5 Things Every Mentor Needs to Know About Working with Black Youth

by Torie Weiston-Serdan

Baltimore has welcomed several new mentors into their city since the killing of an unarmed Black man named Freddie Gray prompted city wide riots. Likewise, other predominantly Black communities—particularly urban ones—have attracted the attention of mentors since President Obama launched his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Outside of mentoring programs providing basic training to each of their volunteers, how can we be sure that mentors outside of our communities understand the nuance and complexity of mentoring Black youth?

Informed by over ten years of mentoring work with Black youth, here are five pieces of critical advice on mentoring “other people’s children,” as Lisa Delpit puts it in her book of the same name.

1. Black youth are not a special project.

All too often mentoring programs take the “savior approach,” with volunteers seeking to do some good in communities they feel have been damaged or wronged. Although this notion may be a sincere one, mentoring Black youth can’t be treated in the same way as building a home or organizing an outdoors cleanup—especially in communities like Baltimore, where Black youth require a level of consistency and long-term support that is rooted in their communities, not fly-by-night programs that will abandon them once the “project” has been completed. Mentoring research suggests that relationships are the most essential aspect of mentoring, and relationships can’t be cultivated or sustained without long-term interest and dedication.

2. Black youth are not all “at-risk.”

One of the biggest mentoring misnomers is the idea that when it comes to mentoring, only at-risk youth need apply. Not true, especially among Black youth who are often categorized as so. Black youth are as diverse and varied as other youth. Some are born and raised in urban areas, some in suburban areas, and some in rural. Some are from households living at or below the line of poverty, some from middle-class households, and some from wealthy backgrounds. All of them are in need of supporting and caring relationships provided by mentors. Mentors can’t assume, even when signing up to mentor Black youth in urban areas, that Black equals at-risk.

3. Black youth don’t need to “make it out.”

There is prodigious danger when mentors of young people perceived as belonging to poor and fractured communities have an express aim to help their mentees “make it out.” Out of what? While there may be a sincere notion of providing Black youth with options and resources for progress, it must also be considered that family and community are an integral part of who Black youth are. To assume the goal of mentoring is to help remove them from the very community that has raised them and provided a sense of self and character is to assume that there is something wrong with their very being, their very identity. This is not to imply that access to education, career opportunities, and resources meant to give Black youth choices are not welcome or needed, but a warning that mentors must strike a delicate balance in acknowledging and respecting the place from whence they came.

4. Black youth want to be engaged as partners.

Mentoring is, by no means, passive on either the part of the mentor or the protégé. However, the best mentoring relationships are reciprocal in nature, striking a balance of power and respect between the two parties. Black youth absolutely require reciprocal mentoring. Too many programs, including mentoring programs, are developed outside of and without the voices of those they serve. Black youth have grown tired of programs dictating their needs; they want to be seated at the decision-making table, deciding what mentoring will help them do. Mentors must engage Black youth in partnerships that honor their ideas and include their opinions.

5. Black youth require a critical consciousness.

It’s not that Black youth aren’t acutely aware of what is happening around them, it's that most of what they learn—especially inside of schools—tells them that their truth is inaccurate at best or to ignored at worst. So a mentor, especially those operating outside of schools, need to support Black youth in naming and navigating their realities in ways that will help them to become more critically aware. That will ultimately empower them to confront inequality and to tell their own their stories.

While mentors are volunteering to do necessary work with Black youth in communities of color, they must understand what makes the work critical is not just doing it, but how it is being done. Mentoring Black youth is an honor, and it deserves to be treated as such.

Photo: Shutterstock

Torie Weiston-Serdan, Ph.D. is a veteran educator and founder of The Youth Mentoring Action Network, a youth mentoring organization. She specializes in training mentors to work with Black, Latino and LGBTQ youth populations and can be contacted at criticalperspective.org.

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