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Developing a Mentoring Mindset: Critical Strategies to Support Every Child


Caregivers, educators, coaches, extended family members and other adults in young people’s lives have opportunities to have meaningful conversations with young people every day – conversations that can help young people process their emotions, understand their experiences and the world around them, receive validation and perspective, build a sense of identity, and connect with a sense of purpose. But how many of us really see ourselves as “mentors” to the young people in our lives? And how can mentoring relationships of all kinds directly address the impacts of race, class, gender, sexuality and other factors on young people’s identities and experiences?

On this episode of Talking Race & Kids, Andrew and Melissa of EmbraceRace spoke with Dudney Sylla, program manager at Mentor: The National Mentoring Partnership, and with Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan, the author of Critical Mentoring, and the Founder and Executive Director of the Youth Mentoring Action Network, as well as engaging comments and questions from the EmbraceRace community. Watch the video. Find the edited transcript of this episode below, followed by related resources.

EmbraceRace: Welcome! ​Before we get started, I want to ask you all who are tuning in to answer a question in the chat with a word or a phrase or a sentence: what comes to mind when you think of a mentor? What does mentor mean? Who's a mentor?

OK, we're getting responses. Advocate, support, positive support, care, role model, guide, empowering others. Also guiding, encouraging, supportive, inspiring, stability, friendship, someone who guides and influences life skills, right. Trusted is another, that's great. Thank you.

Dudney and Torie, you two are deep in the doing and thinking about mentoring. My first question is, how are mentoring and parenting different? And how are they the same? And so I wonder if you could start us off by telling us what you mean by mentoring.

Torie weiston serdan

Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan is the author of Critical Mentoring and the founder of the Youth Mentoring Action Network.

Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan: Absolutely. For me, mentoring is really communal. And what struck me, when you asked the question particularly about the difference between mentoring and parenting, is that as a teacher I'm always emphasizing the difference between mentoring and teaching. Because one is very authoritarian ... [as teachers] we have control. In mentoring, there really isn't control. It's a relationship that is much more reciprocal, which is more freeing for the young person.

When I think of mentor, I think guide. I think supporter. I think resourcer. But I don't think of authoritarian. I don't boss my proteges around. I don't get to be the end-all decision maker for them as we do as parents or as we do a lot of the times as teacher. My work with Critical Mentoring is trying to reclaim the word “mentoring.” Because I think a lot of how we think mentoring is that it has to happen within the offices of a program. It has to be formal. It has to be traditional. It has to be one-to-one. None of that considers the multitude of ways, especially folks of color or marginalized populations, engage in mentoring relationships. I know among black women there's a term in the research that we use called “other-mothering” which is like the aunts and cousins and all of these other black women in the community that support and resource and guide you. We don't call them mentors, but it is the job of a mentor. So I think part of what I'd like to get across tonight is this idea that we need to reclaim this word in a way that makes sense for all identities. ​

Dudney sylla

Dudney Sylla, program manager at MENTOR, The National Mentoring Partnership​

Dudney Sylla: Yeah, and I would add … there's a phrase that popped up in the chat box, I saw, where someone described a mentor as a “trail navigator.” Often times as adults we are in hierarchical relationships with youth where we tell, we bestow our wisdom upon the young person. And what we try to do in our work is really get away from the sort of hero mindset or savior mindset and really get to the heart of being a mindful human.

I love that Torie really elevated the importance of relationships, because in the work that we do at MENTOR, we are in a position where we're responsible for supporting mentoring programs and formal mentors in those programs and we've also done the work that Torie's talked about with informal mentors who come from everywhere. A coach, a teacher, a nurse at the local hospital, a supervisor at your job or your internship. The mentors that young people come across come from so many different aspects of their life. And I think at the heart of being a mentor is being able to share the story of how you navigated your trail. Where did you come from? What did you go through? How did you go through that? What mistakes did you make? What would you do differently? What are your aspirations?

We really want to humanize mentoring, right. It's not meant to be this top-down constrictive role. The mentor’s role is more to say, hey, I've lived a life, too, and here's who I am and here's what my identity is. And here's where I've been and what I've dealt with and I want to share that with you, and I want to hear your story and where you're going and what you've been through and how to work together to help you navigate your trail, defined by you. But I can play a role of being an assistant to you on your journey. So some of the phrases I like to use are … it’s sort of board of directors mindset where, you know you're the CEO and I'm just here on the board. How can I help? And really taking on that mindset.

Back to the role of caregiver [whether as grandma, dad, aunt ...] and the relationship to mentoring. Being a caregiver is one of those roles where you can't really turn off your humanity or your full humanity. Sometimes you can show up in a certain context and just show your professional face. When you're a caregiver, your whole self is in front that young person. Your flaws, how you fall short, your struggles as well as your triumphs and how you own your whole story and engage with self-reflection and self-love and say, hey, this is who I am.

As Torie said, caregivers don’t and can’t completely share power with youth. But their relationship offers unique opportunities for doing some of that, for mentoring. You might say, here's how I'm trying to navigate my humanity and I want to hear from you 'cause I can learn from you too, about how you are handling this work. You know there are so many young people who are leaders in this world right now, trailblazing, conversations on environmentalism and gun violence and gender identity. You know, the young people are the leaders in a lot of ways and we can learn from their way of navigating these trails. So the mentor really sees it as a bidirectional relationship.

EmbraceRace: And let me pick up on that and come back to you Torie, on that last point, because it's easy when we think about the mentor/mentee relationship to see the potential value to the mentee. But Dudney just suggested that the experience can be life changing for both. Can you elaborate on that? What is the benefit, potentially as you see it, to the mentor of this relationship?

Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan: A lot of the same things that the protégés get! A lot of growth, a lot of opportunity for reflection. The way that I came to an understanding about Critical Mentoring and that whole concept of how to support young people in various contexts was young people teaching me. And I always tell the story that you know I set up a mentoring program, I followed all the rules according to the guide list and everything and then young people said, "This is not what mentoring looks like for me." And instead of sort of leaning into my adultism and saying you know, "This is research-based. You know I've done this. I've figured it out. I know that this is the formula." What I said was, okay, let me listen. What does mentoring look like for you? What do you need me to do? What does that mean? Right, and so as a result of listening to and centering young people, I've become better, right. I've become more in tune with language and certain conversations that are happening. I think “youth-adult partnerships” is an appropriate term here as well.

My social media for example right. [laughs] Something that you know, folks my age and older kind of struggle with, has thrived because young people are like, "Nah, just do it this way." Right, so I'm learning real life skills. I'm learning business skills and learning how to be a more reflective about issues. I'm definitely learning how to share power. That's one thing young people, especially those who are more vocal and aligned with sort of activist ideas, they will definitely show you how to share power!. So a lot of the growth that we say young people are getting, I think we're getting that, too. We're just learning how to be more in tune. I'm learning how to be more patient. I'm learning how to be more kind. And those are all of the same things that I say I hope I'm helping young people with, right? The exchange might be different because I have more experience in one arena than maybe a young person does. But there's still an exchange. It's not a top down. It's not hierarchical. It is communal. It is collaborative. It is reciprocal. ​

EmbraceRace: You know we started out drawing the distinction between how we commonly think of parenting, which certainly can be more top-down, more authoritarian. Obviously, there's a lot of flavors, right, of parenting. And when I hear you talk about being more kind, listening more, being more patient, I also think, wow, those are things we'd love to bring into our parenting, right, our relationship with our kids.

I mean, the push to be adultist - whether you're a teacher, a parent - it's all around you. The authority and the value that we give adults, that we give professionals or experts, when actually kids are experts in themselves and in how they feel and what they've been through. So valuing that is something I do AND have to constantly remind myself to do, to incorporate that. Dudney, you were about to say a thing?

Dudney Sylla: Everything that you all said, yeah, I agree with and I think it's really important. The one thing that I'll add is that, none of this means that young people don't need guidance or don't want help or don't want support. We know people want to be treated the right way. They want to be respected and heard and loved and that kindness piece. Sometimes as parents you do have certain roles or responsibilities you have to play. You have to think about your child’s safety. So, you know, coaches need to coach, and teachers need to teach, and parents need to parent. But the mentor mindset is about that intentionality, about how we engage a young person in that loving and kind way that Torie talked about and that you both just expressed, and really building off of that.

EmbraceRace: Hm. Okay. We want to hear more about how you all are doing this in your organizations. Maybe Dudney, you could start. Can you also elaborate a bit more about how the “mentoring mindset” shows up in your work?

Dudney Sylla: Absolutely. The mentoring mindset is really about bringing that sense of intentionality to our relationships. It's realizing that alongside the roles that you might play in a young person's life - like being a teacher or being a coach it's about understanding … "I'm in relationship." I'm a part of a community with this young person where they have resources and they have perspectives I can learn from and where I have relationships and ways that I can be a support system to this young person, but allowing them to be at the center of the universe. It's not about me dictating their journey. It's about understanding, what are their passions and interests? It’s about, what does it mean to be a black young man in this world? Even though I'm a black man, I'm not a 16 year old black man! There's still something unique about listening to them, about what it looks like for them in today's context and how they navigate that. And what does it mean, even if I share an identity, to open up to their stories and then to use the wisdom I do have and the resources I do have to complement them and work alongside them.

