Today’s Solutions: July 20, 2024

By connecting people across the planet, mentoring programs can break down the barriers between rich and poor, North and South.

Jay Walljasper | Jan/Feb 2006 issue

Once there was a kid who seemed to have everything going against him. He was poor, blind and black, living in the backwoods of the American South during the harsh days of racial segregation. But he did have one great advantage in life: a next-door neighbour who showed him how to play the piano.

The kid’s name was Ray Charles, and he changed the world as we now hear it by shaping the future of rock ’n’ roll, soul and country music.

“Wiley Pittman, he was a cat,” Charles recalled in an interview before his death in 2004 “If it hadn’t been for him, I don’t think I’d be a musician today.”

Pittman owned a general store and café. Each afternoon after the lunch crowd left he’d sit down at a battered upright piano and play boogie-woogie—a rollicking bluesy style of music popular at the time. Charles remembered that from the earliest age he’d stop whatever he was doing when he heard the first notes fly off that piano and slip into the café to listen and learn.

“I realize today,” Charles said, “that he could have said, ‘Kid, get away from me, can’t you see I’m practising?’ But he didn’t. He took the time.”

Ray Charles was orphaned as a teenager but he was accomplished enough on the piano to make a living, and he journeyed across the country to Seattle where he played in nightclubs until the early hours of the morning. He’d stumble home at dawn, dog tired, only to be woken up at 9 a.m. by a neighbour kid eager to learn about music.

“I’d get up out of bed—sleep just didn’t matter anymore because it was him,” Charles explained. “You could tell he wanted to learn, he wanted to know. And because I was able to show him some things, that made me happy, that’s what stirred my heart. I could help this kid.”

That kid’s name was Quincy Jones. He went on to become the world’s most legendary record producer, performer and composer, winning 26 Grammy Awards and receiving 77 nominations—more than any person in history. Like Ray Charles, Jones was also eager to give something back to other kids. He became a driving force behind We Are the World, a pioneering global-relief effort that produced a No. 1 hit and the album USA for Africa to raise money and awareness about hunger in the developing world.

“When we met I was 14, he was 16,” Jones remembered. “I just looked up to him because he knew how to do it all. He always used to say, ‘Quincy, play the music the way it was originally conceived because that’s the original soul of the music…’ And that stuck with me the rest of my life.”

The way Ray Charles learned from his neighbour is a classic example of how mentoring makes a huge difference in someone’s life. Throughout history, mentoring has been the primary way that wisdom and practical knowledge have been passed down—from parents, teachers, grandparents, spiritual leaders, godparents, village elders, master artisans, coaches, co-workers and friends of the family. The word itself goes back to Homer’s Odyssey, which recounts how before leaving on his long journey, Odysseus asked a close friend to watch over and guide his son. That friend’s name was Mentor.

Today, perhaps more than ever, mentoring stands as a valuable tool that can help young people make the most of their lives—especially those born into poverty or suffering under the weight of other social ills. This simple human act of helping someone else, multiplied by the millions, can change the world.

Kids today are often on their own in figuring out how the world works, especially if they come from a disadvantaged, single-parent or stressed-out family. But young people who do find a caring adult willing to spend a chunk of time with them have a distinct advantage, according to a study of 90,000 American adolescents published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in September of 1997.

Since the time of that study, notes Jay A. Winsten, associate dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, the number of kids in mentoring programs throughout the United States has jumped from 500,000 to 2 million. That’s still a fraction of the estimated 17 million American kids who need a mentor because of family or socio-economic disadvantages—but it’s a promising start.

The surge of interest in mentoring in the U.S. can be traced in large part to the dramatic results of a 1993 study. Researchers divided 1,000 kids seeking mentors into two groups—half were paired with a mentor through the well-established Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and half were put on a waiting list. The kids, aged 10 to 16, were all from single-parent families and 80 percent of them lived in poverty. Compared to the kids without mentors, the study found that kids who had maintained contact with a mentor for at least a year were:
— 46 percent less likely to experiment with drugs
— 52 percent less likely to be truant from school
— 33 percent less likely to exhibit violent behaviour

Marc Freedman, who conducted the study (and later co-founded the mentoring organization Experience Corps) , says he first thought something was wrong with the data. He had not expected results anything like these. Another big surprise came when he discovered that very few of the mentors in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program had any background in youth counselling, psychology or education.

“It was just the relationship itself,” he recalls. “They were ordinary people spending 10 to 12 hours a month with these kids, taking them to McDonald’s and ball games. It’s like that old Woody Allen line: ‘Ninety percent of life is simply showing up.’ They showed up for these kids and they listened to them.”

