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Elevating Stories: Celebrating Black Leadership in the Mentoring Movement

It’s always a great time to recognize inspiring Black leaders in our community, but this February in celebration of Black History Month, we’re casting a special spotlight on some of the amazing Black leaders in the New York Mentoring Movement by taking a deeper look into their take on mentoring and leadership.

Chotsani Williams West

Why did you decide to get involved in the Mentoring Movement?

When I think about my early exposure to mentoring, I recognize that this movement chose me. I did not choose it…in fact, I had a different career trajectory, in television. I was introduced to the formal structure of mentoring when an Executive Producer asked me to coordinate an internship program for our network. In my research, I discovered that a mentoring component was necessary for a rewarding internship experience. The Mentoring piece resonated with me.

Photo of Chotsani Williams West
Chotsani Williams West

Volunteering as a leader for a community based organization, I observed the nuances of relationship building, the importance of training/screening and overall awareness for mentoring work. When I noted substantial gaps in access to resources and achievement, which has a disproportionate impact on the development and success of Black and Brown youth, anyone who is "othered," for that matter, I decided to get involved with mentoring in a more official capacity. I wanted to enhance the skills that my own mentors told me came so naturally to me...I sought out training and education from experts in youth development, education, social work/psychology - that is where my journey as a scholar in this work began. My view of mentoring through a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens informs my work in educational spaces.

Essentially, I became steeped in the mentoring movement as I felt that mentoring could help to combat larger societal issues. I connected to the dots to these issues and the benefits of the communal work of mentoring fascinated me. I thought of how mentoring helps to combat the concerns I raise above. I have not looked back on my decision to follow the path leading to my life's work.

What inspires you as a leader?

I reflect on community members who were “natural mentors” to me. I admired and still greatly appreciate their encouragement and "success tips." Their authentic and ongoing investment in my future made me want to “pay it forward” and help others do the same. I was able to thrive leaning on their guidance.

Dr. Rolanda Ward

Why did you decide to get involved in the Mentoring Movement?

Photo of Dr. Rolanda L. Ward
Dr. Rolanda L. Ward

My earliest encounters with mentoring occurred over 25 years ago when I was a first-year social work intern at the Big Sisters Association in Boston, Massachusetts. That experience cemented my commitment to facilitating powerful adult and youth relationships. As an intern, I became keenly aware that young people thrive when family and community members work together to share resources, education, and social supports so young people can work to build a future that is meaningful to them. I used my early mentoring experiences to build two mentoring programs, Niagara University Public School Collaborative and the Race Education Advocacy College-Credit-Courses in High School (REAC3H), both programs strategically position University resources to support the educational achievement of BIPOC high school students.

What inspires you as a leader?

I am inspired when young people are provided opportunities to speak their truth and when they are allowed to shine. Young people are perfectly capable of leading their peers and adults, especially when the community projects are meaningful to them. I am inspired when young people challenge systems of oppression and move adult thinking toward more equitable practices. Finally, I am inspired when I see young people experience simple joys.

We elevate Black voice when we ask one question, “Who is missing from the table.”

Deismond Rosa, Director of the Graham-Windham Hunts Point Beacon Program

Why did you decide to get involved in the Mentoring Movement?

I have been involved in youth development and mentoring programming for over 15 years in various programs throughout the greater New York area. A product of the New York City School system myself, I realized very early on, that one of the main protective factors I had working in my favor as an inner-city youth, was that I had mentors from my church and from the afterschool program I attended, who were there, by my side, as I grew up, to help me make it through the vicissitudes of growing up a young, Black male in NYC.

Through mentoring programs that I was involved in as a child and young adult, I was able to forge meaningful relationships, which some of I still have, over 25 years later. I have been able to travel throughout the country and abroad, obtain important soft and hard skills which I still employ to this day and develop a deeper understanding of who I am as an individual.

I, myself, got involved in the Mentoring Movement as a young, Black male mentee, an after-school participant, and have never left. Understanding that mentoring is cyclical and is often well served by individuals who have been profoundly impacted by it.

My goal is and continues to be, to use my life experiences and life lessons learned to help, support, listen to, guide, connect with, and mentor as many young people as I can.

What inspires you as a leader?

Photo of Deismond Rosa
Deismond Rosa

What inspires me as a leader is also what drives me as a Mentor. It is the idea that you can be the reason that a young person makes a better decision than what they would have made, had it not been for your influence, however large or small, in their life.

It's when you see a former mentee or program participant and they're "all grown up". They're attending college, possibly working a job or with a family of their own, and they warmly embrace you and speak fondly of the positive impact that your relationship with them has had or their relationship with one of your mentors has had on their lives because of their participation in a program you have led.

What inspires me as a leader? is probably best expressed by Margarete Meade who said:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has"

What about working with the young people in your program inspires you?

I have the distinct pleasure of working for the youth and families of the Hunts Point and Longwood sections of the Bronx as the Director of the Graham-Windham Hunts Point Beacon Program. Our program operates out of The Bronx Academy for Multi-Media (08X424) Educational Campus. Although geographically we are located at 730 Bryant Avenue, Bronx, NY, 10474, from a socio-economic vantage point, our program rest within the confines of the poorest congressional district in the nation.

The young people who attend our host school and who participate in our afterschool programs are not only confronted with the rigors of school but must also persevere through the complexities and challenges of high community crime rates, food insecurities, over-policing, environmental pollution, and poor air quality due to the high industrial footprint in the Hunts Point area of the Bronx and all of the enumerable negative impacts that we know poverty presents to both the individual and the family unit.

Some would think that dealing with all of those external pressures would cause the young people in our communities to develop a defeatist attitude, but it doesn't. In fact, I often share with my colleagues that the youth we serve are brilliant, tough, incredibly resilient, resourceful, insightful, and amazingly talented young people.

Vaughn McKoy, MENTOR New York's Board of Directors
Vaughn McKoy, MENTOR New York's Board of Directors
Vaughn McKoy

Why did you decide to get involved in the Mentoring Movement?

In 1990, I was asked by my mentor if I understood why he was investing in me. I replied "no," and he responded that he was investing in me so that I could do the same for others. He gave me a charge that day, and I adopted it as lifestyle. I did not decide to get involved; I was compelled out of gratitude.

What inspires you as a leader?

Seeing others grow and develop into their full potential, and then helping others do the same.

Vaughn's advice about how to elevate black youth voice?

In order to elevate Black voices, they must be heard in the first place. Listen to those and hear what they are saying, and include them in all efforts to teach, heal, and create.

Karen Bissette, Senior Project Manager, NYC DYDC

Why did you decide to get involved in the Mentoring Movement?

Karen Bissette, Senior Project Manager, NYC DYDC
Karen Bissette

As Benjamin Franklin said, "Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn." Mentoring chose me! When the Associate Commissioner of Youth Services called on me to embark on this journey, I had no idea what was involved in managing programs that were tasked with providing such an imperative opportunity like mentoring to our youth. As I got more immersed in the movement and truly saw the positive impact that the DYCD Mentoring Initiative had on youth, especially young Black and Latino men was when I realized that helping young people hone their fullest potential was my calling.

What inspires you as a leader?

As a leader in City Government, my ability to make a difference inspires me. Just knowing that through my contribution to mentoring can help bring about positive results in the lives of the young people, is the most rewarding feeling of my career. To see smiles on young people's faces, to have them share college acceptance letters with me, and simply reaching out years later to say, "thank you," but most importantly their tenacity through adversity is what inspires me to keep doing the work even on the toughest days.


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