So really the mentor mindset is about the willingness to be vulnerable, to be honest about your mistakes. It's about being self-reflective. It's about identifying the resources that you do have, like how can I help build out the web of support around this young person? If I hear that they care about something, what adults do I know who I trust who could be a support system for this young person? And it's about that consistency, right. it's about showing up and letting the young person know that you care. One of the dynamics I think we sometimes fall into as adults is that sometimes we don't notice our child unless something goes wrong. When I say our child, I'm not just talking about parents but anyone.

Some of us who have worked in the service industry or have maybe even done this ourselves know this. You don't necessarily notice the doorman until the door closes on your face, right? You don't notice the waitress until you're sitting there waiting for your food, right. We notice people when things go wrong. And what we have to do is, we have to flip that. We have to be consistent and be present in the young person's life, showing that kindness, showing that care, asking them what they're doing, not just celebrating them when they're excellent and not just admonishing them when they fail. But that day to day in between space of being present in their life really matters. And so that's the kind of thing we're talking about in terms of having that mentor mindset is that we're in this relationship every day, in the small ways as well and making sure we're seeing the young person and asking questions and partnering with them in those in-between spaces, as well as the ups and downs of life.

EmbraceRace: And Torie, if you want to add to that and maybe pick up on the piece that Dudney was talking about, the identity piece in relation to Critical Mentoring.

We hear so often, and we saw it in people's responses to the “what is a mentor” question, the sort of identification of mentors with role models. In the role model context, you often hear about the sort of gender and race matching - Dudney gave the example of mentoring Black boys as a Black man. And I wonder if you could say something about that because sometimes, on one hand, it makes sense to say, as Dudney did, that he may not be a 16 year old black youth but he's a black man, that that could be meaningful. It's a meaningful connection for a young black man and I think like, are we letting the rest of us off the hook with respect to any given kid who we may not share that identity with? But that doesn't mean that I can't be a mentor right. So I just wonder if you could pick that up for me.


Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan: Yeah, so with the Critical Mentoring concept, I emphasize really thinking through, not just identity but context. We know that we exist in this context and we know that things like race, class, gender, sexuality matter, right. What I'm challenging here is that we have this idea that mentoring should be neutral right. That it should not take into account those things. Like, I have this young person. I'm going to provide support for this young person. And it doesn't matter who they are. I'm going to offer these things.

But what I'm saying through this Critical Mentoring concept is that context does matter. The fact that someone is black or the fact that someone is queer or the fact that someone is Spanish speaking or an immigrant. That those things do matter and that your mentoring actually should adapt or adjust to that context. Because the things that your protégé might be asking of you and the things that you might want to provide, and that relationship might be something outside of just grades.

We think about school-based mentoring a lot, like talking about your grades or talking about your test scores or talking about whether or not you go to college. I know in my work we definitely do a lot of academic work but the conversation is different when we're talking about young folks from marginalized identities because we have to ask questions about, what's the difference between going to an HBCU or PWI, a predominately white institution, and how am I going to feel if I get into this predominately white institution and I'm one of five people who is black in a classroom, and how does that impact my ability to perform academically? That's not a neutral conversation, right? It's not enough to just say all kids go to college. Because we know that when they get there, they have different experiences based on their identity.

And so for me, the Critical Mentoring concept is really exploring that context and an understanding that because of your identity, one, but also because of the way society looks at you or perceives that identity, what you're experiencing is different. And so if I'm a mentor providing support, I want to think about that as I'm as I'm building the relationship. And so to your question about whether we match according to race and gender, etc., the way I've dealt with it within my organization is to say, let the young person choose. In some cases they say, I'm getting support in these other arenas, what I need is positive identity. And so therefore I might want to be matched with someone who looks like me. Or they may say, you know I have a lot of support in my community or in my family from folks that look like me. I'm looking for an experience outside of that. I think that the benefits can be, can go both ways. I know a lot of mentors who are conscious and white that provide excellent mentoring support for young kids of color. And I don't think that there's anything wrong with that. For me, it's about that consciousness and it's about being aware of that context and understanding how you can best support that young person that really matters right.

Dudney Sylla: Right, and that's part of the reason why we emphasize that concept of the mentorship mindset, because the truth is, it would be nice to think that we can sometimes choose when and how young people come into our lives. But sometimes you're chosen, you know. For whatever reason, the young person showed up into your life because now all of a sudden you're a parent when you didn't plan on being a parent. Or you are a librarian. This kid started coming every single Friday, was interested in what you were reading, sat down next to you and asked you, "Hey, can you talk to me about this book?" Sometimes you get chosen. And so I think Torie's point about emphasizing the mindset and the consciousness and being responsive to the young person, regardless of our background to be prepared to do that. Going back to the example I said before, even as a black man, it doesn't necessarily mean that I'm going to share the exact same experience as a black boy. So the importance of being conscious and responsive to a young person becomes important. I love what Torie said in terms of really being present with that young person.

