Empowering Mentors, Empowering Youth: Remembering Brother Mike

“Mentorship to me at its core is about love, you loving what you do enough to pass that knowledge on to the next person” – Brother Mike Hawkins

The typical mentor at a YOUmedia Learning Lab has an active creative practice. These mentor/artists include video producers, rappers, poets, fashion designers, illustrators, and more, and often they are relatively near in age or spirit to the youth they serve. Mentors have the ability to authentically connect to youth, nudging them to use tools to express themselves in deeper ways. However, in order to be effective, mentors need to possess more than an interesting creative practice, knowledge of relevant tools, and a youthful perspective; they must have talent combined with the ability to contribute to a caring, supportive environment for youth in their library, museum or community center.

In the world of Connected Learning and YOUmedia, Mentors are the ones who are on the front lines of youth support and services. They guide youth directly by teaching a skillset (e.g., how to use photoshop), developing a project (designing a poster), and working collaboratively and providing an opportunity for youth to connect to and collaborate with peers. Mentors also help guide youth as they identify and articulate their interests, and connect those interests to larger opportunities and pathways (job and educational opportunities). Often, a youth may walk into a learning lab and know that she wants to be a rapper, but she may not know how to make beats or record and mix audio. The mentor breaks down that process with her and encourages her along the way.

Most importantly, the mentor listens and acknowledges youth interests, opinions, and voice. The mentor validates the youth, and through that validation empowers and supports them to pursue their interests through creative projects. Mentorship is not about forcing a transferral of knowledge and skills; it requires a conversation and exchange. Good mentors are able to gain trust and create a supportive environment where youth are comfortable and can be enthusiastic about learning something new. Mentorship requires vulnerability and openness on both sides, and is rooted in kindness, patience, social justice, and equity.


photo from connectedlearning.tv

Mike Hawkins, known to the YOUmedia Learning Lab network as “Brother Mike” defined the role of a mentor at YOUmedia Chicago through his kindness, joy, intelligence and generosity. He spoke about mentorship from his perspective as a poet, and reminded us of the power a creative adult can contribute to and gain from working with youth. Brother Mike was an endless advocate not only for youth, but for the community of mentor/artists who supported those youth. He saw the importance of not only listening and giving voice to youth, but listening and giving voice to practitioners. He said, “We always talk about this idea of empowerment… but you can only empower students if you empower the adults around them.”

When an institution employs artists as mentors, it acknowledges their skills and the expertise of the local creative community. Many young artists have difficulty finding jobs where they are encouraged to bring their creative practice to work. The mentor role provides an antidote to the problem many young artists face with the dichotomy of a job that provides a steady income versus their creative practice and passion. The mentor position also creates a connection to a demographic that many libraries and museums do not typically engage: creative adults in their 20s and 30s who may not possess a current active relationship with the library of museum, but view it with fond nostalgia. As the mentors validate youth in these spaces, through the mentor role, institutions validate the creative community.

The position also provides the context for the artist to develop a creative working relationship with youth in their community. Opportunities for artists and youth to come together otherwise in a public setting and work collaboratively on creative projects are few and far-between. The mentor position further enables artists to move beyond themselves as performers or musicians through working on creative projects alongside youth. This activity can help the artist to reflect on their own pathway to articulating their perspective and experience through a creative practice, and help youth to see pathways as well. Ryan Hill, the Director of Digital Learning Programs at the ARTLAB+ at the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC writes, “Contemporary artists often deal with subjects like identity, sexuality, gender, race, and class—many of the same issues teens grapple with as they try to make their place in the world.” Jean Rhodes at the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring has written extensively about the importance of finding similarities during relationship-building in the mentorship process. She writes, “Particularly when the staff have overcome obstacles (difficult neighborhoods, underfunded school systems) similar to those confronting youth, staff can serve as concrete models of success, demonstrating qualities that the youth might wish to emulate and offering training and information about the necessary steps to achieve various goals.”

One of Brother Mike’s strengths was his ability to reflect, from an poet’s perspective, about why the work of a mentor was so important. He discussed his own powerful experience as a younger man who had an interest in spoken word poetry with his own mentor, the poet Regie Gibson. One of the first things that Regie asked him was, “who do you read?” to which Brother Mike responded with “me.” Regie said, “I’m going to work with you” and introduced Mike to a world of writers and thinkers that shaped him as a poet and creator. Unconsciously or not, Brother Mike grew to ask that same question to his own YOUmedia mentees, and acknowledged the strength of a give-and-take in a mentor relationship, “As a mentor, I can learn from a student who actually has some training in this and can say ‘that’s good, but—.’ I think that’s the type of critique that we look for and we push each other on,” Hawkins says. “We can push each other and have that relationship because of the skills that we both bring to the table.”

Brother Mike passed away on December 3, 2014 at the age of 38. There has been a heartfelt outpouring of support across multiple national communities that Brother Mike touched, including an article on the Digital Media and Learning Blog, a personal reflection by Connie Yowell, an obituary in the Chicago Sun Times, and hundreds of messages on twitter with the hashtag #brothermike.

Brother Mike brought joy, poetry, and reflection to the YOUmedia Learning Lab community, and pioneered a way of rethinking how libraries, museums, and community centers can be transformative, powerful places of learning not only for youth, but for a community of artists and for public institutions committed to social justice, learning and equity. As the YOUmedia Learning Lab network deepens and expands, and we see how the city of Chicago and the national community has come together to celebrate his life and his work, we remember Brother Mike as an exemplar of the power of the Connected Learning Model.


top image from Digital Youth Network Facebook page





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