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Training Takeaways: Critical Mentoring and Community Dialogue

The Training Takeaways Series highlights key points from recent MENTOR NY training workshops.

How do we place young people at the center of the mentoring process? That’s the question participants explored in our September workshop, Critical Mentoring Training & Community Dialogue, hosted by MENTOR New York CEO Brenda Jimenez, with support from Changemaker Fellows Kyra Holiday (Connections Mentoring) and Alexxis Briviesca (Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC). This participatory training session centered on Dr. Tori Weiston-Serdan's landmark book, Critical Mentoring - A Practical Guide, which offers a framework to engage in culturally sustaining mentoring practice for those working with youth.

What Is Critical Mentoring?

Critical mentoring leverages critical race theory to position identity and youth at the center of the mentoring process — challenging norms of adult and institutional authority and notions of saviorism. The goal is to create collaborative partnerships with young people and their communities that recognize there are multiple sources of expertise and knowledge. To learn more about critical mentoring, check out Dr. Weiston-Serdan's Ted Talk.

Three Ways to Center Young People In Your Work

According to Dr. Weiston-Serdan, there are four elements involved in centering young people: recognize that youth are capable, provide them with a platform, pass the mic, and let them lead.

How can you put these elements into practice? Here are three of the approaches shared during MENTOR New York's training.

1. Check the process by asking young people what they need.

It may seem simple, but the concept of saviorism — in addition to having racialized constructs — comes from the adult need to assume we know best. While it's often tempting to speak on behalf of young people, instead, give them opportunities to speak for themselves. If you want to know if your services are working, listen to those who benefit from them.

How can you do this? Provide youth with a place and space to innovate, allow them to develop and lead programs, and facilitate the creation of youth advisory boards. These are just a few ways we can ensure that young people are given a voice, power, and choice. If you're listening, young people will tell you what they need.

How do we collaborate with young people? A common misperception of a youth-centric approach is that adults are no longer part of the conversation. But, saying "adults get out the way" does not mean get out of the room. In fact, one of the most important components of critical mentoring is intergenerational communication. As adults, we can leverage our knowledge and experience to support young people while they learn and grow. Mentors and mentees have much to teach each other, and if adults are willing to make themselves more relevant (and young people are willing to listen), a reciprocal mentoring process can emerge.

2. Share power with young people.

Affording young people agency requires more than simply listening.

How can you do this? A key way to share power is by creating a youth board and giving young people a seat at the table — or their own table — to inform action. Reverse mentoring is another tactic that allows young people to hold power in a mentoring relationship and share their knowledge with mentors.

Remember, if young people aren't leading the work, they don't want to be used for program photo opportunities or marketing gimmicks.

3. Consider intersectionality — and address the contexts that youth actually live in.

Today's young people navigate a myriad of challenges, from racism and gender-based violence to the effects of the pandemic. Mentors must engage in difficult conversations with young people about these issues (rather than avoid them for their own comfort) in order to be culturally relevant and provide a network of support. We must meet young people where they are and acknowledge the different identities they carry as individuals. This becomes an easier task the more engaged youth are in our work, and the safer they feel to be their full selves. Consider whether you’re aware of the communities the young people you serve live in and the cultural norms within them. Do you understand how they communicate, or some of the challenges they face?

How can you do this? To develop your cultural competency, collect community-centered data and consider the nuances of the communities you serve — with young people acting as your partners in the process. Learn more about intersectionality and ask yourself the question: What is advocating for equity without advocating for those who are most oppressed?

What should you be aware of? Many young people experience racial trauma. Strike a balance where you acknowledge this context while also seeing and addressing them from a holistic standpoint. Avoid walking into spaces with young people and thinking you can or are there to “fix” their problems. Engage them in conversation, and you'll find that many times they know the solution to an issue but are yet to receive the support needed for it to work.

Looking for help to implement one or more of the approaches above? Partner with us! Contact our team to learn how you can access our no-cost consulting services. To learn more mentoring tools and techniques, register for our next training workshop.

About the Workshop Facilitator

MENTOR New York's team includes experienced trainers with expertise in youth development, mentoring, program operations, and more.

Brenda Jiménez is CEO of MENTOR New York, a nonprofit committed to increasing the quality and quantity of mentoring relationships for young people and closing the mentoring gap in New York State. For five years preceding her appointment as CEO in December 2019, Brenda was Director of Operations and Growth Strategies. Brenda has previously worked for Big Brother Big Sisters of America (BBBSA), Girl Scouts of the USA, and United Way of Essex and West Hudson.

Brenda was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, and raised in a military family stationed in Germany, Texas, and five other states. In her adolescence, her family settled in the Bronx, where she attended the prestigious Cardinal Spellman High School. She received a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Seton Hall University and later pursued a Master’s in Public Administration with a Nonprofit Management concentration from the Robert F. Wagner School for Public Service at New York University. She is currently pursuing her Doctorate in Executive Leadership from The Center of Leadership at The University of Charleston in West Virginia.

Brenda has served as the co-chair of the MENTOR Affiliate Advisory Council, a strategic affiliate leaders council that helps inform, shape, and develop strategies in partnership with MENTOR for the mentoring movement across the nation. Brenda received four 2020 Stevie Awards for Women in Business in the silver and bronze for government or nonprofit in the following categories: Female Innovator of the Year, Woman of the Year, Female Executive of the Year, and Most Innovative Woman of the Year. From 2011-2016 she was Board President for AllCare Provider Services, Inc. and is the former Board Treasurer for Latinas United for Political Empowerment Political Action Committee (LUPE PAC). In 2011, she was Vice-Chair to Comité Noviembre 25th Annual Gala. Brenda has received numerous other recognitions including Comité Noviembre, “Lo Mejor de Nuestra Comunidad”: “The Best in Our Community” Award 2010 and El Diario/LA PRENSA Latinas Destacadas 2004 Award.

Brenda resides in Jersey City with her husband and three daughters.


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