EmbraceRace: Yes. Getting back to your efforts to reclaim the word mentor, to expand the meaning for people. At EmbraceRace, we struggle with language, too, because we focus on people raising children, people engaged in “parenting,” but not only parents can or do parent. Mentoring is a word we’ve considered but that word has baggage, too. When I think of mentoring, I first think of programs and I think of having these very specific, exterior goals that are about [academic support, job training, college counseling]. So in your model, if you are on the board but the child's the CEO (I love that!) then what’s the goal - how do you understand where you start and where you're going?

Dudney Sylla: Yeah, I think it's still very important, and part of the mentoring mindset concept is that it's still important to be aware of what the young person cares about. I love Torie's examples where she said, "I adapted my mentoring to the young person's needs." Young people have goals and interests and passions. And so our responsibility as the mentor is not to impose that goal, right, but to react and be responsive to the goal that we know that the young person brings up. Obviously that's a little bit different than other roles.

When you're a coach, you do have a mission to prepare them physically and mentally to play the game. If you're a teacher, you do have a responsibility to help them navigate an academic system. If you're a barber, you're there to help give them a fresh cut, right? So you're in those roles, and the parent, you're there to parent and to protect them right. Those roles remain in place. The mentor, what the mentor mindset brings into the conversation is, "What matters to you? What do you care about? What are the questions do you have? What are you processing? What new experiences do you care about?" And how do you create a relationship that's in support of that? And sometimes that responsibility means that you're going to increase their “webs of support.”

So maybe I have no idea how to support a young person with their goal, but I can say, "You know what, I just went to that session with Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan. She gave me her number said, ‘Call me anytime,’" And now I can pick up the phone call Torie and say, "Torie, do you mind if I connect you to this young person who brought something up that I know you have an expertise on." You know, I think one of the biggest challenges and fears that we have as caregivers, whether you're a parent or a god-parent or an aunt or whoever is, who are the other adults that I can trust and that my kids trust who can support me in caring about this young person? Because as one adult, I don't have everything myself. I don't have all the tools. I bring the tools I bring. How do I help them navigate the world and be able to identify those who can support them in their goal? And that's where that mindset comes into play to support the relationship.

EmbraceRace: You know Dudney, you're making me smile a little bit because I think you just invited everybody to call Torie at any time [laughs]

Dudney Sylla: [laughs]

EmbraceRace: I'm not sure if you meant that literally, but …

Dudney Sylla: [laughs] Definitely get her book [Critical Mentoring]. Definitely get her book.

EmbraceRace: Let me come to you, Torie, with a real applied question. So you have this book, you have this framework, you've seen some comments from folks really appreciating what you're both saying. I wonder if you could give us a high level conceptual look at what you're talking about, what this means. Can you talk about what the work looks like? So what do you do? How should folks listening to this think about applying, adopting and adapting your Critical Mentoring framework?

Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan: Yes, so my organization is called the Youth Mentoring Action Network. It's here in Southern California. As soon as you started asking me about it, I kind of got this smile. I’m smiling because when I get to talk about it I'm so proud of the young people that I work with and I'm so proud of the space that we've been able to sort of create. So I'm excited about this question!

I'd say the first thing is we do a lot of self-work [with mentors]. Before young people ever really come into the space, we talk about what needs to be talked about. We process certain issues around race, gender, sexuality et cetera and we have this organizational culture of, we're going to be open and in tune and responsive to these issues.

I always try to tell mentors and mentoring programs when I go to train them that this is work you do before you even get in front of young people. We always kind of want to start ahead of ourselves with, “oh, we got this program and young people are coming in, and what do we do.” But before you get there, you got to get right, okay? And when you get in front of young people and you're not right, they're going to let you know or they're going to check out! [laughs]

So we have this organizational culture of doing the self-work of consciousness and then we also have an organizational culture of including young people at every single level. So I always tell people that that's another really easy take away strategy. Young people are on our Board of Directors. Young people are on our staff. Young people volunteer and intern with us.

So we have young people everywhere saying, "This is what programming should look like for other young people or for myself." Again, always sharing power and sharing space with young people so that they can check us and say, "No, that might sound good in a logic model but it doesn't work out that way when you're running the program."

It's the concept of "nothing about us without us." We don't engage in a program or do any programming unless young people say, "Yes. I think this is going to be useful. It's going to be useful for us in these ways." We do a lot of project-based learning, so we use music. Music is one of the really creative and innovative ways we do work. And that really just means giving young people opportunities to express. We emphasize creating safe spaces a lot in our organization. We have a program right now we're running called Organize IE for all of our activist minded young people. So we're literally taking them around the Inland Empire and showing them what movements look like and showing them what social enterprises look like and how they could do something for the community but also have a thriving business. And young people came up with that.

