Cultural Competency, A Continuing Discussion and Reflection


Theresa is a valued mentor with diverse experience in the military, living in many different areas of the world, and recently had been matched with a mentee (who has, unfortunately, relocated) that had very different experiences than Theresa. Theresa’s valuable insight and first-hand experiences with cultural competency create a continuing discussion about how mentors relate to mentees, as they are, more often than not, from extremely different backgrounds, socioeconomic situations, and cultural experiences. In reference to an earlier in-service in which Dr. Audrey Ervin spoke about cultural competency, microaggressions and pre-conceived notions about race and ethnicity, we, as the Tabor Mentoring Program, were able to change our frames of reference, reflect and discuss. Theresa has reflected on her experiences in the passage below:

The first time I met my mentor match, I was a bit surprised to see that she was black. I don’t know why I assumed she was white, but I guess I had. Was even that assumption a product of my social standing? And had she automatically assumed I was white? If so, what other assumptions about me were tied to that?

I began thinking on this after reading an article by Dr. Bernadette Sanchez, about dealing with cultural mistrust in mentor relationships.

Due to summer travel and a sudden relocation of my mentee, our relationship was not a long one, and during the time we were together I can’t say that I felt a lack of trust between us any greater than the natural uncertainty in a new relationship. Nevertheless, in her complaints about interactions with other adults, I sometimes thought she was too quick to call them or their motives racist. Maybe I was too quick to dismiss them as such, but really I think it speaks to my mentee’s cultural mistrust that Dr. Sanchez addresses. Many minority youth are taught, either from experience or in a “heads up” warning from their parents, that they will be treated differently because of the color of their skin. For those of us who grew up without experiencing that firsthand, it can be difficult to comprehend living daily in a sort of defensive crouch.

Our in-service on cultural competency discussed this issue, and emphasized that “different” can mean far more than race. It is sad to think how youth today are naive only in their very first years, not knowing what comes with being “different” until evidence is experienced or witnessed. It is important that mentors understand how this reality can create an inherent level of mistrust in their relationship, but that it can also be overcome, as Dr. Sanchez suggests, with “wise feedback,” persistence and expressing belief in your mentee’s ability to succeed.

On one of our outings I took my mentee to see the movie “Belle,” the true story of a mixed-race girl raised in 18th century England as a member of a white family with high social standing. Belle was treated with privilege and equality within the family, but dined alone when guests came. She did not realize the truth of her status in society until she and her cousin became of age to seek marriage. Belle fought the social injustice she realized existed around her, and my mentee and I both left the theater admiring the character’s courage. I still hope that my mentee remembers that movie when she needs a confidence boost in facing adversity, and even though my time with her was short, I hope she remembers one White woman who was willing to give her a chance and a helping hand.

Read Dr. Sanchez’s article. My guess is that Tabor’s fantastic mentors have a good understanding of this issue, but you may still find another nugget of wisdom that proves helpful in navigating today’s social landscape.


Flash Forward – Head Start to President

A challenge for many of our mentors is that they may never see fruits of their efforts. Many of the benefits of mentoring are not quantifiable … improved confidence, self-esteem, sense of connectedness to the community and adults. I recently came across an article about one of the first young men in the 1960s to take part in the Head Start program and is now the president of a multi-million dollar non-profit. Read on to learn about Darren Walker and how local programs can forever impact a disenfranchised youth: