Mentoring For Us By Us


It’s been my passion to mentor young people since I began my teaching career over twelve years ago. I had come from schools with lots of resources, I went to teach in a school that had fewer resources. I immediately noticed the difference and the disconnect. I was incensed.

My early understanding of mentoring was situated squarely within the context of these schools and in schools more generally. In my view, I had students sitting in front of me, they needed help, the help they needed was academic and I along with others like me were the ones to provide that help. I was clueless. I fumbled my way through my first year as a mentor while building a program. Young people taught me so much in that first year, and I listened. I wasn’t sure what to do with what they taught me, but I was sure that they had good ideas. I heard young people say that they needed support, I heard them say they were tired of navigating racism in school, I heard them say they needed spaces that reflected them and what they cared about, I heard them say that academics weren’t everything and that there was a bigger world out there they needed help managing and learning about. It seemed so simple, what they were asking for and yet, as a teacher operating as a member of the school, it seemed impossible to provide. What was most difficult in that first few years was listening to young people share their needs and wants in a mentor and in a program and trying to reconcile that with the school system I had built this program within. 

The two were not reconcilable. I ended up creating a non-profit organization tasked with providing mentorship, college, career and life readiness support for marginalized in Southern California. As I learned more the organization started focusing in on how to do this in culturally sustaining ways; ways that allowed young people to speak their truths, ways that acknowledged structural racism, classism, gender inequity, and homantganism while at the same time helping young people to build their own capacity. We listened to young people, we listened more, we changed policies and procedures, we collaborated with young people to build out our programs, and we finally changed our mission to “leveraging the power of mentoring to create a just and equitable world for young people.” Now, my non-profit, The Youth Mentoring Action Network, is a growing grassroots organization collaborating with young people to provide them with quality mentoring and other opportunities. We are also partnering with young people to provide schools, colleges and universities, non-profits and corporations with the help they need providing mentoring and youth advocacy support to their communities in culturally responsive ways. 

We haven’t stopped listening. As society continues to wrestle with its most pressing issues, we have found that supporting, resourcing and loving women and girls of color should be among our top priorities. Every iteration of civil rights movements tend to overlook and fail women of color. I refuse to allow my critical youth work to follow that same pattern. Since my work begins from a mentoring space, I want to understand more about the mentoring experiences of girls and women of color. We all know mentoring exists in these communities, but much of the research has overlooked it because it may not be called mentoring. Youth mentoring research has been a monolith; focusing primarily on data sets from formalized programs and by proxy, the young people attracted to those programs. The knowledge about mentoring, how it works, who it works for and why it works, stems from these foundational studies and has informed sets of standards and training curriculums that continue to guide the field. As more attention is paid to issues of equity, mentoring and the researchers who study it, require a more nuanced understanding of what mentoring is and how it operates in the lives of various types of marginalized youth, especially girls and women of color. The current research draws from traditional and hierarchical mentoring models and utilizes data from formal mentoring programs, the current research focuses on mainstream approaches that are generalized to the entire population. But girls and women of color often find themselves in informal or naturally occurring mentoring relationships which have evaded traditional forms of data collection. This study will center the voices and experiences of women and girls of color as they share both how they engage in mentoring as well as how these relationships have impacted their lives. 

Given my experience doing this work alongside young people, I felt it was time to make another contribution to the mentoring research. I want to learn more about the mentoring experiences of girls and women of color, and I want to a use a community-based research model that represents our community and collects data in ways that traditional methods cannot.  “Mentoring for Us” is a project that will engage women of color in a study of the mentoring experiences of women and girls of color. It’s a “for us, by us” research project and it takes an innovative approach. In fact, the whole concept is innovative, staying aligned with the idea that building alternatives to existing research narratives is not only a contribution to the research but an act of resistance. We’ve put together a Kickstarter campaign so that women and girls of color can fund this project. We want our funders, the ones we answer to, to be representative of the community we are studying. All of the incentives are named after feminists or feminist concepts, and the Wall of Woman incentive is being created by an artist who is a woman of color, this whole project is a vibe. The researchers engaged in the scheme will be both girls and women of color and all materials produced will be produced by us. This will be a “for us, by us” production. Girls and women of color deserve it, and we will do it, together. 



What Mentors Can Do in the Wake of #Charlottesville

Most of us were already aware of the world we were living in before the events in Charlottesville happened. But, if for some reason it wasn’t too clear, we received our wake up call when hundreds of “alt-right” neo-nazis and white supremacists/nationalists marched through the campus of the University of Virginia with fire-lit torches, confederate flags, Black lives don’t matter t-shirts, some in militia gear and many with helmets and shields. Beyond the aesthetic of a traditional klan rally, the intentional breach of an educational space was all the more egregious. Incidences like these reverberate, especially within communities of color where the differences in the way the media shapes the narrative and the police react and respond are particularly pronounced.

Our young people are taking notice. They are acutely aware of these events and others like them and are having their own discussions and taking their own actions. As we do our mentoring work, we must consider that many of the young people we serve come from communities targeted by the white supremacists who marched on Friday. Some of them attend schools like the one these white supremacists marched through, they may have even been in the crowd of anti-racist protesters mowed down by one of their cars or they were watching President Trump mince his words when speaking about the incident. The young folks we serve have to navigate spaces where they must face and deal with these people, and much of what they experience isn’t the blatant racism and violence we notice when it hits the news, it’s the everydayness of dismissal, invisibility, and micro aggressions that challenge their very right to exist. What our marginalized and minoritized youth must contend with must be addressed with our mentoring. The critical mentoring concept stresses the importance of context in the mentoring approach. And our current context includes an apparent and purposeful attack on the progress people of color have made. Here three things mentors can do to support youth in the wake of Charlottesville:

Do your own work before engaging with young people

Our young people are already dealing with significant trauma. The last thing they need is for adults who have not confronted their own privilege and ideas to interact with them in ways that do further damage. Ask yourself some fundamental questions about your response to the Charlottesville incident. Ask yourself if those answers are at odds with what the young people you are working with might need at this moment. You may not be able or be positioned to have a healing discussion with your protege. You might instead need to help your protege identify a group with which he or she can process. It is important that we understand that we may not always be the best ones to help and along with that means doing our own work first. Mentoring programs have a responsibility to ensure that the folks working with our young people have the tools and language they need to be effective. We can’t afford to have untrained mentors attempting these types of discussions. Finally, if you are a mentor who has not or is not willing to do the work you need to do before engaging marginalized youth in these conversations, then do not engage.

Provide young people with safe spaces to process

As mentors, we owe our young people support and guidance. This means establishing safe spaces for youth to process events like Charlottesville. We can’t ignore that these things are happening and we can’t ignore that youth need opportunities to talk about, understand and gather their own thoughts about these situations. If they don’t do it with us, they will still do it. Mentoring programs should acknowledge the issue and establish safe spaces for youth to come together to process these events with the support of their peers and adult mentors. And, these space must be reimagined. They do not need to look like the typical town halls or open forums that adults require to feel safe and secure, let youth lead the way and allow them to organize the spaces in ways that best suit them.

Understand your place and privilege and behave accordingly

There is a lot of talk currently about folks identifying and understanding their privilege. If you are engaged in a mentoring relationship or in a position dealing with young people, this is work you should regularly be doing. However, we know the opposite to be true. So, re-read the very first point that I made in this piece. Do your own work before dealing with our young people. Understand that even if you do not ascribe to or agree with the stance of white nationalists, you may hold ideas that do more to excuse them than to condemn them; silence is violence. Understand that your place in our society in and of itself comes with challenges. Be aware, be sensitive and know when it is time to speak or act and when it is time to let other folks lead. Understand that youth might not be ready to dialogue with you and be ok with that. Do not ask young people to explain, expound or educate you. They need space to process trauma and positioning yourself as needing help or education isn’t the role you should be playing for them.

There are plenty of tools available to mentors to help them do the work required to support youth in the wake of Charlottesville. I would suggest grabbing a copy of Critical Mentoring a Practical Guide as a start.


Torie Weiston-Serdan is the author of Critical Mentoring: A Practical Guide and the founder and CEO of the Youth Mentoring Action Network.

America Harms Children Everyday

America harms children every day, and this is not just a contemporary issue. In the current moment, people all over the country have been confronted with America’s most recent brutality against migrant children. Watching innocent children be torn from their families, reports of abuse and trafficking and an administration justifying all of this with biblical scripture is a tad by overwhelming for many.

Others, mostly people of color, are not surprised. In fact, many of us know that this isn’t the first time that our countries policies have resulted in the forcible separation of families. Some have even taken time to remind us of slavery, “Indian” schools, and the Japanese Internment among other historical examples. And, while the current situation is still very unsettling, maybe even more so because we’ve seen this violence happen in history, anyone conscious enough must recognize that America has a pattern, even an addiction to harming children.

In the last few years, we have seen images of Black children being murdered by the state. These deaths have been treated as debatable, not deplorable. Even now, the death of Antwon Rose is receiving silence from the same folks on my timeline declaring their hearts are broken about migrant children. We have statistical evidence that children of color, poor children, and queer children, have been treated with violence in schools by teachers and other staff. These tragedies have been treated as excusable. The youth population is one of the fastest growing populations of new HIV infections. Our response, nothing. Young people have been shot and killed in their schools. In one such incident babies in an elementary school met this fate. Gun access; still up for discussion. Given the historical and contemporary trauma America has visited upon its children, especially those of color and from marginalized communities, it’s seems we’ve been well groomed for this current moment.

Data tells us that approximately 9 million “at-risk youth” are without mentors. Where are the concerned adults lining up to mentor them? Education data tells us young people are better off when they have wrap around supports in the form of programs that provide them with support both in and out of school. Where is the funding for those centers? Research on trauma tells us that when our young people have harrowing experiences like the ones we’ve been watching unfold on the American border, their trauma can be genetically passed down from generation to generation. Free and accessible therapy and other mental health services anyone?

See it’s not just our history but our daily social and political actions that impact the situation we are watching play out on our screens. There is an inter-relatedness, an inter-connectedness many of us fail to see and understand. We should be able to care for both migrant children and Black children at the same time. But, a critical eye recognizes that both of these children are victims of the American state. We’ve been working as mentors and educators for over ten years, and the impact that these socio-political dynamics have on children is visible in schools, programs and community centers all over the country.

Educators, mentors and youth workers need support, guidance, and resources to provide support for young people who are the victims of America’s harm. The new Center for Critical Mentoring and Youth Work is taking on the challenge. We’ve created this center to scale our critical mentoring and youth work impact. In the past two years, we’ve traveled the country and world helping youth workers to do critical work with young people. It’s not only important, but it’s also necessary as our society continues to be a violently complex space that youth have to learn to navigate and challenge. The center is charged with three essential tasks;

  1. To provide training and other types of professional development for anyone working with young people.
  2. To research mentoring and youth work utilizing critical theories and perspectives. We want to study youth work in ways it hasn’t been considered.
  3. To provide trauma first aid and support for communities who are impacted by tragedies. We will deploy a team of experts to help the youth community heal and form responses.

But this is only our little corner of “the work.” We need dialogue, action and grassroots organizing at every level. Young people need us in ways we may not have understood before. Now is the time to show them our support. Here is what you can do:

  1. Volunteer to mentor a young person in your community. The time you give is invaluable, and it doesn’t cost a dime.
  2. Give to community organizations on the ground. The non-profit industrial complex can be deceiving. If you really care about what’s happening to young people find grassroots nonprofits doing work on the ground to make sure your money really gets to the people you want it to.
  3. Do more than post on social media. While utilizing social platforms to share and initiate dialogue is excellent, move past the screen and hashtags to do something real.

Young people deserve the best of us so that they can be better than us.

Torie and Gayle Weiston-Serdan are co-founders of the Youth Mentoring Action Network, a youth-centered mentoring organization in Southern California.

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Mentoring Programs Have to Care About DACA Ending

We call them DREAMERS. These DREAMERS, or DACA-mented individuals, are young people who were protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. It is not actually possible to determine the dreams of approximately 800,000 undocumented immigrants who are benefiting from DACA. Although it can almost be certain, that they, perhaps, are dreaming of things that would ultimately make them happy and proud human beings. For many, going to college and acquiring a decent job are those first steps to a path which may lead to happiness. For others, this path might look differently. Today DREAMERs received news that our current administration ended the DACA program. DACA or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was an Obama era policy implemented in 2012. In response to growing street and policy activism by and on behalf of young immigrants, DACA allowed immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to “defer” deportation action for two years. Every two years DACA recipients could renew this designation and remain in the U.S. while working toward their citizenship. In addition to being the right thing to do, this policy has positively benefited this country socially, economically and culturally. Do note our insistence that the DACA policy was in response to activism by and on behalf of immigrants. Nothing is ever graciously dispensed to marginalized folks, we have fought for every scrap of humanity that we have ever received.

Ending DACA is an egregious political act that is rooted in racism and exacerbated by dog whistle politics. The fact that we struggle to imagine immigrant identities outside of Latinx ones is a result of this racism. Our political rhetoric has created an immigrant equals Latinx equivalence. Our country is in turmoil and as we grapple with these issues we must not overlook how the elimination of DACA and programs like it, impact the young people we serve in mentoring and youth development programs. Critical mentoring was made for times like these and as mentoring organizations, we must act. Critical interrogation of context is a key component of the critical mentoring concept. Understanding the trauma, oppression and subsequent resilience of our undocumented family members is part and parcel of operating programs that effectively serve them. Even if you do not believe you are serving young people who are undocumented, please recognize that many of our youth live in communities that are, on a day to day basis, terrorized by state sanctioned violence and exploitation. It is also important to understand that while rhetoric and narrative focus in on Latinx communities when talking about immigration, the youth of other ethnic identities are erased and their narratives undermined. DACA recipients come in all shades. As mentors and youth workers, engaging with youth and operating in partnership with them, we must care about this devastation and react accordingly. Below we offer specific resources and support to mentoring organizations looking for ways to engage.

Get Information: First, we need to educate ourselves before we engage in this conversation and enter the spaces we encourage our young people to create to process this. DACA is a long, complex, and expensive process so we should learn about what our young people and their families were facing when they entered the DACA program. Obviously, the resources and articles we are providing do not directly assist our young people, nor do they replace any legal advice or cause a direct change. But this a first step.

Here are some of the news updates:

Get Active: Providing a resource event or support night for the youth and their families in your program can be a good way to show support and activate the local community. Even assisting youth in organizing a “Call to Action” night where young people affected by this announcement can contact their local representatives or participate in a letter-writing workshop are viable ways to engage. Here is a link to a “How-To Guide to start a DREAMer Townhall”.

Get Resources: Some of our youth may need immediate help. Start by identifying organizations in the community who are offering a range of services around this issue. Establish a connection and begin referring youth who might need help you aren’t prepared to provide. It might also be helpful to identify organizations who are working to help DACA recipients with the fees required to cover the price tags associated with the legal documents required. Below you will find some useful resource guides.

 Most importantly, remember that our young people are looking for safe spaces, love, support, and action. Mentoring spaces are meant to be healing spaces, we owe this to our young people because they deserve the very best of us.


