Mentoring: Breaking the Cycle of Low Expectations

Roderick Bridges, Judge candidate for Dekalb County, mentors youth year round for one simple reason: it helps break the school-to-prison pipeline.

Working in the criminal justice system, you quickly see a pattern: Men go to jail, children grow up in an environment with absent or in-and-out fathers and struggling mothers, the children follow in their fathers’ footsteps, and the cycle goes on and on.

It sounds too simple-minded to say. Surely the situation is more nuanced than that. And yet, day after day we see it play out right in front of us. Another conviction means another vulnerble child.

This is not to say that the “system” is to blame. The Judicial System isn’t perfect, but it wasn’t designed to deal with the socio-economic problems our community and children face every day. The Judicial System can’t reach out to young people who need a listening ear and a guiding hand – who need help finding their way forward. But we, as members the community, can.

That’s why Roderick Bridges, the attorney, spends his free time mentoring young men. And that’s why I am seeking to return to the bench: from my personal experience, being a judge who bridges the gap between the community and judicial system creates an opportunity for a better outcome.

If you and I are willing, we can help at-risk kids in Dekalb County. Let me tell you a little about my experience as a mentor.

Last Saturday morning, as is my habit, I sat down with a group of middle- and highschool young men at McNair High School. The vast majority of these young men come from single-parent homes and have minimum contact with their fathers. 

One of the young men, a 13-year-old, was upset because his mom had kicked him out of the house again after an argument. He was staying at a friend’s house, where an older brother had a constant stream of strangers showing up at the front porch to buy drugs. I had asked him how his math test had gone that we studied for last Saturday, and received a  blank stare that said it all. He wasn’t focused on getting ahead. He was just reacting to people and circumstances in they way he’d seen modeled, and it was already taking him in the wrong direction. He needed a mentor who could help him imagine a different way of life.

Before I started meeting with these boys, the concept of a man who holds a steady job, takes care of his family, and has the respect of the community was something they thought of as an anomaly. Maybe they respected a man like that, but they had no practical idea of how to be like him.

What they did know how to do was skate by, talk their way out of trouble, get what they wanted from other kids, look intimidating so they wouldn’t get pushed around by others. The skills they were developing in their environment had nothing to do with producing something of value that could earn them a living.

“If they see it, they can be it.”

Over the weeks and months, we talked about basic concepts that at first seemed completely foreign to them:

  • Showing up. You can’t be successful if you can’t get yourself where you need to be.
  • Respecting yourself and others.
  • Loving yourself, because if you don’t, nothing else will satisfy you.
  • Education for living. It’s not just about getting into college; it’s about learning to take care of yourself and others.
  • Reaching out for help, because none of us made it to where we are alone.

But we don’t just bring them a pamphlet and pat them on the back. We model these things for them. We show them what it means to be dependable, to give without expecting anything in return, to stay in the relationship when it gets tough, but to expect respect.

They are not all success stories. And it can be slow work. But it pays off over a lifetime.

It results in healthy young men and women who have hopes and dreams and aspirations — who can see opportunities outside of their current environment and socio-economic position — who learn to respect others around them, including their parents. It produces men and women who go on to be successful and have a great family of their own.

It’s tempting to stay uninvolved. After all, this is not a problem we created. But we know there are kids out there who are hungry for whatever help we have to give. And frankly, our lives are better for the experiences we have with them.

Do you know of a young man who could use a mentor? We can help!

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