Jean E. Rhodes, psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston who has studied mentorship programs for more than 20 years, cautions, “I don’t want you to think this is a panacea. It’s not that mentoring can solve all our social problems and that we don’t need government programs and don’t need private programs. But the effects of mentoring are dramatic when you look at relationships that last at least a year, and at quality programs.”

By “quality” she means programs in which mentors are carefully screened and prepared, rather than thrown in with a kid with little sense of what to expect. Rhodes’ research suggests failed mentoring experiences leave children in worse shape, reinforcing their experiences that no one can be trusted to care about them.

Mentoring programs are growing rapidly around the world. The idea is well-established in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. A program launched in Singapore’s schools has spawned the Asian Mentoring Partnership, which hopes to spread the idea throughout the region. Susan G. Weinberger, a former teacher and school administrator who helped launch the Singapore project, as well as programs in Canada and Bermuda, notes, “It’s the same issues with kids over much of the world: peer pressure, bullying, drugs, alcohol, gangs, shoplifting and self-esteem. I sent a list of the issues to officials in Singapore for them to adapt to local conditions, and they said they were exactly the same problems.”

Many experiments are underway to expand the possibilities of mentoring. Some schools now invite volunteers into the classroom to tutor and mentor students. Businesses too are signing on to the mentoring movement. New York City’s Bloomingdale’s department store pairs employees—including the CEO—with kids at a nearby public school. Yellow school buses from New York’s largely African-American Harlem neighbourhood roll into midtown Manhattan regularly, stopping at the offices of the Goldman Sachs investment firm so students can meet with their mentors. A Dutch company is cultivating a connection with new African businesses (see sidebar “When two worlds cooperate”).

And mentors aren’t just for kids anymore. The National Retired Teachers’ Association is launching a campaign to link beginning teachers with seasoned classroom veterans to encourage and inspire the novices. A similar program in California sets up young doctors with long-experienced peers.

Up to this point in history, mentoring has been seen as an exclusively local solution to problems. That’s great as far as it goes, but it can’t fill the greatest social need of the 21st century: the widening gap between impoverished people—especially in the developing world, where half the population exists on $2 a day or less—and those who are more prosperous.

The recent emergence of e-mentoring, using e-mail as the primary bond between mentors and mentees, opens up a new world of possibilities for connecting people. The AOL Time Warner Foundation has recently teamed up with the advocacy organization Mentor to assemble a tool kit (see promoting this newest step in an age-old tradition of people inspiring one another.

That makes it easy to envision a new era in which people of all ages exchange ideas and share knowledge across borders. You no longer need to be a high-powered figure like Quincy Jones with all kinds of superstar friends to be able to make a difference for struggling people in the developing world.

Imagine a company in Chicago extending a helping hand of expertise and encouragement to a struggling start-up firm in Thailand. Imagine a village in Belgium pooling its resources to offer assistance to a village in Zaire. Imagine students in Japan keeping contact with students in Brazil. Imagine musicians in Montreal, environmental groups in Australia, railway workers in Switzerland, church congregations in Poland, software engineers in Korea and families in Florida reaching out to their counterparts throughout the world. E-mail and phone conversations could be supplemented by regular shipments of tools and goods, as well as occasional visits.

And the benefits won’t flow just in one direction. The Chicago company discovers that its growing familiarity with Asian culture opens up new lines of business. A sales manager visiting from Chicago becomes obsessed with Thailand’s temples and embarks on a successful architecture career. An elder from Zaire visiting his new friends in Belgium offers a suggestion for improving the local park to the great delight of the village children. A young Japanese woman meets her husband at a party in São Paulo.

Mentoring shows great promise for helping the world’s poor. The simple idea of fostering one-on-one relationships between people—in a community or around the world—also acts as an antidote to deep-seated distrust about aid programs. Many people resent their tax money going to foreign aid, since they don’t choose how and where to spend it And some suspect the lion’s share of donations to charitable organizations never makes it out of the front office. But because the contact in a mentoring relationship is personal, it melts resistance. It offers a direct, authentic experience—you are in constant conversation with the people you want to help, you come to understand what they need most, you offer something important on top of money and you get something back.

Mentoring offers us all opportunities to use our skills and knowledge to make the world a better place. We can, each in our own way, become Wiley Pittman—the boogie-woogie pianist next door whose heart and soul live on in the music of Ray Charles and Quincy Jones.

More information: (This Harvard School of Public Health Web site offers interviews, including Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, Colin Powell and many others) (The Web site of the U.S. advocacy organizaton Mentor) (The Web site of the U.S. Big Brothers Big Sisters organization)

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