When I ask businesses and others to step up to mentor, they ask, ‘what are you guys doing’? And I say, ‘Here’s our Mentors Program…mentoring is an act of citizenship…at the end of the day, we’re put on the earth to make the world a better place…being an American is not a spectator sport.’
~ Mayor Greg Fischer, City of Louisville
When speaking about his groundbreaking new mentorship program, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer did not limit his rallying cry to moral exhortation and sound bites. He set a goal: to sign up 10 percent of the city’s workforce – 600 individuals –-as mentors. And he anchored his exhortation in city policy.
Louisville’s Metro Government Personnel Policies, states, in 1.21 (1), “The future of Louisville rests in the hearts and minds of our young people -we must do all we can to plant the seeds of future growth and success in our young people –The purpose of this policy is to allow all Louisville Metro employees to act as mentors for area youth.” The policy continues (1.21 (4): “Metro employees qualifying to participate in the program will be allowed up to two hours per week, to be used during their regular work shift, in order to volunteer at one of the program’s partner organizations with the purpose of mentoring at-risk youth in our community and shall commit to participate for a minimum of one year. This time will be paid.” (See http://vp.telvue.com/player?id=TO1343&video=224376, and http://louisvilleky.gov/government/safe-healthy-neighborhoods/be-one-mentoring)
“We talk the talk, but now’s the time to walk the walk,” asserts Sadiqa Reynolds Chief for Community Building, top aide to Mayor Fischer. “Ours are public employees, and we see this as part of their public service commitment.”
Anthony Smith, who directs the Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods for the City, has woven mentoring into “One Love Louisville,” the City’s comprehensive violence prevention/community building plan. He views mentoring as an essential crime prevention tool: “We have a lot of kids who might be involved in the criminal justice system. They need positive adults in their lives right now. And there are kids in the third grade who can’t read. They’re in danger of dropping out and getting into trouble.”
Sytisha Claycomb, a city employee who serves as the Administrative Director for the Youth Detention Center, points to the powerful effect of mentoring on her life. Having helped her mentee complete his GED, and now working to enroll him into a local university, she states: “I felt like a proud parent at his GED graduation this morning at the institution. All the facility workers, line staff and other kids and family attended his graduation. He thanked me from the stage. Thanked me! I can’t tell you how honored I felt.” She also underscored one of mentoring’s core purposes, namely, steadiness and reliability in otherwise chaotic, mistrusting lives. Speaking about her mentee, she noted that “He doesn’t need another person dropping in and out of his life. He needs consistency.” The City’s program asks for a year’s commitment. Not enough for Sytisha: “I originally signed up for one year,” she stated, “but I’m committed for at least two to make sure he’s solidly on his next path.”
In addition to consistency and trust, exposure to a wider world and to trusted adults who can provide that exposure, lie at the core of a successful mentoring program. Says Smith, “The mentees need to see a better world than they see now, a wider world, the wide horizon of Louisville and beyond, because all they know is their tiny corner.” City employees can introduce them to that wider world. As Smith notes, “We’re actually talking about job shadowing now, kids coming into city hall and other places to see what people actually do.” Darryl Young, another mentor, echoes Smith’s sentiment: “We who have made it take for granted that everyone has people to look up to, people who are examples of jobs, of opportunity.”
The paid mentorship program instituted in Louisville offers city employees increased incentive to serve as positive examples for at-risk youth, and the program serves as a model of what can be accomplished by cities willing to dedicate resources to such an endeavor. The key takeaway: this model doesn’t add additional costs to city budgets. It simply allows employees to spend two hours of their work mentoring youth . Two hours makes little difference in employee productivity and a huge difference in the lives of young people. And Mayor Fischer is quick to recognize that not every city employee is prepared to mentor a youth who has been in trouble or who finds him or herself in a particularly turbulent, even violent situation. His response? “I understand that, but come on, everyone can help a third grader read!”
Note: It’s an idea that’s taking root at the federal level. The Department of Justice recently approved two hours a week (8 hours a month) of paid administrative leave for Office of Justice Program (OJP) employees to receive training and perform academic mentoring at a DC area public school through an already approved afterschool program. Echoing Louisville’s Reynolds, Beth McGarry, OJP’s Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General said, “When I returned to OJP one of my goals was to ‘walk the walk’ and set up a program for our employees to mentor.”Cities throughout the nation are embarked on mentoring campaigns, especially for at risk children and youth. The Louisville and the Department of Justice examples show that the government can model what it is asking citizens to do.