Helping Kids in Poverty Find Work

Debategraph connected recently with Dan Bassill, founder and president of the Tutor/Mentor Institute LLC and the Tutor/Mentor Connection.

Dan has been working with inner-city youth in Chicago for more than 36 years and also had a 17 year career in corporate advertising with the historic Montgomery Ward Corporation.

Drawing on his advertising experience, Dan began to address the challenge of helping kids in poverty from a business innovation and marketing perspective, rather than social work or youth education perspective.

In the guest blog below, Dan reflects on some of the lessons learned and challenges ahead, and invites you add your voice to the conversation on the Helping kids born in poverty start jobs and careers Debategraph:

I believe that there are four concurrent strategies that could be applied in every major city in the world as part of a set of collective on-going actions to help reduce the costs of poverty in each city.

(1) Knowledge aggregation and visualization: The Tutor/Mentor Institute has been collecting information since 1993, showing where volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs are needed, why they are needed, what different programs do, and why business, philanthropy and others should support the growth of such programs as a strategy for expanding social capital surrounding youth in high poverty neighborhoods of large cities like Chicago, New York, and London. Aggregating and sharing the accumulated knowledge and insights can help the whole community to make faster and more effective progress – and save people from having to “reinvent the wheel” each time a new initiative starts. Using interactive sites like Debategraph, new ideas can be added to the library on an on-going basis, and embedded on the websites of any stakeholder organization around the world – allowing others to discover and build on innovative local solutions to poverty, poorly performing schools, drop out programs and workforce development that have already been implemented elsewhere.

The Tutor/Mentor Institute has also been experimenting with interactive geographical maps that can be used to locate tutor/mentor programs in specific parts of Chicago, and to determine the level of program availability in all parts of the city; making it easy for parents, volunteers and donors, as well as corporate leaders, city planners, marketers and policy makers to connect with the programs.

(2) Increasing public awareness: getting information is just the first challenge, getting millions of people to look at this information and use it in their own actions, is a bigger challenge. While I was working at Montgomery Ward our weekly ads drew shoppers to more than 400 stores, across 40 US states. Since no non-profit has the type of advertising budgets that large corporations have, we have to find creative and engaging ways to draw attention to tutoring/mentoring and the information hosted by the Tutor/Mentor Institute and others. One strategy for creating public awareness has been to organize events such as Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conferences, held every May and November since 1994. Such events draw 100-150 leaders and stakeholders together in Chicago but create much larger visibility during the months building up to the event. Forums like Debategraph enable the Tutor/Mentor Connection to connect its ideas to people in cities all over the world and to build on the contacts and dialogue between the conferences.

(3) Creating learning circles. Facilitating understanding: The amount of information is overwhelming. That’s an obstacle that can be overcome if volunteers are recruited to help others navigate and learn to use the resources of the library. The Tutor/Mentor Institute focuses on structured, volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs as a core part of its strategy because of the way such programs connect volunteers from the business community and who live beyond poverty with youth who do live in poverty. An organized tutor/mentor program can be a collective effort of many extra people working to help kids grow up. As volunteers stay with youth for one or more years many begin to bond and take on roles similar to “surrogate parents”. Such people become advocates and do much more to help the kids, and the tutor/mentor programs they are part of. Over time such people can become full-time advocates for expanded strategies to help poor kids to careers.

As we aggregate more and more information and increase the number of people who engage with the Tutor/Mentor Institute web sites, there also needs to be a process of facilitation, where people who know more about the information available in the knowledge base help others find and understand the information. In Chicago Interns have been writing blog articles and creating visualizations to help build understanding of this information. If you would be interested in volunteering as intern or discussion leader online, please let me know.

(4) Accelerating the flow of resources: The first three steps create a positive feedback loop as more people begin to use their time, talent and resources to support one or more tutor/mentor programs and, in turn, draw more people and resources into the movement in cities around the world. The information we share can be used by anyone, and the way we innovate public awareness strategies to motivate people to look at this information regularly, and to motivate people to act as volunteers and donors, can sustain this effort for many years into the future.

