Nurturing Justice: Mentoring Young People in Their Quest for a Fair and Just World

For as long as there has been youth, there have been adults that have criticized them and noted that today’s young people are not like the respectful young people of their childhood.  A quote commonly attributed to Socrates states the children of his time “love luxury; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise . . . They no longer rise when their elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize over their teachers.”  Therefore, since at least 4th century BCE, adults have noted that children don’t listen to and respect adults like they used to, overthrow tried-and-true wisdom for youthful passion, and don’t know their rightful place like the youth of the speaker’s age.  While I used to dismiss all these kinds of critique as a nostalgic search for a youthful behavior that never was, I have had to acquiesce that these observations are not entirely wrong.   Young people do tend to push the boundaries and push back on traditions.  This may be why many social justice movements around the world have been powered by young people. In the fight against oppression, young people have time and time again put their lives on the line by facing dogs and fire hoses in the fight for Civil Rights in the southern United States, by standing in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square, and by leveraging social media to launch the Arab Spring, just to name a few.  This youthful passion and rejection of communal norms is needed in order for a generation to look around and see that as a society we could do better.

One of common phrases familiar to any that work and live with young people is “it’s not fair!”  And the standard reply given by adults who seek to prepare these young people for the reality of what can often be a harsh world is, “well, life isn’t fair,” but it should be. The desire for what is fair is a good one. Yet, working for social justice requires recognition of what life is and what life should be. This youthful passion for what life should be should not be critiqued as much as it should be nurtured and mentored. Youth need adults who will walk alongside them, encourage their goal for a better world and work together to shape that new world with them.

The word “mentor” comes from the character of the same name in Homer’s The Odyssey. Odysseus, king of Ithaca, leaves home to fight in the Trojan War and entrusts the care of his household to Mentor, who serves as teacher and overseer of Odysseus’ young son, Telemachus. Even after years of fighting in the war, Odysseus does not return home immediately, but instead finds himself condemned to wander vainly and be kept from his family for another ten years. Once it appears that Odysseus is not returning home, Odysseus’s home is overrun by suitors vying for Odysseus’s wife, Penelope. The suitors disrespect both Penelope and Telemachus and take advantage of Odysseus’s absence. In time, a now-grown Telemachus, wanting to stop the problematic behavior that has taken over his home, ventures in search of his father. Athena, goddess of war and patroness of the arts and industry, assumes the form of Mentor and accompanies Telemachus on his quest. As Mentor, she guides and protects him. They return, having not found Odysseus, and discover that the situation at home has gotten even worse.  Eventually, Odysseus returns home.  Father and son reunite, and along with Athena, fight the suitors and cast down the would-be usurpers of Odysseus’s throne and Telemachus’s birthright.

I share this etymology because it shows some of the deeper sides to mentoring.  When Odysseus leaves, he entrusts the most important thing in his life—his family—to Mentor.  This is not a role that is taken lightly and this is not a term that can be ascribed to anyone.  A mentor is someone that can be trusted with the things you hold most dear, like one’s dreams, hopes, and desires for themselves and the world around them.  A mentor teaches, guides, and protects. When Telemachus, looking around his world and seeing that something is not right, goes on a quest to make it right, Mentor does not tell Telemachus to simply accept the wrong behavior of his elders, but encourages him to make things right, suggests ways this can be done, and journeys with him in his search.  And at this point, the mentor has a divine presence—a recognition that something larger is happening here beyond the two people in the relationship.  When they return from this quest and the time comes to fight for what is right, Mentor/Athena fights right alongside Telemachus and his father.  Telemachus has the desire for change, justice, and fairness.  Mentor nurtures and shapes that by journeying and fighting beside young Telemachus.

The older mentor does not always lead, but often walks beside and struggles along with the younger charge.  This opens up a relationship of mutual sharing, teaching, and changing. May we seek to nurture the youthful search for fairness by creating this kind of cross-generational relationship. This type of relationship values the experiences of both parties and believes that both parties have something to learn from the other. Recognizing that adults have more experience and can be more of a guide, it should also be recognized that more experience may also mean more time accepting things as they are.  Youthful energy may be needed to remind us that while life is not fair, it should be, and it up to us to help make it so.

 Dr. Annie Lockhart-Gilroy is a womanist pedagogue and practical theologian who writes and teaches on emancipatory pedagogies and the spiritual formation of youth. She is Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Practical Theology at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK. In addition to numerous articles, and posts, she is the author of the forthcoming Nurturing the Sanctified Imagination of Urban Youth.  To find out more, visit