Young people are the professionals and the change makers of the future. They are crucial to our own futures and the future of our country. They are individuals many of us will employ – or, if we have mentored them well enough, will employ us.
Billie James is Mentoring Lead at The Way Wolverhampton Youth Zone, and EMCC International Mentoring Award Winner 2018
Photo: UK Youth Climate Coalition under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0