Cade Maldonado is Director of Outreach at Youth Mentoring Action Network @bikesNTHOUGHTS
Torie Headshot
Torie Weiston-Serdan is CEO and Founder of the Youth Mentoring Action Network @TWeiston


Per Usual, Black Women Keep Doing the Heavy Lifting

I was on my way to the Summer Institute for Youth Mentoring in Portland, Oregon (the Whitest city in America) when I received an email from a fellow Sistah in this mentoring work. She said:

I know you are going to do great tomorrow!  I wish I could be there to support you! This is a great opportunity to shine among your peers and those trying to get where you are.  There are not many of us that can play in this mentoring field. Give them hell but don’t give them everything!    

I was inspired by her words of encouragement and it gave me an opportunity to reflect on the space I was entering and about to navigate. I had been invited to the Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring as a special guest speaker to talk about Critical Mentoring. I knew that in the world of mentoring it was one of the most prestigious opportunities available. I also knew that it was rare for the institute to be based on a topic like civic engagement, which inevitably included discussions about equity, activism, and protest. But, what I had not realized until my Sistah wrote to me, was that I was among the few Black women to be included in this way and to have a platform of this magnitude, though many of us have been engaged in mentoring work for a very long time.

Though I already knew what I knew, my Sistah helped me to revisit the idea that Black women have been doing the heavy lifting and for a very long time. While we may be garnering a bit more attention and maybe even accolades now, the burden of moving our world forward in revolutionary and liberatory ways has always been ours to bear. Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis, Nina Simone, Bettina Love, Fannie Lou Hamer, Blossom Brown, Shirley Chisolm, Patrisse Cullers, Bessie Smith, Audre Lorde, Kimberle Crenshaw, Maxine Waters. Must I continue? She was reminding me of the women in the mentoring field who have been engaging in research, practice, and curriculum development, fundraising, and training for years only to be underrecognized and undervalued by their colleagues in the field. Black women who have and continue to do the heavy lifting.

And, we just keep doing it. The internet is currently ablaze with the news of Black Trans Activists who set Politicon on FIRE when they shut down (and I mean they shut him all the way down) host of Breakfast Club, Charlamagne tha God during an interview event. Charlemagne is responsible for leading and participating in a discussion in which he and comedian Lil Duval joked and laughed about killing trans women. You can check out the background story here: But, there were lots of folks, trans folks included, at Politicon and lots of folks in the room when Charlamagne was being interviewed. Apparently, no one deemed it the time or the place to disrupt and speak truth to power.

Enter Black trans and cis women.

They not only disrupted the event but called for a boycott of the show and garnered immediate and national attention to the pervasive violence and murder happening against trans women. Where was everybody else? Content to ride on our backs and on the subsequent wave of attention we mustered centuries of sweat, tears, and strength to push forward?

Today, on Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, it’s time to respect, appreciate, value, support, and honor the work of Black women, both cis and trans. The world wouldn’t be what it is today without us, our frameworks are naturally rooted in love and liberation, and we seem to be the only ones who are just fine with doing the heavy lifting.

JAY Z’s 4:44 is a Mentoring Album and Here is Why

Yeah, I said it, 4:44 is a mentoring album and here is why… It does not take very long into the album before listeners realize that there is a maturity in JAY Z’s tone. His raw talent and ability to spit lyrics from his head (I did it all without a pen, I had to remind ya’ll again) are all too familiar to fans, but his subject matter, “pregnant pauses” and vulnerability, signal a certain development and wisdom. In fact, JAY Z sounds like Black elders all over America who have endured decades of racialized experiences and now opt to bare their battle scars for the youth who have not yet had time to have the same experience or make the same mistakes. And, this is where 4:44 becomes a mentoring album. JAY Z exhibits moments of salience that at times sound like the old man sitting on the porch or standing on the street corner who insists you’re missing the point because your youth and inexperience blind you. “Listen here youngster, let me put you up on game… ” And, like many of our elders, he does this out of love. He’s listened, he’s watched, and he’s reflected and now seems ready to move into his next phase of life and share what he has learned.

