How the White House Does Mentoring
High-powered mentors give their teenage protégés access, skills -- and a request to pay it forward.
More than two years later, the first lady has kept her word on keeping a low profile. Aside from a 2010 Father's Day barbecue on the South Lawn for the boys' side of the program, White House mentoring activities have operated largely out of the media glare. Through a series of interviews, however, administration officials allowed The Root a peek inside what is perhaps the nation's most illustrious leadership and mentoring initiative.
"We Want Them to Feel That They Belong Here"
Michael Strautmanis, deputy assistant to the president and counselor for strategic engagement to Valerie Jarrett, has a mouthful of a title and multiple responsibilities managing White House communications and events with state and local officials, as well as various constituency groups. Still, he didn't hesitate when he was called to take on the additional role of coordinating the young men's branch of the mentoring program.
"At the White House I work on really important programs and issues, but they're large and sometimes my sense of the impact that I'm making can be a little diffused," he told The Root. "For me, this was an opportunity to serve in a very concrete, specific way. I would spend the day dealing with a broad set of problems, where sometimes I couldn't quite see the beginning or the end, and then I'd have young people coming to the White House for a specific time frame and purpose. Giving back in that way has always been really gratifying."
Both the male and female arms contain 20 students each, juniors and seniors selected by leaders at their schools who remain in the program until they graduate from high school. "What we ask schools for are young people who they think would really benefit from having a mentor," said Strautmanis, adding that the vague request draws a mix of students. "Sometimes it's the valedictorian. Sometimes it's a young person who is doing less well but has a lot of potential, and who, with some mentoring, could really take off."
Mentees and mentors -- officials who work throughout the Obama administration, including Tina Tchen, chief of staff to the first lady, and Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships -- gather once a month for group events. Students are also individually paired with adults who check in with them periodically, but the monthly commitments are the program's heartbeat.
Activities over the past two years have included service projects such as cleaning up and beautifying local elementary schools; a trip to the Supreme Court for a meeting with Justice Stephen G. Breyer; workshops on financial literacy and writing skills; attending the State Department's Women of Courage award ceremony hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; visits to Howard University and George Washington University; and a tour of Air Force One.