This not something that was created by the Mayor, the President or funded by a massive government or private foundation grant. The ideas in the Tutor/Mentor Institute were developed over a period of 35 years in response to what we learned as we struggled each year to find resources to operate one single small tutor/mentor program in Chicago. We have demonstrated the potential of the Internet, where people who “don’t have power, don’t have celebrity standing, and are not the elected leaders of a region can put their own ideas for building a better world on the Internet and invite others to join with them in making those ideas a reality.

It’s an idea in tune with our times: and if the idea of helping kids in poverty find work appeals to you, you are welcome to join us.

Debategraph in the Classroom

When Peter and I first set out to create Debategraph, one of our fondest hopes was that the tool might help to enrich the collaborative and visual learning experience for students in schools and universities.

So it has been a joy for us this semester to be experimenting with Debategraph in classroom with Dr Sharon Chanley and her politics students at Western Illinois University—and we are tremendously grateful to Sharon and the students for having the curiosity and courage to innovate in this way.


 Dr Sharon Chanley and the students of POLS 275

Sharon’s class is exploring issues of poverty and wealth inequality in the U.S. and the historical and existing public policy responses to these, and Sharon explained to us what initially captured her imagination about Debategraph:

When I first came upon the DebateGraph in my search for policy-mapping examples, I felt as if someone had designed it specifically for my approach to teaching — almost as if they had observed my discussion-based classes and then depicted them graphically. In teaching policy issues and the political processes involved, I want students to understand their complexity and the interrelatedness of the issues. DebateGraph allows me to do that in a way that two-dimensional images and discussion alone can’t. Students develop their ability to research their positions, find answers to the compelling questions, and enhance their critical thinking skills while providing me a way to comment on and complete individual assessment of their work — all important to their learning in and beyond the classroom. And, they can do it in a format that fits into their familiarity with the computer, the Internet, and their preference for the visual and importantly in a way that connects them with the rest of the world.”

During the first phase of the course Sharon and the WIU students—Brandon, Colisha, Derek, James, Jan, Jared, John, Julio, Kimberly, Patrick, Robert, and Ruth—are using Debategraph to build an informal collaborative overview of the policy domain. You can see their work in progress below—and in the next phase of the course the emphasis will shift more to deepening the map and developing a more formal structure for the material.

We have been delighted with the enthusiastic feedback from the students so far, who have taken to this new approach to learning in fine style:

I like the DebateGraph as a learning tool because it teaches us how to do in-depth research. It also allows us to open up class discussions, which allows us to hear other people’s points of view.

The DebateGraph is an excellent learning tool which helps students learn through critical thinking. I really enjoy the exercise.


I think the DebateGraph is an outstanding learning tool. It forces the student to look in-depth at a particular subject. It makes people come up with questions to see if the particular problem can be resolved.

In general, I like the graphics display as a study tool. The generation tends to like information that is bite-sized, easily accessible, and fast paced, so the point and click nature makes it very easy to find information and explore related topics which may have been otherwise overlooked.

DebateGraph is not only a great tool, but it has allowed me to gain new knowledge. It is also a great tool for students to learn about policy issues, and it is also a great tool to use.

The DebateGraph is a really cool way to debate topics so that there is a structure and much more information can be transferred.

The students’ feedback is all more gratifying given that 40% of their overall course grade is being assessed on their individual and collaborative contributions to the map. And Sharon has been employing the RSS feed, email alerts, and edit history to support her grading process—and the map Message Board to ask, and answer, student questions outside class hours.

From our perspective it has been a wonderful start, and an experience from which Peter and I are learning much too about the ways in which Debategraph can be used in the classroom; a learning experience for which we would like to give Sharon and her pioneering students a wholehearted Anglo-Australian vote of thanks.