By Kelly Medinger
A conversation with Sadiq Ali, Director of Maryland MENTOR
I recently caught up with Sadiq Ali, the founding director of our state’s new national mentoring affiliate, Maryland MENTOR. Its mission is to fuel the quality and quantity of mentoring relationships for Maryland’s young people and to close the mentoring gap. Given the Knott Foundation’s interest in supporting the mentorship of older youth in out-of-school time programs through our BOOST initiative, Sadiq’s perspective and work in the field is both relevant and timely.
Tell me about yourself and what attracted you to lead Maryland’s new mentoring affiliate.
On a spiritual level, I believe that when something is chosen for you, nothing can keep you from it. And likewise, when something’s not meant for you, it doesn’t matter how clear the path is towards that thing, it still is not for you.
I believe this role was really meant for me. Each person’s “sweet spot” is where passion meets ability. For me, I’ve always had a passion for supporting young people and seeing them do their absolute best. Of all the resources that we have available to us, I believe that people – our human capital – is what makes everything else go. If we invest in that, everything else takes care of itself. This role was the perfect meshing of my skills and passions, in the sense that I’ve always thought of myself as a people developer, and Maryland MENTOR is coaching people and organizations to work better with young people.
Also, coming from a situation where I was an entrepreneur (Sadiq founded and led a training and leadership development organization for six years), the opportunity to build this affiliate to become effective and impactful throughout the state was attractive to me because the entire path isn’t necessarily laid out.
Who in your own life stands out as a mentor, and what qualities made that person a good mentor?
My first mentors really came into my life when I was in middle school. I’ll never forget them. Mr. Shabazz, Mr. Phillips, and Mr. Alfred. They started an all-boys after-school program at my middle school in Prince George’s County. The name of the program was Umoja, which is Swahili for unity. The program was all about us being unified as a school, learning about our African heritage, and learning about leadership. I’m actually still in contact with these gentlemen today.
Two of the biggest characteristics my mentors brought to bear when they were with us every day were, first, they exposed us to new things. Opening the eyes and minds of young people so they can go explore what might be of interest to them is so important. Second, they listened very, very well without judging. This is critical for mentors. Too many times we judge young people for decisions that they’re making when they’re doing the best they can with what they have. You have to listen without judgement, while still offering feedback and support. The mentors that I had in my life early on absolutely did these things.
How many states have a national mentoring affiliate, and what resources does it bring to bear?
Twenty-six states have a mentoring affiliate right now, and there are plans in place to bring on another three or four by the end of this year. I think Maryland was the 25th affiliate, Georgia came after us, and DC and Greater Milwaukee are following closely on our heels.
The number one resource these affiliates offer is bringing best practices for mentoring to all of the different mentoring programs across a service area. We’re tied into this national network, which allows us to hear the best of what really high performing programs are doing across the country, and bring that information back to our own state’s mentoring programs. For example, we have the Elements of Effective Practice, which are six standards that are evidence and research-based that every mentoring program should have familiarity with. But if you’re operating in a silo, you don’t have the benefit of that information. We unify the mentoring ecosystem in our service area by bringing these best practices, training opportunities, and consulting to mentoring organizations.
Why is mentoring so important for youth, especially youth coming from disadvantaged circumstances?
First and foremost, I’ll say that mentoring is too often seen as just being of great benefit to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is one thing that I’m really working to shift the paradigm on. Mentoring – and I want to this make really, really clear – mentoring benefits all young people across the board. Absolutely there are more challenges for our young people coming from areas of high crime and poverty, but every young person can benefit from a mentor. The reason is that no young person, even those who come from families of means, gets out of making tough decisions and choices in life.
I strongly believe that young people can’t be what they can’t see. Mentors not only allow young people to be exposed to a caring and thoughtful adult, but if that mentor’s effective, a young person is exposed to a variety of things, a variety of people, and a variety of environments. And that exposure can set them off on a course that they might not have discovered on their own.
What are some of the “big opportunities” you’re hoping to capitalize on in Maryland’s mentoring sector?
First of all, there is a communication gap – a big, wide communication gap. Many of our programs that have been operating for all lengths of time – newer programs to some more mature programs – simply aren’t aware of some of the resources that are available to them. That’s been one of our key focuses early on, creating an email, social media, and communications strategy to connect folks to different resources. For example, there’s a national mentoring summit that takes place annually in DC. This past January was the eighth one. It was my first month on the job, so when I came back from the summit and was talking to organizations here in Maryland for the first time, I’d say, “Wow, I wish you’d been there!” And they would literally say, “What summit?” We’re talking about a conference with over 1,000 folks from across the country, all involved in mentoring in some way, shape or fashion, with hundreds of workshops by youth development experts. If an organization had sent a representative to that program, they would’ve filled their cup for an entire year. And they didn’t even know about it.
