Why Mentors Are Critical to YOUmedia

The success of a Learning Lab environment turns on effective mentoring. As evident in the three-year evaluation report of Chicago’s YOUmedia, relatable mentors are the linchpin in teen engagement. But why?

Tené Gray, director of Chicago’s Digital Youth Network (DYN), the prototype for Chicago’s YOUmedia, and K-Fai Steele, teen programming specialist at the Free Library of Philadelphia, a Learning Lab, explained why finding the right mentor is so important.

“Mentors are on the front lines of our programming,” said Steele. “They’re the ones who are responsible for getting kids to articulate their own interests. Mentors have insight into kids’ mental processes. They have to pick up on cues, and make something productive out of it.”

Mentors, said Gray, have a dynamic role, and serve a purpose that is quite different from a parent or teacher. They help teens connect the dots and recognize those moments when they can help youth dig deeper into their interests. Gray said, “Mentors help youth answer questions like, ‘Why do I create?’ and ‘Who do I want to be?’”

At the Learning Labs, mentors are integral to the program. Often experts in their own fields, they help teens identify new interests, nudge them to expand their horizons, and offer them access to new people and resources.

The role of mentors has been an evolving one at YOUmedia and Learning Labs. Drawing cues from early experiences at DYN and YOUmedia in Chicago, Labs are nudging not only teens, but also adults to re-envision their roles in the spaces. Librarians are no longer focused solely on providing resources. They become educators as well. Art directors must step back and realize that their art expertise is only has helpful to a teen when he or she needs it to realize his or her own ideas. Mentors in museums might have to step back from a fully geeked out mode and start from where the teen is. And mentors who love to plan lessons ahead of time and follow a schedule will definitely have to learn to give up that control in favor of encouraging teens to design the programs they want to see.

As Taylor Bayless, a lead mentor at YOUmedia Chicago, put it in a recent video, “In the past I’d had more of the teacher experience, where you stand up in front of a class and have a curriculum, week 1,2,3,4,5, and you teach it. With this program, it evolves and I can’t anticipate what’s going to happen, who’s going to show up on a given day. So I had to shift my thinking on how to really engage the students.”

She let go of her preconceptions of what a workshop on critiquing video games in a weekly podcast should be and let the teens take the program where they wanted it to go. Their level of involvement shattered her perceptions of teen gamers. “I had the stereotypical narrow view of how teens thought about video games and how they played video games.” But, she said, they dove into topics like feminism and depictions of women in video games and took the discussion to areas she never thought they would, mainly because they had taken ownership of the program and, with her help, had seen new avenues of critique to pursue.

Mentors are also changing how the organizations view curricula and teen involvement. “I have an artist background and I think about how interesting it is when you bring an artist into a library setting,” said Steele, creating an interesting juxtaposition. In many ways, the meshing of different sensibilities and cultures, like artist and resource-driven library environments, pushes everyone to expand their boundaries.

Mentors with credentials in game design or music production add another element.

When mentors have a personal portfolio of their own work, says Gray, “it builds social capital. Kids trust you because you are who you say you are. It also allows for both parties to critique each other’s work.”

Building “social capital” means not only bringing one’s own portfolio to the table but also understanding “what youth bring to the table and the ways mentors can learn from it,” says Gray.

“Mentors must be connected to popular culture to some extent. It helps if kids can say, ‘You care about what I listen to, and about what matters to me.’ They need to know what youth are geeking out about. As a mentor, you can help that development,” she said. “They also must have an understanding for where kids are developmentally, culturally, socially, and personally.”

And when it comes down to it, versatility and self-motivation are also critical traits. “I need someone who can change the activity if it’s not working,” said Steele

In the end, it pays to take the time to find the right mentors because mentors are critical to the success of the program and the growth of teens themselves. Researchers from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, for example, find that across the board, mentorship positively affected school engagement. Students who had a mentor figure in their life had greater self-confidence, enjoyed academics more, and believed themselves to be more likely to graduate from college than those without mentors.

Researchers from the University of Chicago found similar results at the YOUmedia at Howard Washington Library. “Relationships, particularly between youth and adult staff members, are crucially important in engaging teens toward productive growth,” they wrote.

Research by Jean E. Rhodes, editor of The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring,” has long documented the benefits of relatable mentors. “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,” wrote Rhodes.

Steele witnessed a shift in thinking about mentors after Learning Lab coordinators met in Washington, D.C. last January. “It felt like everyone was echoing each other about the importance of hiring the right mentors—because it’s true.” Now, said Steele, “We need to support them and find ways to tie the programming to their individual interests. It’s a really tricky job to figure out how to help each mentor flourish.”

In addition to ensuring a mentor’s personal growth, Gray and her peers at DYN are working to widen the traditional meaning of “mentorship” and to think more deeply about the alternative kinds of mentors for youth, both on and offline.

“Think about people in afterschool spaces, or even security guards,” she said. “We’re working to broaden this definition of mentors, but also understanding that they all play a different role.”

Broadening the concept of “mentor” is something that founder of the DYN Nichole Pinkard touched on in a recent interview with the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. Pinkard suggests we should be rethinking the traditional relationship between mentor and mentee.

“We have to figure out how to get rid of some of our expectations around who can connect to whom,” she said. “There’s no reason why a kid couldn’t be a mentor to an adult and vice versa around a shared passion or interest.”

Nor do mentors have to be long-term connections. Pinkard suggests that short-term mentorship can be just as valuable as something more consistent or long-term. “I might be your mentor for just the next 40 minutes. … We can’t assume all mentoring opportunities will be lifetime connections.”

Whether long-term or short, these things are certain: mentoring in YOUmedia and Learning Labs is critical to youth and the success of the spaces, and the role of mentors will continue to evolve and grow.


Photo/DYN Photography.