“You know you owe the truth to all the youth that fell in love with Jay Z”: The first track on the album, Kill Jay Z, has been described as JAY Z talking to and checking his ego. But this also sounds very much like a conversation between him and his younger and more reckless self. His intention to come clean about the destructive ways in which he has behaved and promoted that behavior in his music is a sort of reckoning and he is more than honest about how this has hurt him and his family. This track sounds like so many of the conversations happening in the My Brother’s Keeper mentoring space, where adult men are wrestling with their former and present selves in the presence of young men and boys in an attempt to pass on some wisdom about masculinity, fatherhood, love, and marriage. In fact, this intergenerational dialogue and reflection are not only necessary but a critical component of mentoring.

“Ya’ll think it’s bougie I’m like it’s fine, but I’m tryna give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99”: In The Story of OJ, already a favorite track with a gripping visual, JAY Z talks respectability and racial politics, generational wealth and much more. The track’s music is already symbolic of the intergenerational dialogue happening in mentoring spaces because it is a musical conversation between Jazz and Hip-Hop. JAY Z samples Nina Simone’s Four Women and spits verses on top of jazz piano licks. Aside from the musical symbolism, his subject matter is all too familiar in mentoring spaces where folks of color are engaging. Advice about how to spend and save money, how to recycle dollars within the community and how to navigate spaces while Black.

There is more, but you are going to have to listen to the album to hear HOV drop gems.

Here is what mentoring programs need to understand:

Communities have mentors already in them

4:44 and the messages within should remind mentoring programs that communities already have mentors and that these mentors have access to cultural knowledge and experiences that can’t be “recruited” from outside. Programs must do more to work inside and alongside these communities so that the youth we serve have access to the voices and wisdom that these community elders provide.

There is value in the diverse recruitment of mentors

How many of your mentors are having the kinds of conversations with their proteges that JAY Z is having on the 4:44 album? We need to be giving the young people we serve the opportunity to engage with mentors who can dispense this type of wisdom. The time for simple conversations about school performance is done with; we need mentors who can have complex and nuanced discussions about socio-political issues. Some of these gems can only be exchanged because of shared experiences. Don’t let your limited recruitment models keep a young person from accessing these powerful lessons. The more diverse and intentional we are about recruiting and training our mentors, the more likely it is that these conversations will take place.

Respectability is not a predictor of effective mentoring

This album is a reminder that the respectability of a mentor does not necessarily predict effectiveness. While mentoring programs have necessary safety checks in place to ensure the safety of our youth, we are also very much attached to the idea that a mentor must be an “upstanding” community member. And, our definition of “upstanding” is often based on white and middle-class ideas. We don’t often recognize Hip-Hop artists as respectable enough to be mentors and if they aren’t respectable enough then this almost always precludes the Brothers and Sisters from the neighborhood. We need to check this line of thinking and renegotiate our ideas about who can be an effective mentor.

Make space for Hip-Hop in mentoring

We need to establish spaces for matches to listen to and dialogue about pieces like 4:44. Some matches may be doing this naturally, but programs who have overlooked Hip-Hop as a living and thriving intergenerational dialogue have missed youth culture entirely. Our young people have listened to this album, and they are listening with or without the guidance of a mentor. Imagine what mentoring moments can happen when mentor and protege listen to 4:44 together and can discuss the complexities of the content. We need more of these exchanges in our mentoring programs, and Hip-Hop can help to facilitate them.

Finally, 4:44 should be a call to action for all of us. As Dr. Bettina Love says, “we can’t wait until we are 47 to start mentoring, our young people need us now”.

Torie Weiston-Serdan is author of Critical Mentoring: A Practical Guide and CEO of the Youth Mentoring Action Network


The deadline for abstracts for the CREN edited collection on new directions in anti-racist scholarship and activism is 01 Feb 2017. As our original call noted, the focus of the book will be on how we as anti-racist might respond to the events of 2016, namely, Brexit and the election of Trump. Following discussions between the […]

via Update: CREN book on anti-racist scholarship and activism — Azeezat Johnson | Learning through Black feminism