The other gap is around exposure to best practices, such as the Elements of Effective Practice I talked about earlier. There are tons of programs doing excellent work, and doing the best they can, that are operating without the best information available. That’s a huge opportunity for us to be out in the community and present it to them as a way to tighten their programs even more, and potentially have an even greater impact on the young people they’re already working with.
Any common themes that you’re hearing from mentoring organizations in Baltimore regarding their biggest needs and challenges?
Probably the top three themes would be mentor recruitment, fundraising, and parent/community engagement.
For mentor recruitment, we’re immediately directing programs to resources around creating segmented mentor recruitment strategies. This has been one of the big concepts that we’ve introduced so far to the ecosystem, that you can’t have a one-size-fits-all mentor recruitment strategy. If you want more black men, there has to be a segmented strategy for that. If you want more professional women, more seniors, or more college students – each one of these requires a different strategy.
The second challenge is funding. How do we – especially for the smaller programs – not consistently have to dig into our own pockets? Even though these are passion projects and a labor of love, it shouldn’t be leading people to financial ruin just to sustain the work. We’ve had a lot of conversations with programs so far about what funders are looking for, which is a great opportunity for collaboration with our affiliated funders like the Knott Foundation. We can help programs meet those standards. For example, we have a team of consultants that can help organizations develop solid mission statements, vision statements, logic models, and accompanying outcomes that can then be reported to a foundation with the message, “Hey, here’s what we’re doing on a shoestring budget. Imagine what we could do with an infusion of $25K or $50K.”
The last one would be parent/community engagement. The question here is, how can we get holistic support from each young person’s network? We’ll definitely be rolling out some more resources along those lines in the near future.
Tell me about some of the connections you’ve made in the community since coming on board.
We’ve connected to the Mayor’s Office, both in Human Services and their new Office of African American Male Engagement. We’ve also had the opportunity to attend the Mayor’s call to action meetings around holistic strategies for violence reduction in the city, where mentoring is a critical component. I’ve been named to MBK (My Brother’s Keeper) Baltimore’s Board of Directors, as they work to develop a citywide strategy to pursue MBK’s Community Challenge Competition to improve life outcomes for boys and men of color. And lastly, we’ve made great connections with the 24 local management boards for children, youth, and families, as well as the Governor’s Office for Children.
What accomplishment are you most proud of in your first 90 days at Maryland MENTOR? What are you most looking forward to in the year ahead?
There are several accomplishments. Getting our website up was a big undertaking. Scheduling town hall meetings – that’s been a big one. We’ve scheduled 14 different mentoring town halls across the state. We’re so excited to get the feedback from programs about how we can do the best job supporting them. And lastly, getting our training and consulting cadre in place. We have eight consultants who are experts in the mentoring field and are ready right now to start working with programs across the state in raising their standards.
In the year ahead, I’m excited about expanding our team. As we’ve made more of a mark and folks are aware that we exist, we’re getting more requests for services and support, which means this can’t be a one or two person operation. We were actually just approved for a second AmeriCorps VISTA and we’re searching for an intern right now to help with a couple projects we have in the hopper. I’m also excited to be talking to the Mayor’s Office about a major citywide mentor recruitment campaign. That’s all I can say right now about that!
As we’ve discussed in the past, the Knott Foundation’s BOOST initiative underscores our interest in supporting OST programs that mentor older youth. Any words of advice as we continue down that path?
Earlier this week we sent a Maryland delegation to the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s 50-state afterschool network conference. A lot of folks we met at the conference were really intrigued by the purposeful collaboration between the mentoring ecosystem and the out-of-school-time ecosystem here in Maryland; in other words, how do we integrate more local mentoring programs into the out-of-school time space? Even our MSDE representative who was part of the delegation was talking about the possibility of linking funding for OST programs to relationships with mentoring programs. That could be a tremendous BOOST (pardon the pun) to the work both Maryland MENTOR and Knott are already doing. In terms of words of advice, this speaks to the fact that we have to be purposeful about our collaborations – seek them out where we have shared values and outcomes.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
First, I’d like to share that I’m excited to be in this role because one of my beliefs is that we don’t choose this work, it chooses us. Anything that involves supporting another human being in the active pursuit of their goals or that improves the world, that work chooses us. Second, it remains our collective responsibility to support those who support others.