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Monday, February 15, 2016

The Big MMI Day

My favorite on the wish tree-"I wish my mentor always stay the way he is now"
In a sea of Sundays, yesterday stands out. The Mentor Me India (MMI) team very graciously invited me to participate in the second edition of the Big MMI Day, which is a day long picnic for their mentors and mentees. I had seen pictures from and heard stories about the first edition of this picnic, so I was looking forward to it not more than a little bit, and I wasn't disappointed. There was a wishing tree, a birthday party and a photo booth. There were groups playing Uno, tables with jigsaw puzzles, craft corners for creating stories and painting with fingers. And there were some bravehearts who clearly were immune to the sun and were playing kho-kho and football. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I'm soon going to join the MMI core team, so my opinions and impressions are likely to be biased in their favour, but since I'm not officially a part of the team until April, I can still call this the perspective of an unaffected observer and get away with it.

To briefly introduce MMI: this is a non-profit organization built around the idea of mentorship to "help children in low-income communities grow to their full potential by supporting enduring one-to-one relationships with strong role models" - an idea very similar to the US-based Big Brothers Big Sisters, which is a 100-year old success story, and continues to make enduring impact. MMI is just under 3 years old and already showing amazing effects on the 250 mentor-mentee pairs that have been part of the program since it started in Bombay in 2013.

Almost everyone I know mentors someone in their community - helping the domestic help's children with their homework, providing career counselling to the neighborhood teenagers, reviewing resumes at the alma mater - and while all of this is extremely useful, there are a few things that make the MMI model different from everything we've been doing:

The photo booth was very popular
It is structured and formalized: To become an MMI mentor, you need to sign up with them and fill out a detailed form which makes you search your soul and explain why you would make a good mentor. I filled up that form last month and the rigor of the process reminded me of my ISB essays. MMI uses a unique algorithm to match your information with what they learn from interviews with potential mentees to connect you with a child who would most benefit from a partnership with you. It is perhaps this scientific matching process that forms the basis of the strong mentor-mentee relationships; the process is not based on superficial what-you-might-expect elements like interests, gender, ambitions (a doctor matched up to a child who dreams of studying medicine) although that is a definite part of it. And after you get selected into the program, and your mentee gets assigned to you, you spend one weekend training with the MMI team, followed by an 'induction session' where you meet your mentee and his/her family. After that, you're expected to set up your own meetings two to three times a month with your mentee, with regular check ins with the MMI team, and you stick with it for at least one year. It is the one-on-one nature of the engagement that allows it to be such a rich experience: each child gets exactly what he needs to grow and develop. Your mentee might not need help with her math homework, but she might need someone to talk her through her attempts to get over her terror of public speaking. You figure out what they need and you give them exactly that.

It's bigger (and deeper) than you expect. What surprised me the most, and perhaps it really shouldn't have, was that nearly all the mentor-mentee pairs seemed friends. There was an ease, a comfort in the interactions that only comes from long association and shared experiences with people who like and respect each other. "This one can sing reasonably well, but only if she's in the right mood" - a 14-year old mentee said this to me, about her mentor, and then guffawed loudly. I think this might be my favourite part of the MMI effect: the mentors are no patronizing, the mentees are not bent in gratitude. This is a friendship among equals, with both learning from each other. I secretly think that the matching algorithm is behind this as well - it is easy to be friends with someone who looks and talks just like your younger/grown-up version. A significant proportion of the pairs have continued the relationship beyond the mandatory one year.
Birthday parties on the Big MMI day

It has very visible impact. The MMI team has been doing a rigorous evaluation of their program, and they have a detailed impact report that shows how the program has enabled children better their school scores and become more confident. But I want to talk about some of the visible results which make my head spin. I'm very worried that I will sound stereotypical when I say this, but when you meet a 12 year old who you have been told lives on the street, you don't expect them to come up to you in a confident, friendly manner, introduce themselves in well-articulated, if broken English, and ask you who you are, what you do, and why you are at their picnic. And yet this happened with me yesterday, over and over again. I sat to watch a group playing Uno, and was so amused to watch the kids making up new rules and teaching their mentors. There was one 13 year old mentee who borrowed the MMI camera and took pictures that were so good that they will be used on the website. Just as you would expect at any large gathering, there were all kinds of children - self conscious and shy ones, ones who clearly loved being under arc-lights, but everyone of them had this strong sense of their place, not just at the MMI day, but in the world.

And perhaps not surprisingly, there is a very visible impact on the mentors as well. They look happy of course, but they talk about things like how the program has changed them, and has allowed them to know themselves and the universe a little better.

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