Chicago’s Black and Latinx youth have been largely impacted by both the civil unrest in Chicago and the instability of COVID-19 has created.
We spoke to Dirrick Butler, City Year Chicago director of partnerships and civic engagement and A Better Chicago Impact Council Member, about the role mentorship has had in his life as well as how the pandemic has changed his mentor relationships. He gives advice on how mentorship and equity can help Chicago’s youth.
Q: In your #WeAreChicago profile, you expressed that providing Black male students with the resources and tools they need to be leaders in their communities is how you are building a better Chicago. What has been your journey to becoming the man that you wish your mentees to be, and what challenges have you had to face?
A: Where I stumbled in my early years was wanting a mentor that looked like me, that could guide, inspire, and support me in becoming my own man. But unfortunately, like many youths of color, representation was lacking. The mentorship I received from my church growing up inspired my interest in politics and civic engagement. When Barack Obama’s career was on full display in 2008, I became interested in law and politics. However, after being engaged in this work, I soon realized that wasn’t my passion. Although some may think I lacked the traditional mentorship experience, my mother instilled in me the importance of forging my own path and impact. I want to give young Black males the representation to see what is possible for them, but I also want to inspire them to form their own dreams. I believe Black and Latinx communities deserve the space and needed resources to envision their own futures and reach their full potential.
Q: With COVID-19 changing how we do everything, including connecting with our youth, how has it affected your mentor relationships? What does effective and impactful mentorship look like both during COVID-19?
A: Mentorship during this time is more important than ever for Black and Latinx youth because they are experiencing things that none of us have ever had to deal with, especially this young. Effective and impactful mentorship during COVID is more about social-emotional and mental support. Mentors should center support around meeting their mentees, where they are regarding mental health, and coping during all of this. To the youth, I want to say it is okay to feel like you don’t want to do anything, and it is okay to feel like you don’t know what to do at all.
Q: With civil unrest and the adversities that COVID-19 has created, many of Chicago’s youth feel drained, isolated, and confused. What advice do you have as they continue to forge a path forward in jobs, education, and everyday life?
A: Although this is an extremely confusing and stressful time for us all, I think it can be a good time for young people to connect with themselves. We live in a world where we pressure our young people into working as if obtaining a job is the only way to secure happiness and personal growth. I believe the work system is oppressive, and during this time, young people can discover their passions and purpose. If that leads to a job, then great, but there are so many skills that our young people in Chicago and across the nation are showing that can carry over to the workplace, but even if it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean it’s useless. I encourage young people to challenge the status quo, use their voice, and speak truth to power. COVID-19 has allowed us to reimagine what life, work, and relationships look likes, and my advice to young people is to lean into this moment and figure out what makes you happy, not what people say should make you happy.
Q: A Better Chicago believes that to build a better city for everyone, each citizen must actively bring equity to the forefront of their lives. How do you define equity? What do you believe Chicagoans can do to bring equity to the forefront of their everyday lives, whether at or outside work?
A: I think of equity as a goal. For example, in standardized testing, everyone needs something different to pass. Some students come with advantages, while others do not. Some students are “better test-takers” than others with excellent study skills. How do we ensure everyone gets what they need to pass? The answer is equity. Giving people not just the resources, but the tools they uniquely need to reach their goals. Not everyone will need the same things to succeed, and it is counterproductive to think so. This example can be used for race, gender, age, or sexual orientation. Everyone needs something different, and it is equally wrong to deny anyone access to the tools they need to be successful and compete in this society and then write them off for not having them as if it is their fault. To be equitable, you must treat it as a lifestyle. Educate yourselves and develop empathy for others. It is also essential to reflect on your privilege and what others don’t have. An equitable living starts with self-awareness and an open mind.