The Power of Mentoring: Transcending Poverty Through Shared Experience
Flatiron Hot! recently had the privilege of interviewing Danny Tejada and Gaetan Lamy, authors of Different Families, Still Brothers, a compilation of revealing email correspondences that began when they met through iMentor, one of many programs that pair disadvantaged youth with role models from comparable backgrounds. Over the course of our interview, we discussed their experiences growing up in poverty as well as the broader potential for mentoring programs to equip underprivileged young people with the tools and confidence for success.
Progressives often state as a goal eliminating, or at least mitigating, the problem of poverty in society. But rarely do they talk the talk and walk the walk quite like Danny Tejada and Gaetan Lamy. Against all odds, these two remarkable young men set out to do what often seems impossible in a time of unparalleled inequality in America: hoist themselves out of poverty and onto a path of opportunity.
They succeeded in part because they were unwilling to settle for less. Danny, 25, who teaches a class on activism and poverty to underprivileged high school youth in Pace University’s Upward Bound Program, does not fit into the Randian schema of makers and takers. Nor, he argues, do most impoverished individuals, who he feels are unfairly caricatured in today’s political debate.
Although undeniably progressive in his ideological leanings, Danny believes in the importance of what conservatives often claim is lacking in poor, minority communities: personal responsibility. Inspired by the teachings of Saul Alinsky, he holds a firm conviction that individuals, families and communities must organize from the grassroots to overcome poverty.
That being said, he knows from first-hand experience that this kind of upward mobility does not simply arise from out of nowhere. Poverty is not just an economic concept, but also a psychosocial condition. Therefore, individuals born into poverty may require support to help them unlock their full potentials. One way to do this is by integrating mentoring programs into the education system.
Danny crossed paths with Gaetan, 19, through one such program, iMentor. Since meeting in October of 2010, the two young men have cultivated a relationship that runs as deep as blood. Hence, the title of their recent book, a transcription of their email correspondences titled Different Families, Still Brothers. Their story is not only compelling in its own right, but also functions as a broader portrait of poverty and perseverance in America, offering a formula for social progress that liberals and conservatives alike would do well to consider.
Growing up in East New York, Danny suffered from many of the psychological and institutional barriers familiar to poor people in America. “I grew up on my own, doing my own thing. My parents weren’t really involved in my education and I didn’t have any constant mentors in my life,” he reflects.
However, Danny determined not to blame others for his predicament. In retrospect, he admits that this was in part due to a lack of experience. “When you’re in poverty, you come to see it as normal. Your parents are in poverty, your friends are in poverty. You don’t realize there’s anything else.”
Gaetan’s upbringing was markedly different, but the substance of his ambitions was comparable. Growing up in Haiti, Gaetan longed to visit the United States, in part to meet his mother, who had immigrated when he was only an infant, but also to experience the land of opportunity he had heard so much about. “When I was in Haiti, I literally used to think that money grew on trees in America,” he recalls, with the wistful air of someone recalling a pleasant dream he had not revisited for years.
Alas, the U.S. did not live up to its reputation. “The funny thing is, even though Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, I never experienced true poverty until I came to America.” With his mother unemployed, Gaetan often missed meals and had to attend school hungry, making it difficult to function in a classroom environment already rife with distraction. However, even in such circumstances, Gaetan remained upbeat. In his characteristically gentle, contemplative tone, he spoke of the daily indignities of poverty with a conspicuous lack of bitterness. This is not to say that anything came easily. Despite a strong drive to succeed, Gaetan often fell prey to peer pressure, associating with individuals who Danny refers to sharply, but not without empathy, as “knuckleheads.”
Luckily, Gaetan found a more healthy influence in Danny. The two kindred spirits met at a mentoring event at the former’s high school. Tejada recounts: “I came in with my headphones. I think that was one thing that impressed him was the fact that I had headphones on and a tie. The way he was dressed with a tie as well really impressed me. I saw how engaged he was in the conversation compared to some of his fellow classmates.”