So all very project-based and very hands on. It looks very youth-centric - young people running the events, young people running the programs, young people saying, "Here's what I think again my service should look like."

Dudney Sylla: What Torie just shared is so incredible. I would say that, in our informal mentoring training and our training for coaches comes down to three concepts.

One, related to what I talked about earlier, is "I see you." Really, really, making sure that we affirm the ways in which our young people add values to our lives. You know, if you're an adult and the young person shares something or an experience that increased your learning, saying that. Saying, "Wow, I didn't know that. Thank you for sharing that with me. Thank you for bringing that knowledge into my life," and making sure we're really proactive about affirming and seeing what young people are doing that we're learning from. I think that's really important.

The second concept that we talk a lot about is the concept of coaching in questions. So rather than a coach only giving instructions, they're asking the young person about their process. What did you see there? Would you have done something differently? What came to mind with you in that moment?

The second concept that we talk a lot about is the concept of coaching in questions. So rather than a coach only giving instructions, they're asking the young person about their process. What did you see there? Would you have done something differently? What came to mind with you in that moment? We know young people are still developing. Brain science talks about the developmental process of young people at the different stages of the development, and why asking questions really helps encourage young people to think, "Oh well this is what I saw here. This is what I'm trying to accomplish," or "If I had to do that again I think I would change this." And being able to have that dialogue with young people in a proactive way, and processing things that happen, matters a lot. And as well as sharing your process, right. You know oftentimes we sort of share something and we say, "This is right," you know because we're so used to doing things and we're so used to seeing what's right about it. But, for example, if you’re a supervisor mentoring an intern, really sitting down and saying, "Here's my approach to supervising and here's why I take that approach. Here's the reason why I think this will be important to developing my staff," and helping that intern understand your process and then be able to share what they might be if they were in your situation. So those are tangible things that we can do every day to work with young people.

And the last thing that I will touch on, too, because I think it matters with this conversation about identity and intersectionality is, being able to be mindful of our language. For example, at MENTOR, we recently came out with a guide on masculinity and mentoring and one of the things that we emphasized in that guide was the importance of language. Like when we want a young boy to behave in a certain way, and we say, "Man up. Man up." Well, what's the impact of that kind of language? What's a way to potentially reframe that so that we don't make it sound as if a being a man looks one way. There's no one way to be a man. There's no one way to be black. There's no one way to be a human being. There's actually a multitude and intersection of ways to do that. And in order to foster that young person, how can we reframe "man up" and say, "Hey. Why don't we try this again? And I'm here to help you," right. And being able to understand how to mind our language so that we're supportive of that particular young persons' pathway. Those are tangible things we can do every day as mentors, as well as adopting that mentor mindset and that critical mentoring lens that Torie's been talking about.

EmbraceRace: Wow. It strikes me, in that example, Dudney, that that's kind of the journey in life that we’re all on, just realizing that who you need to be is yourself, and discovering who you are. Resisting the ideas that there’s one way to mentor, to be professional, to be a man, to be black. We’re all on that journey. Can you mentor us, too?!

One of the pieces that you're both emphasizing so nicely that's really resonating with me and with our effort at EmbraceRace is this idea that children, young people, are already fully realized human beings. So of course they're evolving, they're developing, none of us is finished, and certainly children will go through a lot of changes. But they're full human beings already, not just future adults. Too often we're preparing them for this later time when they're going to do whatever they do. But they have thoughts, they have convictions, they have agency. And they teach us things. We can encourage and nurture all that. You guys are resonating with these two.

Now we’re going to move on to questions – we’ve received many. This is from Katie, who wants to know, what advice would you give a mentor in a community that has a diverse group of children - Black, Latinx, etc. - but are mostly surrounded by white mentors. What can you say to those mentors? Torie, should we start with you?

Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan: To the point I made earlier, those mentors need to do some critical reflection and some self-work to make sure that the ways they are engaging young people, especially young people of color, resonate with them, and that they're building spaces that make sense for those young people. And I don't just put that responsibility on the mentors. You know in this case if you're running a program, you have some responsibility to provide a training or do some work that engages these mentors in that conversation. A white person typically asks me this question after every training, you know: "I'm a white person. Can I mentor a black person? Can I mentor you know, etc., etc." And again, I reiterate, you absolutely can but you have to do the self-work. You have to do the reflection. You have to have a level of consciousness. And you have to be willing to listen to young people when they say, "This isn't working. I don't need this.” *laughs* Or, “this is working. Give me more of that," right. So be willing to build a relationship in a way that there's reciprocal trust. That allows the young person to say what they need and that you're okay.

