Surf and turf: notes from a mentoring workshop

Today, I went down into a neighboring county with some fellow Americorps for a workshop on mentoring given by Dr. Mentor herself, Dr. Susan Weinberger, the lady who literally wrote the book on mentoring.

It was a two-part piece. The first part gave an overview of a functional mentoring system, it’s benefits and it’s features. The second part was all about how to set up a functional mentoring organization including a mentoring alliance board (basically, a meta-board of partnering mentoring orgs in the community designed to help streamline, combine and collaborate efforst to make mentoring a strong, community effort).

It was a great seminar, and I came away very interested in looking into the mentoring set-ups available in this county. I know we have several groups doing mentoring, but I’m unsure as to whether or not we have any sort of collaborative board or org that would help align and multiply everyone’s efforts.

A big insight for me was the list of best-practices standards that the speaker considers bare minimal for mentoring, including a full application/interview process, criminal background checks and ongoing opportunities for feedback and support. I know good and well that a lot of mentoring set-ups are operating without at least some of these standards, and yet when you see them laid out they do rather seem like no-brainers.

Another biggie for me is that the speaker considers “TURF” to be a dirty word, in that fighting over resources, mentors, mentees, ideas, publicity and so forth only serves to limit the ability of any and all orgs to deliver services, whereas collaboration and openness increase everyone’s reach and efforts. I run into some of this at the place we run in the afternoons. A pre-existing afterschool program in the development has gotten the idea that we are there to compete with them, or even have them shut down. Which is definitely NOT the case. I mean, at best our afterschool program can only serve a small portion of the at risk kids kids on the brink of success* that inhabit the development. Having the other program shut down couldn’t possibly help us in any way. It would only serve to un-serve those kids that their program is currently serving. Plus such a shut-down would only serve to add fuel to the fire of anyone opposed to the such programs (yeah, they’re a few out there).

No, I want them to succeed and succeed brilliantly. I want them to take off like a rocket and become the model for any and all afterschool programs anywhere. I want them to grow and expand so much that I’m put out of business for lack of kids who need help.

And I’d cheerfully help them do it, too, if they’d let me. But they won’t have anything to do with us (Americorps), out of fear of competition or worries over of our motives or a determination not to share whatever limelight/resources/successes they have or whatever. And that just limits how much good either of us can do, since we end up doing it separately and alone. Realistically, there are only so many resources to go around. And since, in public service as in marriage, two collaborating orgs can almost always eat as cheaply as one in terms of staff, equipment, space and so forth, splitting these between two programs that will each need a certain baseline of duplicate resources (computers, staff, space, etc) is just wasteful madness.

I don’t get it, but then again I don’t get a lot of things that seem to preoccupy the minds of people who think life is a zero-sum game and that any win for someone else is a loss for them. As far as I’m concerned, your win is my win, because I can always learn from your successes and be uplifted on the surf of the rising tide your success creates. Your success means I don’t have to invent my own version of the wheel, but can work from your functioning blueprint and thus creating a larger wealth of community resources and services in a shorter period of time. And your success means that my success is that much sweeter, because it doubles the chance that those we serve will be able to find us and make use of us, instead of being SOL if the one of us who “wins” is too far away, too full, too busy, too underfunded, too monolithic or too limited.

Anyway, as you can tell, turf is a big rant with me as well. And I’m hereby nominating it as candidate for official Four Letter Word status, in recognition of the obscene damage it causes and obstacles it creates. Heck, it even has the “F U” built right in (both alphabetically and in terms of end results).

*Oh, yeah…Dr. Weinberger hates the term “at risk” with a vengence. She makes the accurate point that “at risk” is way too negative and that if kids hear it enough they begin to believe it, and then live it. As I listened to her opinion on this issue, I began to feel how my views of my homework club charges was already colored by this label (being surprised when the kids turned out to be getting A’s and B’s at mid-quarter, seeing them as problems to be fixed instead of kids upon whom reasonable expectations of success could be made, feeling superior and self-righteous for my efforts to save the poor huddled masses, etc). It was a realization both humbling and shaming in the extreme.

OTOH, I really like her alternative, “kids on the brink of success,” much more. Not only is it semantically more positive, but it’s just as accurate a description of their situation, in that “glass half full” way of seeing things, and not nearly so damning as a categorization. Looks like my kids are getting a “promotion” from in danger of failing to in sight of succeeding. And I (a professional marketing copywriter, of all people), am getting a well-deserved kick in the pants for failing to recognize the power of the words I was using and the failure-oriented situation they create from day one.

Gah! Every time my ego congratulates me on getting somewhere, reality conspires to show me just how far I’ve yet to come. Stupid ego.

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