From “Babas” to “Play Moms,” mentoring goes multicultural


Twice a month, Kwasi Nate Russell, a database manager for Wells Fargo Bank, talks to a fourth grade class at Harvest Preparatory Boy’s Academy on Minneapolis’ north side—and he takes an invisible spray can, he says.

“I say, ‘Boys, I have this spray. We are going to prison proof you. Education will keep you from being incarcerated,’” he said. “I tell them all the time. ‘I don’t want you going to jail.’”

At Harvest Prep, Russell and other community volunteers are known as “Babas,” the Swahili word for father. Some of the boys at school don’t have fathers. The Social Fathers program started in January 2006 to provide boys mentors and role models. The curriculum focuses on respect for self and others. The Babas move up a grade level each year to stay connected with the same kids. “I think what they need is consistency,” Baba Kwasi said in an interview. “They need someone to show up all the time.”

Third in a series of three articles on mentoring and the Minneapolis Blueprint for Ending Youth Violence
MAD DADS push mentoring in Minneapolis: Civic leaders plan broad citywide effort
Minneapolis mentoring smorgasbord: A taste of success
From “Babas” to “Play Moms,” mentoring goes multicultural

During a recent visit, Baba Kwasi read to the class about Malcolm X and gave out dictionaries, encouraging the boys to build their vocabulary. “I don’t know all the words,” he said. “Every time I look up a word, I highlight it.”

The Babas and the vast majority of Harvest Prep students are African American, and Baba Kwasi said that connection is key. Too often the media images of African American men are “thugs, crooks, rappers, knuckleheads and sports athletes,” he said. The students “don’t see any people that look like them in authority or who are educated.”

Want to get involved?

Here is a list of Hennepin County mentoring programs.

Here is the Minneapolis Blueprint for Youth Violence Prevention.

Minneapolis leaders aim to increase mentoring programs as part of a youth violence prevention program. A disproportionate number of at-risk youth are children of color. In a city of 100 languages, how important is race and culture in a creating positive mentoring relationships?

Gloria Lewis, president of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Twin Cities, said there are varying opinions on that question. From her perspective, mentoring relationship between people of different backgrounds work well. She would not have enough Big Brothers for her African American boys if she did not have non-African American men willing to mentor, but that is not the point, she said. “The point is the relationship. The point is – can this kid see the benefit of what this match is? Can the mentor understand that you have to cross the cultural barriers? There is a lot each can teach each other.”

Mentors and Role Models

Minneapolis leaders long have recognized the importance connecting youth to racial and cultural traditions as a part of healthy development. In the mid-1990s, the Search Institute issued a report as part of a major city effort to increase community supports for youth.

According to that report: “For many Minneapolis youth, there is considerable strength in the traditions, symbols, and values of their cultural heritage. Particularly for youth of color, this heritage includes the concept of elders, the primacy of intergenerational relationships, [and] respect for figures of authority… Programs and people that help to deepen these roots should be supported and expanded.”

Mentoring programs continue to address that issue. For instance, Big Brothers/Big Sisters is adding mentor training on cultural issues this year. The Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota is developing more training materials for other programs.

Long-time youth advocate Delroy Calhoun makes a distinction between the types of relationships that mentors and role models have with youth.

Calhoun, Center Director for Loring, Nicollet-Bethlehem Community Centers, recalled his former teacher and coach Earl Bowman, who was a role model because he was black, too. “He never knew how important he was to me,” Calhoun said. “He was a teacher so I became a teacher. I remember thinking many times, ‘OK, how would Mr. Bowman handle this situation?’ I wanted to be just like him.” Calhoun said he also has had mentors of different races, both men and women.

“If you have a role model, a role model says, ‘Be like me,’” he said. “But a mentor says: ‘I will help you be what you want to be.’”

La Opportunidad has a one-to-one mentoring program with 15-20 youth, said Maureen Springer, Latino youth program coordinator. Many, but not all, mentors are Latino and several long-standing matches are cross cultural. Still, she said, “it is huge” for some kids to have a Latino mentor who has graduated from college. “It depends on the youth.”

Mai Moua, CEO of St. Paul-based Leadership Paradigms, Inc., said she had wonderful mentors growing up, but could have benefited from having a female Hmong mentor in particular. “There are a lot of things that are not obvious, unspoken cultural values or norms,” she said.

As one example, Moua said Hmong community members all understand the concept of being “a good Hmong girl.” It means you get married, you have a family, you are obedient to your parents and relatives, and other people come first, she said. If she were struggling with career issues, a Caucasian mentor might tell her to be assertive and not worry about what others think – without fully appreciating the difficulty of going against strong cultural currents of being “a good Hmong girl.”

“I don’t have to explain that to a Hmong female,” Moua said. ”They would understand.’”

Sang Mouacheupao, business manager of Hmong Today, recalls the importance of having a mentor outside his culture. As new immigrants, he and his younger brother had very little contact with American culture; other than school, they stayed at home and watched television. His mom’s friend and her husband befriended them, taking them to movies, playing board games and giving them comic books, he said. “They infused main stream life that we would have never seen.”

Lost in translation

For some new immigrants the idea that some stranger would “mentor” their child is a foreign concept, and meets resistance. Doris Parker, executive director of the Liberian Women’s Initiatives of Minnesota said in Liberia, they have a similar concept called “Play Moms.” It grew out of Liberian Christian boarding schools, where older girls would care for younger girls because their real Moms were far away, she said. The Play Mom role expanded to the community at large.

In explaining mentoring to some Liberians, Parker said she says, “This is what you have been doing for many years. Mentoring is not something new. It is old that has been around in our culture. However in this society that we are in right now, they call it mentoring.” Parker and others are starting a small Play Moms mentoring program for Liberian girls, she said. They will start with professional Liberian women as mentors, but could expand it later.

At Harvest Prep, staff and volunteers have discussed expanding Babas to include men from other backgrounds, said Rev. Janet Johnson, the parent liaison who helped start the program.

“We feel it is very important for them [students] to see people who are like themselves, standing up front taking care of themselves—and maybe who have been through some tough times and have now got their lives together,” she said. “We have white collar Babas, blue collar Babas and no collar Babas.”

Scott Russell is a journalist. He wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999.