Mentoring – Part 4: Cultural competency in mentoring

Mentors need to be adept at working with and understanding cultural differences.

Mentors and mentees often have differing backgrounds and lifestyles. Differences may include race, ethnicity, age, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation and culture. All mentors need to be adept at work­ing with cultural differences. When individuals fail to demonstrate an ability to respect and value diverse cultural backgrounds, they may harm the relationship. Michigan State University Extension recently released the Ready to Go: Mentor Training Tool Kit which provides 56 activities that mentoring programs can use in training to assist mentoring programs in building mentor skills. In Module 5: Cultural Competency activities help mentors understand their own cultural background and be better prepared to approach the mentoring relationship by being open to diverse perspectives, values and experiences. Tips from this module include:

  1. Dealing with labels and stereotypes is unavoidable. Everyone has them, and probably everyone has used them. Sometimes they’re negative, and sometimes they’re positive. Be aware of them and the ways they influence us, especially in mentoring.
  2. Values influence the decisions a person makes in his or her life regarding work, education and relationships. We learn values through interactions with cultural institutions such as family, media, religion, peer groups and government. A mentor’s role is not to change his or her mentee’s values. Rather, mentors can help young people to better articulate the source of their values while also modeling putting their own values into action.
  3. Realize that mentoring isn’t about “fixing” or “saving” your mentee. Your primary responsibility as a mentor is to honor the inherent worth each child brings into the world and respect his or her special cultural background. A difference in culture and in values isn’t something that needs to be fixed. Both mentor and mentee must work toward understanding to build a strong relationship.
  4. Stay in the relationship even though it may be challenging at times. Building a strong relationship takes time and effort, and the process is different for everyone.
  5. Be humble. You don’t know, nor will you ever know, everything about your mentee’s life. Don’t over-identify with him or her. Your mentee realizes that you will never know exactly what she or he is feeling or experiencing, and may actually feel invalidated by your insistence that you truly know where he or she is coming from.

Mentoring is a process and not a destination. Enjoy the process and seek support from program staff when needed. You are sure to make a difference in the life of a young person and you will probably experience more benefits than you can imagine. For more mentoring tips, read the rest of this series.

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