Q&A: Tené Gray on How Mentors Support Youth Development


9.24.13 | Tené Gray is director of the Digital Youth Network, a digital literacy program in Chicago that teaches kids to be meaningful producers of digital media.

This post is part of a series of conversations with thought leaders on digital media and learning, then and now. In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, leaders reflect on how the field of digital media and learning (DML) has changed over time, and where it’s headed.

Spotlight: How did you get started with DML initially?

Tené Gray: When I started out with the Digital Youth Network (DYN), I didn’t have a great deal of involvement with DML directly. I knew MacArthur was a funder, but I didn’t really have a clear understanding of the DML Initiative itself. My role was to develop mentors as teachers and support them in thinking about implementing best practices in a media literacy context. However, in the last several years, I’ve become more involved—I presented with the DYN team at last year’s conference.

That must have been interesting.

I remember sitting in a conversation about participatory culture. I realized this work went way beyond what we were doing in Chicago. I was impressed with how games were being used to promote learning and critical thinking. That experience had a tremendous impact on how I began to rethink learning for youth and to continue supporting mentors.

How did all that change what you were doing?

We want to make sure mentors know how to use technology and media as a way to design learning experiences that lead to identity building and artifact creation.

It changed the way I think about helping mentors support youth and learning in the online spaces. Mentors play a critical role both in face-to-face settings and online settings. We want to make sure mentors know how to use technology and media as a way to design learning experiences that lead to identity building and artifact creation. This, of course, has larger implications for how and when mentoring takes place.

There’s a lot of talk about mentors in DML. Tell me why is the mentor so important?

The mentor is at the core of the work. The mentor is the person who young people can talk to, learn from, and receive guidance from. The mentor provides resources, helps with personal and professional connections, and offers ways to imagine possibilities. Mentors in the DNY context support the development of digital literacy skills, and provide resources and feedback. These types of interactions help establish and deepen the relationship between mentor and youth.

Are there different kinds of mentors?

Some people like to think that everyone on staff is a mentor—like the security guard at YOUmedia, or the cyber navigator, or the librarian. Mentors gauge interest. Kids go to different people for different things. We have program mentors, who are volunteers that come to the space for short periods of time; content experts, who have brief, content-based interactions; and natural mentors, who are staff members who have natural mentoring moments with the youth who come to our space.

What are some of the biggest challenges your mentors face?

The social and emotional piece. We’ve got kids from under-resourced communities and dysfunctional homes, and they have real challenges they have to face day to day. We have kids come to the space whose fathers have been killed—how do you deal with that? How do we best support this student? The way we try to address these things is to come together in a collaborative group and figure out what do we know about this kid? Who’s the kid connected to? What resources are already in place at the library or in schools that we can make use of? What kind of mentor might this kid be comfortable with? Then, strategically, we figure out how to engage that kid in conversation. We try to help that kid take his or her pain and create learning experiences that help him or her express it through some sort of media production. In reality, mentors aren’t prepared to do this kind of work, but it’s a needed piece.

So what needs to happen to make sure mentors are prepared?

We need to identify challenges mentors face, whether social and emotional, technical, or pedagogical. Also, we could ensure mentors are prepared by bringing in outside experts to train mentors and provide additional resources to support youth in these areas. The goal is to provide mentors with relevant and specific strategies on how best to approach these types of situations.

What are the hurdles that need to be overcome for any of that to happen?

Everybody is talking about pathways and how pathways lead to larger opportunities, and badges and how badges demonstrate what a kid knows and is able to do. I think the same method should be applied to the mentors who work in the field. We have a lot of mentors who would love to grow outside of just their expertise or art form. So what would it mean to create professional pathways for mentors? There’s got to be something in badging, but my question is what does a badge mean to an adult? Mentors should definitely start attending the conferences and going to different sites so they can learn from one another.

My biggest hope is we don’t leave behind the kids who normally get left behind.

When you look at DML, what worries you?

My biggest hope is we don’t leave behind the kids who normally get left behind. I think as much as we try to be inclusive and think about the under-represented and the marginalized and the kids who don’t have access, I still sometimes worry that there are people sitting in a room making decisions about specific groups of people, and those people aren’t always being engaged in the decision-making process.

What’s the best way to grapple with that?

I’ve said maybe we should go to the communities and ask the folks what they think. How do we get parents engaged in the process? What do we think the role of parents should be? Well maybe we should go and ask them. I just think sometimes we don’t. That’s the part I struggle with. I think the results of these conversations might inform the design or redesign of learning ecologies. I feel like the concept of connected learning is trying to address this equity issue.—theoretically. I think people are passionate and really committed to figuring it out, I just hope we can.

Is there anything else you want to add?

This whole equity piece—is it just an espousal or is there going to be some real action behind it? That’s my biggest worry. I’m excited about the possibilities of connected learning and how DML has evolved, and what it’s contributed to the landscape of learning. But how do we create infrastructure to support the change in real, meaningful ways for all youth, no matter race, creed, or color?

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