by Jean Rhodes
“Democracy is not the business of government. Democracy is the power of people to author their lives, to decide together what kind of society they want to live in. And young people should have a voice in that discussion.” Constance Flannagan
Mentors are often instructed to avoid discussing politics. Yet with social distancing and school closures, many youth are cut off from the classroom and intergenerational discussions that can help them refine their thinking and give them a sense that their voice matters in our democracy. In a new study, Martinez et al. (2020) point out that schools represent “a key context to engage young students in quality participation experiences (e.g., school radio or newspaper, students’ council) through which they can perceive their voice matters, have a sense of influence by taking part in decisions that matter to them. Students’ participation in decision making and sense of influence in school may be experiences attuned to youth’s personal needs of autonomy and self-direction.” Mentors may have an important role to play in compensating for these lost opportunities.
Moreover, in this political climate, is it even possible or advisable to avoid politics altogether? In a recent New York Times column, Thomas Friedman, wrote that he has never witnessed more intense social and political strife in American life. And that’s saying a lot. As he notes, “I grew up with the assassination of Martin Luther King and raging street battles over civil rights and Vietnam. And yet this moment feels worse — much less violent, blessedly, but much more broadly divisive…There’s the battle between those who feel the American dream has slipped from their grasp and those who can easily pass it on to their kids. There’s the one between rural small-town Americans and “globalized” city slickers, who, the small-town folks are sure, look down upon them. There’s the fight between the white working-class Americans who feel that their identities are being lost in an increasingly minority-majority country and the Americans who embrace multiculturalism. And there’s the struggle between men who believe that their gender still confers certain powers and privileges and the women challenging that. There are so many fields of dispute.” Such strife seeps into our everyday lives and, regardless of whether we chose to explore or ignore, it can affect our mentoring relationships. Particularly since many mentoring programs serve marginalized youth, and many mentors are more privileged, adults can find themselves struggling with whether (and how) to confront the issues that divide us. Mentoring and other youth development programs provide training, guidelines and support around many topics. But, as University of Colorado Boulder psychologist, Ben Kirshner noted, “[w]hat is less well-articulated in youth development practice or theory is how these caring adults should engage in conversations with youth – those who are marginalized because of their race, class or sexual identities – about the political context of their lives, particularly in ways that don’t further pathologize their neighborhood or peer groups” (p. 29, 2015).
What does the research say? Beaumont (2010) has argued that “a supportive, encouraging, and stimulating social context may help individuals to develop a feeling of competence to understand and generate ideas, and to discuss social and political issues.” (cited in Özdemir, 2016). A recent study, which focused on teacher support has some answers. It suggests that non-parent adults, including mentors can play an important role in the development of civic engagement. As Özdemir et al., (2016) note, “when youth perceive their teachers as introducing civic and societal issues in an inspiring way, this generates excitement among them. Youth developed more positive feelings toward civic and political issues over time, and in turn took the initiative to bring civic and societal issues to the attention of others in their class. … Overall, our findings suggest that teachers have a potential role in intervening in young people’s common beliefs about civic and political issues—politics is “boring”—and in stimulating youth through their teaching style…[A] sense of efficacy might provide youth with the confidence and courage to undertake civic actions (Beaumont 2010). It is possible that youth who believe in their civic ability may see the classroom as a potential setting to influence their peers and make them aware of civic and societal issues. Such ideas may activate them, and thus youth might bring civic and societal issues to the attention of others in class voluntarily.”
Of course, not all youth want or are ready to talk about these broader social justice issues; some just want to focus on the specific needs or circumstances that led to their referral to a mentoring program. However, if the conditions are right, and if mentees are so inclined, mentoring relationships may provide a context in which to discuss difficult issues. Doing so has the potential to help both parties learn about themselves and one another, facilitate bonding, and strengthen the relationship. For instance, a surprisingly profound discussion about racial injustice could stem from a straightforward discussion of the news. Such conversations need not be awkward. Many youths crave opportunities to discuss these topics, especially when they are engaging with adults who take their words and perspectives seriously. For some mentees, their mentors may be the only adults in their lives who acknowledge them as experts of their own experiences. Assuming these conversations are relevant and worthwhile is almost always going to be less harmful and more beneficial than assuming they are not. Moreover, conversations such as these have the added benefit of honing and improving young people’s cognitive abilities. The Russian psychologist, L. S. Vygotsky, described a “zone of proximal development” in which learning takes place for young people – it’s beyond what a young person can do when thinking about an issue on his or her own, but within the range of what he or she can do with adult guidance. When stretched into this zone, youths’ mental and emotional capacities grow. They begin to think more clearly and critically about the world and issues in the news. As critical as these types of conversations are, they are scarce in American homes, schools, and oftentimes, mentoring programs.
Connie Flanagan, Professor of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the book, Teenage Citizens: The Political Theories of the Young (Harvard University Press), encourages mentors to discuss the political issues that affect their mentees’ lives and society, “It is very appropriate for mentors and mentees to discuss politics. And not just every four years. National elections are moments in history when political issues and the direction we want the country to go are on the minds of most Americans. If a mentee raises a topic in the news, the mentor should ask the young person what his/her opinion is on the issue and why. This helps the youth to clarify where they stand what they understand about the topic or might still need to learn. Listening to the mentee’s views also sends a message that his/her opinions are worthy of respect, that adults should pay attention and take those ideas seriously.
Mentors should share their point of view as well. Regardless of whether they agree or disagree, as long as the exchange is respectful, political discussion is a way to deepen understanding. When mentors discuss political issues with their mentees, they can show that disagreements don’t have to divide us and that politics doesn’t have to be bitter. Citizens can work together, despite our differences. If we want the younger generation to be informed and to vote when they’re old enough, we should engage with them in civil discussions of politics and current events when they are young.”
As Martinez (2020) note “Experiences of participation with others in contexts where youth feel their voice and perspectives are taken seriously build the ties that bind citizens together and can actualize the values and tenets of the larger societal order… and provide a context for young citizens to develop agency and political efficacy.”
Martinez, M. L. , Cumsille, P., Loyola, I., Castillo, J.C. & Vicuna, M. (2020). Patterns of civic and political commitment in early adolescence. Journal of Early Adolescence, 40, 5-27.
Özdemir, S. B., Stattin, H., & Özdemir, M. (2016). Youth’s Initiations of Civic and Political Discussions in Class: Do Youth’s Perceptions of Teachers’ Behaviors Matter and Why? Journal of Youth and Adolescence 45, 2233–2245.