I’m sure many of you have seen the discussions surrounding multiple abusive situations in FIRST communities, predominantly towards women. As a former heavily involved student and much less involved mentor for an “elite”, Chairman’s winning team, I was most surprised by my lack of surprise reading these stories. I have personally removed myself from FIRST involvement in the last few years, in no small part due to the similarly toxic culture my, and other local teams had.
I genuinely believe that almost all former students of these so-called “role model” programs have seen similar things as I have - my team had a history of mentor-student dating, our adult mentors dating students on other teams as soon as they graduated, multiple assault stories minimized, a competition-over-everything toxic environment etc. Despite this, our mentors consistently won Woodie Flowers trophies, the team won Chairman’s awards, etc.
Personally, I believe that much of this can be attributed to the rapid, unchecked growth of teams - a business with 100+ employees and no formal HR policies and department would never be okay, but is frequently seen in FRC teams.
What do you think FIRST needs to do to address these oversights?
Here are some suggestions I would like to see.
a) All mentors, regular volunteers, adults involved with the team etc. should be required to register with FIRST, submitting a criminal record check yearly.
b) Teams should be required to submit an HR representative, that must complete HR training.
c) All mentor romantic relationships with other individuals in the FRC community should be reported officially, ideally through that HR representative. That includes mentor and previous student, mentor and mentor, mentor and mentor from other team etc.
d) Culture audits - potentially at events, a 30 minute session to speak to a few students, parents and mentors about the program and its flaws.
e) FIRST should set an official guideline about the transition from student to mentor. Many of the worst offenders on my team were those who had just made that transition, and did not have the maturity to handle it. I believe that if FIRST made mentors who had been a student in the last two years ineligible to mentor in any form, and promoted volunteering as their best option, many of these grooming situations could be avoided, and students would have the chance to grow up as an adults in an environment that did not necessarily reinforce the same cultures that they were students in.
f) Mandatory mentor and student video training about what kinds of communication and relationships are and aren’t appropriate. More resources to help students realize that what they are encountering isn’t right.
g) A re-centering of the Chairman’s and Woodie Flowers awards. While both of these awards recognize exceptional individuals, they also have a dangerous side. This ideal that your chairman’s winning team can do no wrong, and has an exemplary culture, or that an interaction with a mentor must be fine as they won an award is extremely dangerous, not to mention the minimization and self-lies that happen when writing the applications for these awards. Rather than promoting these ideas, I have a few suggestions. 1) Teams can only submit applications for another team or mentor, not their own - if a team or mentor has not made a significant impact on their community teams, they shouldn’t be eligible anyways. 2) An additional adult-written submission that focuses more on team culture, HR practices and improvements. If a team has had some sort of disappointing behavior, this would be a good place to acknowledge and include how it was addressed.
h) Regular student and mentor culture surveys. I envision an app, that has a biweekly, optional survey. Questions should include how comfortable women feel in the environment, how much stress the individuals are under from the team responsibilities, if they are taking care of themselves otherwise etc. While this shouldn’t be formally scored, regional representatives should be aware of this and eventually able to act on it.
What else could you see improving the dangerous cultures FRC has fostered for a long time?