I want to point to Dudney's other point earlier about you know we have the sort of Western idea that mentoring is one-to-one. And that kind of locks us in this individual space where if a protegé comes to us and asks us a question we don't have the answer to, now we feel like failures. Now we feel like we don't have the answer. We didn't get it right. But if we think of mentoring more as a communal process, a community, a network of resources that young people could tap into, then you're not the only person who has to have the answer right. You don't sort of bear that burden by yourself.

[In sum], as a mentor, you should make sure:
1) You do some of that critical work;
2) Any mentoring program you join is responsible for training you to do that;
3) You set up a community of mentors, not this one-to-one business all the time. There needs to be a community of support for young people so that if you can't give them the answer, somebody can.

Dudney Sylla: I think that's really important too because I think it is an inspiring thing to see someone actually do that work. Because one of the skills that we hope that young people take away, and I think this came up in a chat, is that we want them to also take those relationship building skills with them. This multicultural world is also getting smaller in so many ways, and so the ability to develop that skillset of creating relationships across identity, across backgrounds, is incredibly valuable and we want young people to see that that's possible. It doesn't take away from the importance of getting support, too, from people who look like you or have a similar background as you. So as a mentoring program, being able to be willing to engage the larger community and parents, too, so that those other adults can be involved in some way, I think this is also an option for programs. But I do think that intentionality with how you're approaching things matters a lot. And there are resources out there.

You can go perhaps to Torie's Critical Mentoring Institute that she gives. At MENTOR, we've done a training called The Essentials which is really geared towards working with young men and young boys of color. We can sort of highlight some of those resources for you can access later. So engage in that work and also we need to be creative as programs around how do we engage the larger community? Also ask the kids, "Who do you connect with?" And allow that to help support our recruitment process as well. ​EmbraceRace: So there's a question about mistakes that new mentors tend to make when first entering a mentor/mentee relationship? Torie, you talked about that, how your approach got kind of, smacked down by kids and that was a learning experience. There must be some common new mentor mistakes.

Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan: I think sometimes mentors are over eager. You know, one of the things that young people have really taught me is to take time to build a relationship. It doesn't need to all come at once. And that's the beauty of mentoring, for me, the relationship building component. None of this work that we're talking about doing happens until you build a relationship with young people and they feel safe, cared for, loved, respected and validated. That’s when they say, oh okay, I think I'll step forward and I'll say these things or I'll do these things or I'll trust you to tell you that I really want to be a musician even though you know my parents want me to be a doctor or whatever it is. So I would just say to those mentors, think carefully and tread carefully. Depending on the length of the relationship, but I think really the first half of that relationship needs to be about just building the relationship in and of itself. That's like the number one mistake mentors make is they just think they come in and they could say, "Hey kid! You know, let's do this and let's do that and let's talk about this." The relationship building matters.

Dudney Sylla: And that's true of all of us of many different backgrounds. You know, whether you're an uncle, whether you have a title like coach or you're in a formal mentoring program match in a one-on-one relationship, that emphasis on really building relationships first really matters. So does being able to role model and share how you build relationships with the people you trust in your life, how did you build that relationship? We want young people to learn from us about what it looks like to build healthy connections and sharing that process with them as well I think is essential.

EmbraceRace: Torie, when I asked a question about the work you do on the ground, you said this brings a smile to my face to think of the work because I'm so proud of those kids. One thing I'm loving about both of you. I'm sure some people think of mentoring as an obligation as a community member, which isn't bad in itself but doesn’t necessarily embrace the spirit that I hear you both talking about, which is, look, this is a joyful thing. I'm not just giving my gift. I'm also receiving a gift from these young people I'm working with. The whole reciprocity piece of it. And I wonder how that figures in when someone comes to you and says, "I want to be a mentor." So part of it is presumably the willingness and there's training you need to go through and all of that and obviously it's possible to learn things. But might you screen someone out who you think isn't doing this work for the right reasons, who isn't open to learning and maybe adjusting the framework around mentoring that they may bring into the program? Kind of your mentor savior type!

Dudney Sylla: You're queuing Torie up right here, that's why she's laughing. [laughs] I already know what's coming! [laughs] I think you go first, Torie.

Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan: [laughs] I just, thank you for asking the question because I do think it's an important question to ask. Not everyone should be a mentor. And again, I tell programs this all the time. Some of your volunteers should lick envelopes, you know! [laughs] Some of your volunteers should do back office stuff. Not every person who comes to the organization should be face to face with young people. And that's a difficult thing to say because, especially with nonprofit organizations, we want to welcome all of the participation, we want to welcome the community. We value folks who sign up for mentoring because it's so hard to get mentors and match them in these one-on-one programs and we don't want to keep young people on the wait list.

