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Mobilising the general public

 

Not only is KVINFO’s Mentor Network the largest of its kind in the world, but it’s also one of the most successful integration projects in Denmark. Integration initiatives are often characterised by project after project being tried out, started up, and then shut down. Often, the main stumbling block is the lack of people willing to take part. But that’s not the case here.

 
In 2003, when I presented our new integration project to then Integration Minister Bertel Haarder, we of course believed in its potential. The establishment of a mentor network for ethnic minority and refugee women was the perfect platform for enabling KVINFO to utilise the institution’s unique competency network and resources.

By imagining Denmark as one large company, we could create professional one-to-one relationships between mentor and mentee. For our pilot project, we needed to select mentors for the 12 mentees involved. The response was overwhelming with over 300 volunteering to participate as mentor. The solution was to establish a mentor bank from which we could select a mentor as new mentees signed up.

The breakthrough came in 2004 when KVINFO’s Mentor Network received two awards in the space of just one month: the magazine Alt for Damerne’s women’s award; and the official Public Sector Integration Award. Since then, the flow of both mentors and mentees has continued to grow. Growth has been so fast that, at times, we have had to create waiting lists.

Today, more than 2000 mentor/mentee partnerships exist across our five divisions: Copenhagen, Århus, Esbjerg, Vollsmose, and, as of recently, Tingbjerg. To date, almost 5000 individuals have been part of the network, either as mentors, mentees or contact persons (women who provide support and help in finding a suitable mentor if we do not have the right profile needed in the mentor bank.)

Not only is KVINFO’s Mentor Network the largest of its kind in the world, but it’s also one of the most successful integration projects in Denmark. Integration initiatives are often characterised by project after project being tried out, started up, and then shut down. Often, the main stumbling block is the lack of people willing to take part. The key strength of KVINFO’s Mentor Network is the fact that both mentors and mentees are highly motivated to take part. New members of the network are actively attracted by the message being spread that the Mentor Network can actually lead directly to a job.

It was during a research trip to Toronto that it first occurred to me how unusual it was to attract such a large number of volunteer mentors. The large organisations there told me that they only had between 50 and 60 volunteer mentors. “How have you had attracted so many?” I was asked. “Why are so many Danish women eager to volunteer as a mentor?”

I owed them an answer, but what? One thing though was clear – something had worked! At the end of our first grant period, the KVINFO Mentor Network was evaluated alongside a large organisation which traditionally works with volunteers. During the process, I realised that the mentors attracted to our mentor network were very special indeed. “We never imagined that that type of busy woman could be recruited to undertake voluntary work”, was one comment.

One important reason is the simple fact that success breeds success. From being a socially overburdened area of restrictions and constraints, we have created an international meeting place in which both mentors and mentees are proud to belong.

In many ways, we got off to a flying start achieving visible results almost instantly. It soon turned out that very many Danish women were more than happy to sacrifice their time to contribute to positive integration. To start with, many young women with ethnic minority backgrounds kept a sceptical distance. “I was born in Denmark, and I don’t need any help”, was a common comment when approached. But as soon as the network’s ability to attract well-qualified mentors became clear to them, many of these educated women from ethnic backgrounds started to show an interest, even if merely to obtain a final helping hand to find a job.

Talented children of immigrant families prefer to manage for themselves, but many were finding it hard to find their dream job. Now they too grabbed the chance and signed up for a mentor.

Our belief in the power of a positive story was furthered in The Invisible Success web project. This was followed by New Men in Denmark in which 30 immigrant women, followed by 30 immigrant men, talked positively about their lives in Denmark. This has since become an exhibition travelling to public libraries around Denmark in 2009 and 2010.

Most recently, in the autumn of 2009, we reached out to small and large business owners with ethnic minority backgrounds. By asking the local greengrocer, butcher or pizzeria owner to support the Mentor Network, we give him a chance to tell us that he supports careers for women – and also that he is part of modern-day Denmark – a place where his daughters can take an education and where his wife can pursue a career.

The Mentor Network has set many wheels in motion, mobilising ordinary people within the general population. There is a genuine desire among large sections of the population to create a community which can accommodate both the majority and the minority.

A glance back through the history of Denmark shows many an example of the benefits reserved for the few being happily shared with new and changing social groups. Perhaps, as the cultural and political debate about ‘the essence of Danishness’ rages as never before, we may consider that the ability to adapt and welcome the new is really what characterises being Danish.

In recent times it has been women who have fought for legal, political, financial and civil rights. It’s only a few short generations ago that Danish mothers began to enter the job market. For most of us, the history of women in Denmark is so vivid in our minds hat it seems self-evident that we should now hold out our hands to welcome the new women who want to contribute to the labour market and become equal members of our society.

KVINFO’s Mentor Network is writing a new chapter in modern Danish history by inviting new Danes into our shared community.
 
 
Read more
Background, case stories and more in KVINFO's
Theme: Mentoring



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