Danny and Gaetan’s mutual admiration developed into a strong connection after they were paired up as mentor and mentee. The two quickly realized that they were kindred spirits. They bonded early on over a shared love of music, particularly socially-conscious hip-hop that shed light on the plight of the poor in urban America. Danny imparted to Gaetan his fascination with words, teasing out the depth behind seemingly inconsequential lyrics, while Gaetan introduced Danny to the subtleties of production techniques. Soon, however, their email correspondences grew more personal. Danny and Gaetan had so much to discuss that they would regularly go way over the word limit set by iMentor.
Gaetan described Danny’s role in his life as somewhat paternal. “He put me in a position where I didn’t want to disappoint him and he gave me a lot of advice. He made me feel so comfortable in the way he spoke to me, the way he advised me and made me realize certain truths about life.” With Gaetan’s mother unable to assist him with the college application process, Danny took on the role, encouraging his mentee to attend a private institution where he could receive the necessary individual attention to stay on track.
He also assisted Gaetan in traversing the labyrinthine financial aid system. These efforts paid off when Gaetan received a one-year, full HEOP scholarship to Long Island University, where he plans on majoring in business administration. Some of the skills Gaetan picked up from his mentor – such as keeping a personal planner – have helped him balance the considerable demands of working to pay his way through school while simultaneously staying on top of his work. Gaetan doubts that he would have made it so far without the help of his mentor.
From Life to the Page
Although strong proponents of hard work and personal responsibility, Danny and Gaetan know from personal experience that all the good intentions and motivation in the world can be inadequate for impoverished youth. “When you have teachers telling you you’re not gonna be shit, you have your parents telling you you’re not gonna be shit, and you have your homeboys telling you you’re not gonna be shit, then you’re gonna start believing you’re not gonna be shit,” says Danny, not as an excuse but as a clinical observation. “It’s very hard to deal with and overcome. If you have so many people telling you what you are over and over again, eventually you’re gonna believe it, no matter how much confidence you have in yourself.”
As an American Studies major at Skidmore College, Danny delved into the roots of poverty, with a focus on the institutional and environmental obstacles impeding social mobility. “I believe in personal responsibility, but there are structures in place working against those in poverty.” Danny is convinced that mentoring programs, although no panacea, can give hope and self-confidence to impoverished youth, equipping them with the resources to fulfill their potentials.
“In terms of education, when you don’t have people who want students to succeed, it’s going to be very difficult for them to compete with those from more affluent backgrounds whose parents pay for test prep classes, help them with their homework, and walk them through the college enrollment process. They don’t have guidance counselors with the time and resources to help them out.” In the absence of advantages that many wealthier students take for granted, Danny contends, a dedicated mentor can help fill the void.
With this in mind, Danny was inspired to share the value of mentoring, as embodied so well in his personal experiences. When Danny first approached Gaetan about publishing their raw, intimate correspondences in book form, his mentee was understandably skeptical. However, Danny’s willingness to use his personal story to help others inspired Gaetan to overcome his reservations.
“Danny was so open with me and I was impressed that he wasn’t intimidated to explain things, to give me further detail on things he went through, giving me certain information. That inspired me to say: ‘I want to be like that, maybe I should start sharing things with people.’ Sharing personal things can help others because they can relate to it and see things differently in a more positive way.”
The product of painstaking compilation and some light editing for the sake of clarity, Different Families, Still Brothers stands as a glowing testament to the capacity of one compassionate individual to lift another out of poverty. While Gaetan and Danny would love their book to receive wide exposure, they are content with the fact that this might not end up being the case. “If it helps one youth to find their way out of poverty, if it inspires one person to be a mentor, then it all will have been worth it,” says Danny. Technically, he’s talking about the book. But he could also be referring to his life.
The print edition of Different Families, Still Brothers is available here
The Kindle version is available on Amazon