To say that relationships are important in education and youth development is like a blinding flash of the obvious.

May 15, 2014
Kent Pekel, President & CEO, Search Institute

Kent Pekel, President & CEO Search Institute

An interview with Kent Pekel, newly elected MENTOR Board member.

Last week, I was fortunate to speak with Kent Pekel, President and CEO of Search Institute, a research organization focused on what kids need to succeed. Some of you may remember Pekel as the keynote speaker at the 14th Annual Minnesota Mentoring Conference. Pekel and his Search Institute staff also happen to be the Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota’s neighbors at our organization’s new location in Northeast Minneapolis’ Banks Building.

The research conducted by Search Institute focuses on three key areas: developmental assets, developmental communities, and developmental relationships. At the Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota (MPM), we find our relationship with Search Institute to be a strong asset to providing the quality mentoring relationships we promise in our mission. This is why we are so excited to share with our network the news that Kent Pekel has recently become a member of MENTOR, the National Mentoring Partnership, Board of Directors. Take a peak at my interview with him below – slightly modified for clarity and length – as he tells us what excites him and why this could lead to great things.

1) What drew you to the MENTOR Board and why is it important for Search Institute to be at the table?

To be relevant today an organization like Search Institute needs to be much more than a research and dissemination organization. We actually have a warehouse in the basement and we still sell books and posters. All of that is great, but its pretty 20th century. You put it out there and hope that someone is going to catch it and do something with it. In contrast, we need to be an organization that partners with organizations that directly serve kids to use data and research to improve outcomes in the real world. We need to be an improvement organization. So that raises the question, “With whom are you going to work to improve?” because we aren’t a direct service organization. We don’t work directly with kids, but we do want to be working at scale, where we can impact as many kids as possible. Given that our research is focused on developmental relationships, the relationships in kids lives in which they develop a positive sense of identity and a thriving mindset, MENTOR seemed like a natural fit as a kind of channel for impact. Because if we can successfully focus on helping MENTOR integrate developmental relationships into its work, then that has the prospect of reaching all of the statewide affiliates, such as MPM, and then pretty soon you are at a really interesting scale for impacting kids.

2) Under your leadership, you have taken the work of Peter Benson around developmental assets to the next level and are focusing the organization’s work around developmental relationships.  Tell us more about why this is important?

To some extent to say that relationships are important in education and youth development is like a blinding flash of the obvious. Of course, anybody who has ever been a kid in a family or a classroom or a youth program, knows that the character and the intensity of the relationships you experience directly influence your outcomes – how well you learn the math; how well you behave; or how hard you work toward reaching your goals. And yet, for years and years, a lot of us, myself included (and I have been a classroom teacher and a young parent), we all treat relationships as critical but kind of impenetrable. There are a couple of University of Pittsburgh researchers who compared relationships in an educational setting to the active ingredient in a recipe or a product, so like sodium fluoride in toothpaste. You can have everything else in the toothpaste, but if you don’t have the sodium fluoride, the whole thing is not doing what you intend it to do. So if relationships are the active ingredient, we have an urgent need to better understand the kind of relationships that help to produce kids who are on track to success in school and in life. And just as important, we have to find practical ways to help people who work with kids in schools, in youth programs, in Mentoring Partnerships, in families, build that kind of relationships. In order to understand these relationships we need to have a framework, a language, and ways to measure them. We then need to share with our networks the strategies for building these relationships.

3) What are your hopes for closing the relationship gap for young people through mentoring and Search’s work?

I think one big question is “Quality or quantity?” The reality is, of course, we want both. MENTOR has recently done some interesting work that identifies what they’ve called the The Mentoring Effect, which measures the number of kids who haven’t had a caring adult in their lives by their own assessment. And that’s really important, but, of course, it also is just part of the puzzle because then the question is, “What’s going on inside that relationship?” So I would say, if we only measure the effectiveness of MENTOR’s strategy by how many more kids get mentors, we would definitely be doing something good, but not what I think is possible. I think it is possible to increase not just the quantity of kids who have positive adults in their lives, but the quality of the relationships that they experience. Because I don’t know anyone that takes time to serve as a mentor that doesn’t want to do it well. And so a lot of the work on mentoring quality thus far has sort of focused on the structure of mentoring, how often you do it, how long you do it, who does it, etc.  This still leaves us with that kind of black box of what happens in that relationship. And that’s what our focus is.

4) What makes you most excited for the future with your new position?

The prospect of learning from people across the country who are very focused on the prospect of strengthening developmental relationships in kids lives. One of the reasons I’m glad we have MPM in our building is because we want to learn from people across Minnesota who are doing this work. So frankly, if we only get much smarter and more connected to the mentoring work that is happening through MPM, I’d be happy. But the prospect of doing that on a national level is pretty exciting, too.

5) Who is your mentor?

I’ve been very fortunate in the last 15 years of my career to have great mentors in my jobs. I’ve been really lucky in that regard. The person I would highlight and I would say he is still a mentor for me, is Bob Bruininks, the former President of the University of Minnesota. During the years that I worked at the University of Minnesota, in particular, but also on a personal level, he definitely has been a mentor in that regard.

We are so excited to see what comes out of this new partnership between MENTOR and Search Institute. But based on my conversation with Pekel, I don’t see how we could be anything but confident that mentoring relationships will be growing in both quantity and quality in the near future. It seems the future of Minnesota’s youth, and youth nation-wide, is in good hands.