July 8, 2014

Mentors, for Life

EDC’s 7th Generation National Tribal Mentoring program makes a difference for youth and adults

On many weekends, Jennifer Kolden and Anna, a young woman Kolden mentors as part of EDC’s 7th Generation National Tribal Mentoring program, can be found at the mall. Or at a local pow wow. Or even playing lacrosse, a sport with deep Native American roots.

In fact, since the program matched Kolden and Anna in 2012, the pair have become like family. Last December, they even spent Christmas with Kolden’s parents and siblings.

“I really see her as my little sister,” says Kolden.

In 10 sites from Massachusetts to Alaska, EDC’s 7th Generation National Tribal Mentoring program pairs native youth who are either at risk or already involved in the juvenile justice system with mentors who help guide them towards safe and responsible life choices. The program has fostered strong connections between mentors and young people since 2009.

7th Generation’s emphasis on community and culture has made it unique among mentoring programs. For Kolden, who is Arikara from the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold, this cultural aspect of the program was critical.

“The cultural match was extremely important to me,” she says. “It helped build a strong foundation for our relationship.”

Drawing on research that shows that young people who are proud of their heritage tend to make positive life choices, the 7th Generation program works to instill positive cultural values among at-risk youth who have often suffered through difficult family and socioeconomic conditions. Mentors incorporate tribal history, values, and culture into their one-on-one work with their youths, helping them see that they are part of a larger community.

These values of community and shared responsibility, which are such an important part of Native Americans’ cultural traditions, are reinforced during monthly events for 7th Generation mentors and youth. And while the long-term goal is to keep these young people out of the criminal justice system, which interrupts so many lives in Native American communities, a more immediate concern is to improve their educational outcomes.

The program’s approach is paying off. Last year, a 7th Generation youth who had previously struggled with school attendance won a trip to Washington, D.C., for not missing a day of school. EDC’s Valerie Larsen, who directs the program, credits the student for making education a priority—but she also praises his mentor’s efforts to find a way to develop a relationship with the youth.

“The youth was reluctant to start a relationship,” says Larsen. “Like most of the young people in the program, he had been let down by the adults in his life. But the mentor found out that he liked to bicycle, so he fixed up an old bike for him. They would go for long rides together. And now they have this great relationship.”

A community approach

The process to become a mentor is intense, befitting a program that expects mentors to treat the young people with whom they are matched like family. Candidates who pass an initial 12-hour training are asked to make a two-year commitment to the program before they even meet the young people they will be welcoming into their lives. Once matched, mentors and youth are expected to make contact at least twice per month, in addition to the monthly group event.

Linda Herrera, who is a member of the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe of Montana, became a 7th Generation mentor because she was in search of a way to connect with tribal youth after moving to Minnesota from California.

Herrera and Dezee, the young woman she mentors, share an interest in dance and beading and have even been to Minnesota Lynx basketball games together. Herrera recounts a story about attending a health fair with Dezee and her mother. She was touched when Dezee introduced Hererra as her “aunt.”

“It felt great,” she said. “The family has really taken me under their wing, too.”

Looking ahead

While mentors can help youth improve their educational outcomes or stay out of the juvenile justice system, they can also help youth see new options and possibilities for their future.

“Through 7th Generation mentoring, we want young people to look down the road and see a future for themselves while staying true to the cultural heritage that they are a part of,” says Larsen.

Kolden describes once asking Anna about her future plans. When Anna had no response and didn’t seem to see many opportunities for herself, Kolden took her to visit a former workplace in downtown St. Paul. She showed Anna her old desk and described what she did and why it had been important to her. Soon after, Anna was talking about different jobs she would like to have.

“It opened her eyes to what could be,” reports Kolden.

Kolden, like Herrera, feels like her own family has been expanded by becoming part of the 7th Generation mentoring program.

“I think it’s important for Anna to be part of my larger family,” she says. “And she has really opened my eyes to the struggles that kids go through these days. She’s really enriched my life.”