Mentoring: A Bridge Out of Poverty

By Barb Dawson, WCGL Intern

In her book “Bridges Out of Poverty” author Ruby Payne outlines many of the social structures that support the cultural and economic divide in America today.  Payne identifies the many differences in socio-economic class values that impact the way people in poverty, middle, or wealthy classes see and interact with the world.  These values are then manifested in our culture as rules, norms, and behavioral standards that differ for each social class.  Then they become invisible “barriers to entry” or “barriers to social mobility” for people transitioning from poverty to middle class (and vice versa).

Payne identifies several ways to break down these barriers, but highlights all of the good that can be done by individuals with the simple act of mentoring. Mentoring is the process of teaching an individual how the world works.  To bridge people out of poverty,     mentoring is about teaching the values, rules, norms and behavioral standards of the middle class to those who have not experienced them. With this information and knowledge, individuals can more successfully navigate and participate in the world they are transitioning into.  Payne recommends mentoring people to learn many new skills, but there are several key concepts including the following:

  • Workplace Rules. The basic rules of timeliness, reliability and dress code are important, but functioning in a professional work environment also requires conflict management skills and an understanding of how to develop and maintain professional relationships.  An individual transitioning into a work environment will need to understand them all.
  • Problem Solving Skills. Individuals need to understand that there are always many options for solving a problem. Mentors can teach problem identification and evaluation as well as, strategies for developing and executing solutions.  Teaching problem solving skills may require some “basic training” in areas such as positive thinking, effective coping strategies (negotiation, communication), planning, or time management.
  • Connecting People and Resources. Individuals need strong personal and professional support systems to survive in the world today, no matter the social class.  An individual bridging out of poverty will have a particularly strong need for support in both their personal and professional lives.  A mentor both provides support directly and facilitates the development of a more robust support system (by teaching the art of networking for example).

To be clear, the goal of mentoring is not to minimize or devalue the norms or standards of the culture of poverty (or any culture), or to imply that the values of any socioeconomic class are superior (or inferior) to another.  Mentors must be careful to teach these new skills without judgment for the old skills that may no longer serve the individual.

Mentoring is customizable and can be structured in any manner that best fits the mentor and the protégé.  There is no best way to mentor, you can do whatever works.  Mentoring can be general, with an individual teaching many skills across a variety of topics (family, friends, work, etc.) or specialized (financial management). It can be formal (structured appointments, goalsetting assignments, etc.) or informal and occasional (monthly coffee chats).

No matter the structure, mentoring works.  Research has demonstrated a correlation between mentoring and success.  If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t be the mainstay of business, schools and non-profit organizations.