It's National Mentoring Month, a time to recognize the power of mentoring and celebrate those who guide others. The mentoring program at the Reentry Campus Program is crucial for building support networks for people coming home from prison.
Mentoring works. The practice helps healthy development in younger people by encouraging positive choices, promoting high self-esteem, supporting academic achievement, and introducing new ideas.
These relationships can be life-changing and life-saving for young black and brown men. In a survey of 2,600 Americans gathered from the national organization MENTOR, 74 percent of those with a meaningful mentor say that person contributed significantly to their later success.
Mentors with similar life experiences have a powerful impact on those they work with. After incarceration, returning citizens have to build back a lot for themselves when they come home, so having someone they can trust, who knows what they’ve been through, makes a big impact as they settle back into their communities.
For an on-the-ground perspective, I spoke with Ron Hopkins, an RCP mentoring program alum who also works with Boston Uncornered as a mentor, and Rob McKinney, our mentoring coordinator, to talk briefly about the power of mentoring and what it means to them.
Ron mentors people of all ages and came to it organically as he got older because he knew he could use his influence and past to help deal with problems in his neighborhood, "A lot of the stuff I was doing when I was younger made an impact on the community in a negative way, so I wanted to give back."
Lack of housing, jobs, or finances can be a challenge when he’s trying to help people: "Some young ones just might need a mentor. Or they just might need a therapist to talk to about it, and maybe pay someone so there can be financial burdens."
His favorite part of mentoring? "Watching people's journey, people fulfilling their goals, and watching people grow."
For Rob, mentor coordinator for the Reentry Campus Program, mentoring entails much more than being a good role model. He had positive figures in his life growing up, but not like the kind of mentor he strives to be. The coaches or teachers he looked up to were good people, but he would only see them in school or sports. They wouldn't necessarily guide or advise him with a hands-on approach to making life decisions or being a better person.
Rob does it differently: "Mentoring is a little bit of a few things. You do have role model ingredients in mentoring, but the difference is that you do a lot more explaining. Mentoring is when, through conversation, you're supposed to help someone learn good qualities. Mentoring is more teaching than being a role model. I look at mentoring as if you're a one-on-one teacher. A life skills teacher more than anything."
As a way to help his mentees, who are incarcerated or are coming home learn from mistakes, he shares what led him to 24 years of incarceration. Rob tries to guide them through challenges they may face from their peers and give them the confidence to assert their individual needs.
He said he recently used a scene from the movie "Boyz In the Hood" to illustrate to a mentee how asserting individual needs can change the trajectory of one's life. In the scene, "Tre," played by Cuba Gooding Jr., asks his friend "Doughboy," played by Ice Cube, to let him out of the car, leaving his friends to go home before they are about to enact revenge on their rivals. Rob uses this scene to encourage the young man to be an individual and make his own life decisions rather than letting peer pressure decide his future.
"'Remember when Tre got out the car?' He goes. 'Yeah.' I said, 'Everyone feels like he was soft; whoever watched that movie said: 'Look at this sucker getting out the car,' you know? I said, 'And you fast forward the movie five minutes, and what do you see? You see Tre coming out of his house, a free man walking across the street to see Ice Cube being handcuffed and going to jail for the rest of his life. Who's the sucker? Who wins and who loses?'"
Rob says that asking his mentees to trust him to be there for them can be one of the most complex parts of the job: "The challenging part is asking them to hold my hand, and I'm going to make sure you're alright. That's hard to believe, and that's hard for them to believe. They're like, my parents can't protect me 24/7. That is the hard part because you have these kids that are in the street that you're trying to convince to change their lives, to not do things that they have to do to survive. And you can't be there 24/7. You can't walk with them. That's the hard part."
But he says it's the little ways his mentees express their appreciation that he loves the most: "The best part is when you see results. The best part is results and it could be the littlest of the results. It could be someone…" Here, Rob reaches for his phone to find a specific text and starts reading: "'Happy New Year's, man. Thank you for everything you've done for me.' But then he writes under it. 'Seriously.' That's the reward for me just to receive a random text like that. It was New Year's, you know? He didn't have to do that; this is the same guy: 'Appreciate you for everything you've done.' And that's the reward. I don't do it for me, I do it for my aunt, that raised me. I do it for John; that's the man's life I took. I do it for Wayne, that's my friend that got killed. I do it for them because I can never repay any of them. So, I try to throw my grain of salt in the bucket. A leaking bucket that can never be filled up, you know? But that's who I do it for."