In 2005, Whitney T. Louchheim and Penelope J. Spain founded Mentoring Today, a DC-based organization that serves youth both before and after they are released from incarceration to support their successful reintegration into their families and community. Mentoring Today’s advocates and mentors help youth with critical issues such as education, employment, and housing as they enter adulthood. Through these comprehensive, client-centered services, Mentoring Today strives to improve the juvenile justice system and empower young people to recognize their dreams and realize their aspirations. A few weeks ago, Oedipus el Rey’s Production Dramaturg, John M. Baker, and Woolly’s Connectivity Director, Rachel Grossman, had the opportunity to sit down with Whitney and Penelope.
Can you give us an overview of Mentoring Today’s goals and history?
Penelope Spain: Generally speaking, we serve youth who are transitioning out of juvenile incarceration back into the DC community. We pair youth with volunteer mentors about 4-5 months before they are released. We help their mentors build a relationship of trust and build goals as they are transitioning back into DC, and continue to support those goals.
What we do is target the youth who are most at risk of entering the adult criminal justice system, typically 17- or 18-years olds who are repeat, violent, high-risk offenders. It’s a voluntary program; they have to say they actually want to be a part of it.
Whitney and I are also defense attorneys on the side. We represent kids in the delinquency court in DC. These are younger, lower-level offenders, but that really helps us see the whole array of kids just entering the juvenile justice system—all the way to those who, unfortunately, do re-offend and are sent out to Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities all over the country, and come back after that.
We started as an organization when Whitney and I were still in law school. In 2005 we got non-profit status, and in 2006 we took on our first group of kids. We actually took our first group of kids before we had any funding. It was a very scary and risky moment because funders didn’t want to support our work until they could see not what we were going to do, but what we were already doing.
Our first office was literally in a closet in a community center in Northeast DC. It had no heat, no air conditioning, and no windows. It was located right next to the largest open-air heroin market in DC. We would literally be escorted in and out of the building by some of the dealers. So we earned our street cred, and people—including our kids—would come and look at us and wonder what we were doing.
Eventually, we got off the ground, and were able to serve a greater number of youth, and hire more staff. But with the current economic environment, that expanded model wasn’t as sustainable.
Have you also seen the current economic environment impact the youth with whom you’re working?
Whitney Louchheim: Unemployment is definitely becoming a bigger and bigger problem, though I have to say it was already a huge problem. I feel it’s gotten worse, but I don’t think we’re seeing the huge impact that other people in the country are talking about. I just feel like it went from really bad to even worse.
PS: Even east of the Anacostia River, they say that there’s a 30% unemployment rate. When you actually look at the real unemployment levels—who has stopped working and who is not even on the radar—I would say it’s upwards of 50-60%. All of the youth we serve are boys, and there are so few father figures, or men in their community, especially ones who are working.
We had one young man who, prior to getting locked up, had been working three jobs at a time. He was die-hard. This was back in 2005 and 2006. Then he got a felony record, and he came out. He had gotten his GED while he was locked up. He read the dictionary, we sent him books galore, and he really came back a better educated and more determined young person. I think it took him about nine months to find his first job, and it was through a government program. Eventually, once he had a job, he could transition into other, better employment, but for our kids coming back from either the juvenile or the adult criminal system, just getting that first job—it’s next to impossible. Not only can they not find work, but they also quickly lose hope. At some point, they just give up. What are their other options?
Besides employment, where else do ex-offenders find hope?
PS: I think that’s where mentoring comes into play. We’re trying to shore up the young person’s sense of hope. And, to be quite honest, providing the young person with some of the most basic connections.
WL: Meaning even a phone. They can come in and use our phones. They can come in and use our internet. They can make copies of things. That’s a really huge thing for them to be able to have. It sounds basic, but it’s not out there.
Also, positive role modeling. Over the years, it’s been striking to me how our kids have no real models. Getting up in the morning everyday and going to work—that’s not a concept that really exists in their histories. So, we often try to give our kids internships in our own office to give them a sense of office culture, telling them they have to be here, and they have to be here at a certain time. When we work to get them jobs at other places, we tell them what they have to wear, tell them to call if they’re going to be late. But it takes a long time for that to sink in. It’s not at all obvious to them what you have to do to get a job. Often, even when our kids do get jobs, they quickly lose them because they don’t really get certain protocols to keep a job.
In DC, what’s the impact of incarceration on family solidarity?
WL: One of our kids just returned to his neighborhood, and he realized all of the other males had been locked up. So, he found himself surrounded by single mothers and their kids.
PS: We see so few fathers who are really engaged. And a lot of people who we serve have children, or while they’re in our program have their first child.
WL: I would conservatively guess at least half of our kids were, at some moment in their lives, in the child welfare system.
PS: And we see a lot of women–by the time their child comes to our program–whose children have been in and out of the juvenile justice system for five years or more, usually.
PS: So, sometimes, even though these kids are only 16 or 17-years-old, their caregivers have already checked out or given up. They just think, “You know, life is a lot easier when he’s locked up.”
WL: And these caregivers don’t have just one child. They have four other younger kids in the house. And they don’t want those kids going down that same road.
Do you see gangs acting as surrogate families in DC?
PS: Most of the kids we engage with are not involved with a formal gang. But certainly, neighborhood crews become family. Whitney mentioned the guy who came back to his neighborhood where all of the other males were gone. That has an impact. Even if our kids have lived in Northwest for the last five years, they’re still going to say they’re from Barry Farms, over in Southeast. That is where their “family” is, where their heart is. I think Mentoring Today tries to, in a way, redefine what that quasi-family is.
WL: And loyalty, and camaraderie. We definitely see the guys have an intense sense of loyalty and honor, and they connect it to a neighborhood. We praise that loyalty and that honor and that desire to be part of something—because those are good values. And we encourage the guys to put those values into better action. We want them to feel that it’s good to think that way, but we just don’t want it to go in the wrong direction.
PS: Unfortunately, so many people from their community have been locked up, that there is no longer a stigma. In many cases, I think they see being locked up as a rite of passage. That makes you a man. That’s where their friends are. That’s where their buddies are. Unfortunately—and this is rare—but we do see kids trying to get locked up again. I don’t know if they’re fully aware of it.
WL: Or if they would ever admit to it.
PS: But that’s where their friends are: locked up. And that’s where they know how to survive on a daily basis.
WL: It’s also where they know they can get three meals a day. In a very real way, we’ve definitely had kids tell us that either they don’t want to leave a juvenile facility, or that they’re trying to get back, because of the stability of having a bed to sleep in and three meals a day. That is scary but true. That happens sometimes, which is a horrible thing to think about.
For more information about Mentoring Today, visit http://www.mentoringtoday.org.
~John M. Baker, Production Dramaturg and Literary Manager