Last fall, my colleagues and I visited public and private schools across Santa Fe and asked teenage students a question many of them had not been asked in years, if ever. Our question was not what they wanted to be when they grew up or what they hoped to study someday in college. We didn’t ask them what class they liked best or what electives they hoped to take. Instead, we went beyond school and jobs and struck a human chord by asking, “What do you want to learn?”
Many of these young people had been waiting, it seemed, for someone to ask. Adrian, a senior at Santa Fe High, was eager to learn about architecture; he’d grown up in a family of construction laborers and wanted to know about the design side of building. Michael, a middle-schooler from Mandela International Magnet School, at first declared he wanted to learn about civil engineering, but when we dug a bit with his family, we learned of his zeal for baseball. Janney wanted to learn about horses. Zayra wanted to learn how to fix a computer, partly because she loved taking things apart and partly because she had friends and neighbors with broken computers and not enough money to repair them. Fabiola wanted to learn about painting and art, Oscar about law, Noah about special education, Sofía about music composition.
These young people’s eyes lit up when they described their interests to us and even more so when we told them they could start exploring their passion today—not in college or after college—through a new citywide mentoring program called Inspire Santa Fe.
Launched in September 2014, with significant support from Mayor Javier Gonzales and the city of Santa Fe, Inspire Santa Fe is a collaborative program facilitated by two nonprofits: the Academy for the Love of Learning, whose founder and president is Aaron Stern; and Siete del Norte, which is affiliated with the Arizona-based Chicanos por la Causa and headed by Santa Fe native Todd López.
During the 2014–2015 school year, with support and vision from educator and scientist Christian Casillas, local photographer Monica Caldas and Santa Fe Prep senior Martin Soto, Inspire Santa Fe matched 46 young people—we call them “protégés”—with adult experts in fields that the protégés wanted to learn. Protégé and mentor met two hours each week to explore the field together: Adrian with local architect Christian Alba; Michael with varsity baseball coach Jesse Bartlett; and Zayra with computer whisperer Nelson López of Santa Fe Computer Works. Mentors gathered for occasional workshops to explore what the mentoring meant to them and how they might reach their protégés more effectively. On May 1, at the Farmers’ Market Pavilion, with some 300 community members as witnesses, the protégés presented what they had learned through displays, performances, websites, speeches, a working aquaponics tank and more.
Although Inspire Santa Fe is a new program, mentorship is an age-old concept, an organic vehicle of intergenerational learning and transmission of knowledge and skills that predates classroom-based learning by thousands of years. More recently, interest-based mentorships have flourished in New Mexico through the work of education guru Paquita Hernández, who created and ran the statewide Celebrate Youth! Mentorship program in the 1990s and helped found the still-flourishing mentorship program at Santa Fe’s Monte del Sol Charter School. Other schools such as the Master’s Program, an innovative state-chartered school at the community college, have offered robust mentorship programs as well.
Inspire Santa Fe learned from these recent programs. We also drew from our own expertise: Siete del Norte has a long history of successful social programming in northern New Mexico, and Aaron Stern and the Academy for the Love of Learning have fashioned a transformative learning practice and a host of programs that help people of all ages come to life as learners. The two nonprofits work well together, with Siete setting up and facilitating the mentorships, and the Academy providing workshops and events to highlight the learning. The program is proof that one need not create a separate nonprofit to bring a new idea forward.
With one year under our belt, we are looking to grow in 2015-2016. Mayor Gonzales is encouraging us to facilitate 100 mentorships in this next school year. In that number, we hope to include more youth who lack basic family support, and to that end look to collaborate with and learn from the Juvenile Justice Board and nonprofits like Youth Shelters and Youthworks.
The promise of this program is enormous. The feedback from protégés, parents and mentors alike speaks to the vitality and relevance of mentorship as an inspiring form of education in this community. Young people not only won a chance to explore a field they’d long been interested in, but they also got a chance to be seen in a different way by caring adults outside of school. Parents saw new sparks of joy, dedication and aliveness in their children. And mentors came to us with stories of learning more about themselves and the field, satisfied they had found a meaningful way to be part of the “village” that must educate the children.
Financially speaking, Inspire Santa Fe is a lean program. Mentors volunteer their time, and the overhead costs—coordination, insurance, screening of mentors, workshops, events, etc.—have been covered by city funds, payments from the schools, the operating budgets of the Academy and Siete, a foundation grant and small donations from local businesses. As we grow, the cost per mentorship decreases slightly, and this year we will be looking for local businesses and philanthropists to contribute and help us to Inspire Santa Fe.
Learn more at www.inspiresantafe.org
Santa Fe native Seth Biderman is a cofounder and cocoordinator of Inspire Santa Fe. He was formerly assistant director of the mentorship program at Monte del Sol and now manages the Institute for Teaching at the Academy for the Love of Learning.