But some folks can do more harm as mentors than good. And yeah there are folks that I say who come to my organization that I say, you know, “I'm really thankful you are wanting to participate and I think that you might be able to help us in a number of ways. Maybe being a mentor for a young person isn't one of them.” And I think we have to be a little bolder about having those conversations because what ends up happening when we don't is we have folks that get into these relationships with young people and, I see all the time with young people that the reason they don't engage adults is because they've just been harmed so often by us. So we have to guard our young people from that. We have to protect them from that and sometimes that means having difficult conversations with one another and saying, "You know you're not there yet.” And “I want you to be able to participate, just not in this way."

Dudney Sylla: The only thing I'll add to what Torie's saying is that, some of the other challenges we see is how folks can sometimes be screened out who can and are good mentors, too. So making sure that, from a programmatic perspective, we're really thinking about our process around recruiting as well. How do we talk about mentoring in ways that are more intersectional and culturally relevant so that folks who may not think of themselves as mentors can actually go, "Oh, I actually can do that." There are a lot of folks who, unfortunately, aren't able to be mentors whether it's because of criminal record or different things of that nature. And so we have some very challenging conversations that we need to have as programs around who is a mentor and where do they come from? And in what ways do we reach out to them and learn from them especially if we're hearing from young people about the kind of adults that actually move the needle for them. And how do we have that dialogue, too? And I think that's part of reason why we emphasize the mentor mindset is so hopefully folks who may not see themselves as mentors who would share power and would think critically and do all the things that Torie said can see themselves in the world and in that way.

But for the flip side as well, for folks who maybe assume that they'll be a good mentor but still have work to do. How do we have that honest conversation about the work that we all have to do in order to be better?

I got into this work because I have a passion working with young people. I've been a camp counselor and a recruiter and in all of these different roles. And I made a promise to all the adults who helped me, like I'm a product of former mentors. I'm a product of the local coach and the barber and the priest and the parent and the uncle and the supervisor and the teachers, right. All of those things. And the bus driver. Like there was a van driver who would take me to school every day for like three, four years who had that mentor mindset. I'm a product of that. And I'm a product of two parents who came to this country from Haiti and had to figure things out from scratch but had that skill of expanding the web of support for their young person. Because the Haitian community often had that communal lens. So I'm a product of that and I made a promise that I would try to give back. At the same time, I'm also doing this work because of the pain, too, because there were times where I fell short as a mentor, where I made the mistake, where I didn't show up in the ways that I could have for young people. How do we be honest about the holistic truth of who and what we are when we do this work? I think that will keep us humble and encouraged as we go through the process. ​

EmbraceRace: Hmm. Thank you for sharing that, Dudney. I want to read a comment from a participant in the chat and get your response. This person says: "It's nice to hear about more fluid mentoring, that is about the whole child and the child's goals instead of just institutional goals. It's something we've had a hard time explaining to schools who want us to focus on academics." Another participant came in with a related question: “how can Critical Mentoring support policy change in schools, communities and society?”

Dudney Sylla: Yeah. Well, obviously schools, like all institutions do have certain goals. And I think we all are doing the best we can to do right by the missions that we have right. Schools want their kids to graduate and go to college and do certain things.

So, first, we try to emphasize that all of us do better when we're in positive relationships and in positive healthy cultures. Part of the reason that we're emphasizing that relational culture is that we know that when we have that relational approach, when we care about social emotional learning, when we care about the whole student, success towards critical thinking and executing on the day to day goals becomes easier and stronger and longer lasting. And so a lot of the things that we try to do, whether we're talking to corporations, workforce development programs, schools, community-based organizations – in all of these contexts – is to explain that that relational lens will almost always support the institutional goal. That's one.

Two: I think it's a false competition between the institutional goal and what the young person wants. There's space for what the young person wants. And do we have the patience and the willingness to weave in the goals of our young people and the interest of our young people as we navigate these goals? I think as adults it’s worth having a conversation about that, too. That relational culture really helps create a sense of belonging that I think is essential to being able to accomplish whatever goals we may have in life. And I don't think any of us would be where we're at right now if we didn't have both.

EmbraceRace: Torie, I'm sure you want to jump in that question, I want to come to you with another one if that's all right.

Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan: Okay. [laughs]

EmbraceRace: And you can sneak in a response to that previous one too. You can answer whatever question you want! But there's a question here that I'm sure a lot of people are asking, and I'm actually going to twist it a little bit. The question is from Paul who wonders, “How do I support my child in finding a mentor? I've introduced him to people who I thought would be good mentors but he didn't choose them. They didn't work out.” So as Paul's question implies right, I mean he's picking up on your point I think that of course there are formal mentors in mentoring program. And then there are a lot of people who could be mentors, (not everybody!) who mentor informally.

