I volunteered as a mentor for Chance UK after seeing an advert in a newspaper. They were specifically looking for black male role models to help coach young black boys, primarily.
After several weeks of training, a successfully completed police check and a lengthy interview, I was paired with a 10-year old a mixed-race lad, JJ. I accepted the challenge, graciously, after reading about the child’s troubled background and felt particularly connected to him.
During my first supervision some time later, I was asked if there were any issues. I said no at first, but when pressed, admitted that I would have preferred a black child–since I believe that they are more disadvantaged in British schools. My twenty-something year old white male ‘manager’–a former picture framer and ex-volunteer mentor with Chance UK–looked at me as if I’d slapped him. The boy in question is “the best of both worlds,” he informed me.
The best of both worlds? What rubbish was that? Now I happen to think that all children are the best of both worlds; that of their mother and father. I have absolutely no preference for one child over another based on perceived ideas of race–and believe that each child has potential that should be properly nurtured–even if special attention may be required as in this case.
The manager’s comment was exactly the point I was trying to highlight about why I believe that black children are more disadvantaged in British schools and society in general as they are more often given less attention than others. A few weeks later, he found some trumped-up excuse to remove me from the case, offering to pair me with another child. For although JJ and I got on extremely well, I was apparently rude to his mother in a text message (which I only found out about one year later, after pushing for clarification on why I had been withdrawn from the case).
His mother was bipolar and on medication. He never knew his father but had a younger white brother who saw his dad. He was said to be acting up at school because various black men kept coming in and out of his life–now through no fault of my own–I had just become another one.
I had been called into an emergency supervision meeting along with a more senior member of staff, and told that I had been “judgemental,” and would now be removed from the case. Would I like to go away and decide whether in fact I want to continue as a mentor for Chance UK. However, there was no suggestion that I would make anything other than a very good mentor.
I was shocked. The last time I had seen the family, we sat out in the garden and talked quite merrily about the reptilian pet shop I’d just taken JJ to in Camden. And although his mother had shouted at him–because he now insisted on having a pet snake for his birthday–there was no indication whatsoever of any problems between her and I.
When challenged, the manager was unable to come up with any facts to backup his “judgemental” assertion, and no other explanation was given for why I was suddenly being removed from the case. Since this was my second supervision session, I actually wasn’t expecting a third party to be present, and several weeks later, I was still waiting to receive recorded notes from the meeting, which I felt should have included a detailed explanation of exactly what had transpired and why. Except for a brief email to say that my expenses for June would be in the post, one month later, I was still waiting for the cheque and had had no word from anyone at Chance.
If the organisation was really that serious about recruiting more positive “black male role models” as mentors, then someone should have at best telephoned to see what decision I had made about being matched with a different child–presumably a black one. At the very least, I should have been sent a copy of the supervision notes, if only as an indication of due process. It left me with a bitter taste. I felt totally demotivated as a mentor. More importantly, it would have been nice to say goodbye to JJ, and I feared that the episode would only serve to further damage his perception of black men and the mentoring process in particular.
I wrote my concerns in a letter to Chance and got on with the business of starting my Masters degree. The reply I received on Wednesday 17th June 2009 was dated 11th August 2008. It suggested that I had been rude in a series of text messages exchanged with “mum” about arranging a suitable time to pick up her child. I had never been informed of this at all until now. If I had known that I had inadvertently offended her in any way at the time, I would have apologised at once. No slight was intended or implied on my part.
The letter went on to state: “a decision was taken, with the best of intentions, not to tell you that mum had requested that you be taken off the case as the mentor. The idea was to save your feelings clearly was not the correct decision to make and however hard it is to hear you should have been told the truth from the beginning.”
Any idea that they had been trying to save my feelings is completely laughable. I had never felt so bad about anything in a long time. I walked around for months feeling that I had done something terrible wrong, which was further compounded by the sensitive nature of working with children, especially other people’s children.
Now, it’s always essential to know what one has been accused of before trial and sentencing. Even suspected terrorists are afforded that basic human right and a chance to challenge unsound accusations under British law. Non-verbal forms of communication, particularly SMS text messages, can be so fraught with misleading interpretations that any opportunity to discuss the perceived slight with “mum” would have been most welcomed.
I still have an email detailing the series of text messages exchanged between us at the time. It had seemed to me as if she was reliving past associations with the boy’s father. So, eventually, I rang the manager to ask if he could fix with her suitable times to pick up the child and get her to stick to them. This was especially important to me as I was shortly to start a masters degree and could no longer change arrangements to suit her whims. Most mentors work 9-5 and can usually only do evenings. He said, “that wasn’t going to happen because mum wasn’t going to change,” but it turned out that he had never spoken to her about it at all.
The letter of explanation I finally received went on to say, “although we could not make this particular relationship work because of your relationship with mum, there was no suggestion of any problem with your relationship with JJ. As such it was felt that you should be asked if you would continue as the mentor of another child.”
My relationship with mum? All I did was pick up her child, take him out on a fun activity for a few hours, and bring him back safe and sound. The one time I hung around to chat was because I felt bad leaving him crying during their shouting match after the pet shop incident.
She had suggested that I could call her at any time, night or day, but that simply wasn’t going to happen beyond the pick up and drop back. As I walked into the house, when the manager first took me to meet the family, the boy blurted out, “My dad’s name is Paul…he’s got dreadlocks as well…he’s from Jamaica and he’s forty. You’re about forty, aren’t you?” I couldn’t help but smile. From that moment, I knew that there should be as little fraternising as possible with mum, which was totally against the dictates of the charity, anyway. The ‘match’ here all seemed a bit too close for comfort. We had each been warned during training to have no further contact with our allocated family after the year was up.
“As a result of your concerns we have decided to revisit our practices with regards to mentors being withdrawn from a case. Following such a meeting in the future a letter will be sent out detailing the discussion and the decisions made. We have also agreed that honesty to the mentor is very important from the beginning and will ensure in future that mentors will be informed as to the reasons why they have been taken off the case even if that might prove to be a difficult conversation for all concerned.”
Well, I am certainly glad that lessons have been learnt, which may ensure that others are not treated in the same shabby, off-handed way. Still, I can’t help but wonder: Would a black mother with mental health issues who accused a volunteer of rudeness be so readily believed? Or would the two be brought together to try and resolve the situation/misunderstanding first?
“I do want to ensure you that we are very serious about our recruitment of black male role models and very serious about supporting all our mentors. We do always, however, have to put the needs of the child first and when the two conflict unfortunately the mentor cannot be our top priority.”
I accept, of course, that parental permission is required for any mentoring relationship to continue. And it’s obviously the ultimate get out clause in the face of poor management skills and a clear organisational error of judgement.
“We are still keen for you to be matched with another child and are hopeful that you are still willing to volunteer for us.”
“I have attached the letter I sent to you on 11th August 2008. I am not sure why you did not receive it at the tie and I apologise if it was due to any mistake on my part. I hope this letter answers your queries.”
Gracia McGrath O.B.E.