Why mentors need to stop trying to fix black and brown students

The dangerous premise that kids are at fault when it’s really the system

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Black and brown students need good schools, great teachers and professional opportunities – not personality mechanics. We should place more energy in fixing what makes schools unattractive rather than creating mentoring programs that attempt to bang square pegs into round holes.

Last week, I signed on to be a mentor for a new school-based program created by Grand Rapids, Michigan, Public Schools named Grade School to Grad School (G2G). G2G focuses on black and brown boys who are chronically absent and have low grades. Students will be paired with mentors primarily coming from university partners, professionals and members of faith-based organizations.

Trenise Duvernay talks to Miracle Lee, left, and Danny Dinet, center, as she teaches fourth grade math class at the Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans.

Trenise Duvernaytalks to Miracle Lee, left, and Danny Dinet, center, as she teaches fourth grade math class at the Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

During the meet and greet section of the program, one aspiring mentor asked me a question for which he already had an answer. “Why is it these students don’t work hard,” he stated. He went on to list all that is wrong with black boys without once questioning the schools they attended.

Let’s be clear. There is nothing wrong with black and brown children. To illustrate the point, I often (as I did in the meeting) bring up Thich Nhat Hanh who wrote, “When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look into reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.” However in education, we constantly blame children for disengagement. What about the schools?

Related: School districts respond to growing fury over police shootings, black male achievement gap

Don’t get me wrong. Mentoring is an essential cog in the personal and professional development of young people. Where would any of us be without a mentor? Invariably, someone ushered most of us in our jobs, academic disciplines and social clubs. Naturally, mentoring programs are popular panaceas for school engagement.

Schools and universities should be settings for mentoring programs by any other name. I endorse G2G and other effective mentoring programs across the country.

But great mentoring carries the assumption that a person belongs in the guild, social setting or institution that he or she is moving toward. Chronic absenteeism should signal there is a problem with the school more so than with the students. In addition, actual members of a field have the responsibility to shepherd future members in the club in order to sustain it. A pastor simply can’t usher a student into engineering like an actual engineer. This is why I’ve always asked that states demand their teachers to have majored in the discipline she teaches. A mathematician can only usher someone into the cultural field of mathematics. In this regard, teachers should be considered the first line for school-based mentoring.

Consequently, we need teacher diversity. The notion that race shouldn’t matter when it comes to teaching limits the number of cultural access points into a field. Teacher prep programs must be evaluated on the diversity of their yearly cohorts. Chemistry doesn’t have a bias per se, but the gatekeepers to the field do. Diversity removes some doubts of teacher bias.

Related: Still segregated after all these years

The pool of future biologists, teachers, engineers and social workers who are actively being recruited into their respective fields should be as diverse as the range of talent our world offers. Just as jazz started as a black musical genre in New Orleans and developed into one that is played and appreciated by the masses; so should STEM.

But the cultural and social norms of math, biology, English (can’t get more Eurocentric than that) and other fields have not been inclusive. Math has traditionally been seen as the domain of old, white men. Henry Louis Gates penned Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars, which is a great resource on how writers of color found (find) it difficult to move into the American literary neighborhood.

In this regard, we can never lose sight that those who teach curricula must do a better job in attracting and retaining students who come from the other side of the tracks. In this regard, the mentors need mentoring. There’s nothing wrong with our boys of color.

Related: Where have all the black and brown teachers gone?

There are norms and mores to every field, but they shouldn’t be so rigid that they lead to African Americans only making up “nearly 2 percent of the physics faculties across the United States, including the faculties of HBCU’s” according to the American Physical Society. Again, our students aren’t broken; there is something broken in schools. We must constantly demand that gatekeepers to a field demonstrate a willingness to accept black and brown boys. Again, the mentors need mentoring.

The disparities in almost every profession highlight the need for mentoring in schools and universities. And there is a need for greater community engagement, which I think many aspiring community mentors actually provide. These mentors should be advocates on behalf of the students and help investigate the students’ interactions at the schools.

Nevertheless, mentoring shouldn’t be an exercise in fixing. Ironically, one thing that breaks men and boys of color is the constant banging that something is wrong with them.

Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The GardenPath: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.
All donations doubled through the end of the year.

Join us today.


Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

Letters to the Editor

Send us your thoughts

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

No letters have been published at this time.