“Listen to children”, is a very simple saying that I live by. Too often we find it easy to just tell youth what they should do without listening to their needs. Without listening to their individual needs we cannot lead them them to a healthy destination. I met Ron Tinsley in an online business forum about mentoring youth. The more I learned about his mentoring the more intrigued I became. When we hear about gangs, human trafficking, and prostitution we learn how many victims are coerced into these lifestyles when they were young without a caring adult who tells them they deserve better and are capable of success. It is a real treat to share his interview with you. I have volunteered and worked with youth since college and I can tell you how important it is to have good mentors. We are not all born with built in navigation or necessarily lucky enough to have a supportive family. Enjoy and then pass it on.
What was your inspiration or what necessitated you to begin this adventure? I began working in youth development because of the love and care I received from adults as a young person. I grew up in a poor single parent family in North Philadelphia with few opportunities. Members of a local church mentored me and helped me understand my full potential. As they helped me become spiritually grounded and made me a part of their families, I began to want other young people to have this same experience. Once I completed college, I began thinking more creatively about youth development. I started working with youth in my church and community. Over time, I became a youth advocate for low income families in areas of education, skill building and mentorship. I have been on this journey ever since.
What steps did you take to create your program? I have created programs and worked within programs. When I became an Area Director (1999-2006) for an organization in Wilmington, DE, the first thing I did was spend time with youth listening to them at their school and in their community. Since my background is in art, it wasn’t hard to get their attention. Once I listened, they began to reveal their fears and dreams. From there, I started initiatives giving them the opportunity to reach for their dreams and face their fears. I trained some for leadership positions and over time, the programs take on a life of their own. Once empowered, they wanted to empower others. So I spent time finding adult volunteers to guide and encourage them.
What obstacles were you forced to overcome? Since I was starting programs inside of schools, I had to overcome initial skepticism from teachers, staff and students. So I understood that, in the beginning, I would attract students that were familiar with me personally and culturally. As I trained the student leaders and teacher volunteers, this began to change but it took at least 3 years. At one point, 20% of the school population was showing up to my programs. We did not change the racial dynamics but we became an example of what is possible. As teachers volunteered, more students showed up.
What were the hardest problems to solve or actions to take? I realized that I could not change the racial dynamics at the school but I could model a different attitude. Although the group eventually became more multiethnic, I became increasingly concerned about students on the margins. I set up the program so that it was self sustaining with teacher volunteers and student leaders making decisions. I put more of my energies into befriending hard-to-reach kids who did not fit inside my cultural norms. The goal was not to get them into my programs although they were welcome to attend. It was to spend time in their space and show that there was an adult who cared. This took tremendous time and energy. Over time, I did not win all of them over but some realized that I was simply trying to help them.
What must you do to stay operational? Right now, I work for a private high school that caters to at-risk students. One thing that we consistently emphasize is the need for our students to develop more social capital. Low income minority students tend to be isolated from supportive networks. So we continue to encourage service learning and provide opportunities for them to lead to expose them to professionals. We also must find new ways to be financially sustainable so they can afford our tuition. They are usually the first one in their family to attend college.
Who, if anyone, helped you succeed? There are too many people to name. I am standing on a lot of shoulders from people who financially helped me complete college to people who simply gave me advice. Today, there are 2-3 adult men that have been mentoring me for over 15 years. I stay in contact with them regularly. I also give credit to my late mother who may have had a hard life but was the first one I saw in my extended family attempt to go to college. She did not finish but that example inspired me. Today, I have 2 college degrees.
Do you have any advice for readers who want to get involved or start a similar program? Grab a few youth and go deep over a long period of time. There are too many youth programs that have very few adult mentors and a lot of youth. Often times, the impact is minimal. Some youth, like me, don’t grow up with wisdom being passed to them from their mother and father. So, we must overcompensate for what is lacking by pouring into them. Because the deficit is great, being a physical presence will demand a lot from us. This is why I recommend starting small. There are young adults that I have been mentoring since they were in elementary school.
I developed the Bulls Eye Method based on how Jesus developed his leaders. Select a small group of 10 students. The center circle is you. The second circle around you is 3 youth who go on special assignments with you. They should feel a deeper sense of responsibility than the others. Let them see how you teach, interact and lead. The third circle is 7 youth who are committed but need more development. Use the second circle to develop the third circle. Then you have the fourth circle of youth who are curious about your programs. They see what you are doing and are partial to it. Youth should have the ability to move up through those circles if they display a sense of mission and duty over time. Celebrate them as much as you can because they may not be receiving it at home. When you go deep with them, they will bond together (but you will lose some). In the end, they need to know that they do not have to live life alone and that you wont abandon them. I teach them we were not put on this earth simply for ourselves. Learn more about Ron’s work at ProphetikSoul.com
Ron Tinsley is a teacher and communications director at a private high school in Philadelphia. He has worked with different organizations serving youth in Lancaster, PA, Wilmington, DE and Philadelphia, PA. He has a BFA in Graphic Design from The University of the Arts and a MA in Urban Studies from Eastern University. For the past 20 years, he has worked with children, youth, and families in disadvantaged communities in Christian and secular contexts. He owns Prophetik Soul, a media company that promotes his t-shirt designs and his writings on media, youth development and social change. He is also an adjunct college instructor. He resides in his native Philadelphia with his family.