We're all around. Dudney, you mentioned the bus driver right and the uncle and the you know the both parents and all of that. Torie also talked about sort of a mentoring community, right, not just a one-on-one but does the community support, do the members in it see themselves as potential mentors? We all have perspectives we can share with our kids but there are some things we can't bring that we'd like someone to bring. How would we, or anyone else, look to recruit, sort of formally or informally, someone who can bring that to a child that we love?

Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan: Yeah, so I think it happens in both ways. It happens on your end as a parent but I think it also happens with a young person as well. And I think I saw someone in the chat who asked, how do we get kids ready or prepare them for mentoring? And I think you know part of my response was that we have to tell kids that they're worthy of investment. I think that parents really are responsible for that. As a parent you say, "you're worthy of this investment," and not just from the parent but in the world. One of the things that I find with young people is that they end up being sort of surprised, like, oh, I get to be mentored? Or this program is paying attention to me? Or something that I'm doing matters enough for someone to be invested in me right? So it's almost the self-esteem building to get young people to recognize, no you're actually worthy to be invested in.

And then saying, here are the various options. Maybe you want a mentor for professional reasons, somebody who can help you grow in your career. And then your network as a parent or extensions of your network as a parent would be helpful to them. Or maybe you are an athlete and that's something that you want a lot of support or engagement with.

Yes, I love you because I'm Mommy or I'm Daddy. But there are other folks in the world who are willing to invest in you as well.

So there's a training process with young people to help them understand that A) they're worth being invested in and B) to try to give them the esteem and mindset to seek out mentoring. What I do is I remind young people all the time, and Dudney already said it: “You don't meet or see successful people who haven't had someone invest in them, who haven't had someone mentor them." So I think having that conversation with our young people as parents consistently - yes, I love you because I'm Mommy or I'm Daddy. But there are other folks in the world who are willing to invest in you as well. How are you positioning yourself? How are you tuning into who might do that for you? How can you make yourself available? How can you be open to someone who comes and says, "Hey kid. I think you have talent. I'd like to show you some stuff."

So I think it's, for me, the answer to that question tends to be around esteem building for young people, having them recognize that they're worth being invested in and then teaching them that sort of mindset for receiving that investment. And hopefully as parents we're doing that. But if you feel like you want to be intentional about it, it's really about letting young people know not just because I'm the parent but because there are folks out here who are interested in this and because you're worthy of that and so you need to seek it out. ​

EmbraceRace: Yeah that's critical. Can I just tell you, the resonance for me in that, Torie. I mean I just think of being in graduate school right in a Ph.D. program. And the race and gender cast of the folks who felt empowered to ask for mentoring and who got it. Yeah and the difference that makes in how you see your possibilities, how you see your trajectory. And it's really hard to overstate that and it’s obviously not just my experience we have a lot of research on that. So yeah that's a huge thing.
We're at the end of our time. Thank you so much, it's been a fantastic conversation.

Dudney Sylla: And one thing I'll say real quickly, too, at least for everyone listening in, if you're thinking about mentoring or looking for resources, start with us! Torie has an amazing book called Critical Mentoring that dives into this work. Also go to - we want to make sure that wherever there's a mentor relationship, you're not alone. [Check out these and other resources below!] Start with us 'cause we do believe that everyone can adopt that mentor mindset and #MentorIRL. Caregivers are on the front lines and we want to make sure you're not alone in this process.

EmbraceRace: Thank you so much!

Related Resources & Links

MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, where Dudney Sylla ( program manager. He recommends the following specific resources on the site, too:

For mentorship programs and assistance:

For caregivers, informal mentors and others wanting more information about how to support the kids in their lives across various identities:

Tools for mentoring programs in other contexts:

The Youth Mentoring Action Network, where Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan ( is a founder and exec director, "leverages the power of mentoring to create a more equitable and just society for young people." Find additional resources for implementing her Critical Mentoring strategies here:

  • The Center for Critical Mentoring and Youth Work aims to "institutionalize critical mentoring work by housing a collaborative space dedicated to advancing the concept of critical mentoring through training, research and incident response teams."
  • Critical Mentoring: A Practical Guide - First, Torie's seminal book has deeply influenced the mentoring field to move towards honoring the identities, contexts, hopes and dreams of mentees in mentoring relationships. Dudney also highly recommends!

Dudney Sylla

Dudney Sylla is a Program Manager at MENTOR, The National Mentoring Partnership. He oversees and supports special projects including MENTOR’s work on informal mentoring, education, and their guide on the intersections of mentoring and masculinity. More about Dudney >
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Torie Weiston-Serdan

Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan is the author of Critical Mentoring, and the Founder and Executive Director of the Youth Mentoring Action Network. She is also a scholar and practitioner with over eleven years of teaching and youth programming experience.… More about Torie >
Torie weiston serdan