How mentors and mentoring programs can support mentees’ ethnic/racial identity

By Bernadette Sánchez & Aerika Brittian Loyd 

In light of recent media coverage on murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd (and many others) and the resulting protests across the nation, supporting the positive ethnic/racial identity of youth of color, especially Black youth, is more urgent than ever. The senseless killing of Black people explicitly shows that the lives of Black people are simply not valued. And there are many subtle ways that mentoring programs don’t even acknowledge the humanity of Black youth. One of these ways is by not promoting the positive ethnic/racial identity of Black youth and focusing instead on teaching them skills to adapt to the toxic environments that are threatening and killing them (Edward Garner, Trayvon Martin, Elijah Al-Amin). Especially now, Black youth need adults who will show up, listen, and help them process the insidious climate they are living in. We hope that mentoring program leaders and staff will take a hard look at the ways in which their programs promote and value the full humanity of Black youth and their communities.

Most often in the youth mentoring field we are concerned with traditional program goals, such as increasing academic achievement, preventing violence and substance abuse, and promoting healthy behaviors, which are important goals in helping to reduce many of the disparities that low-income children and adolescents experience. But most of the youth served by mentoring programs are comprised of youth of color. A 2016 national survey of 1,451 youth mentoring programs serving over 400,000 youth nationwide revealed that most (76%) of their mentees were youth of color. An overlooked goal and missed opportunity for many mentoring program staff and out-of-school-time (OST) researchers is the promotion of a positive ethnic/racial identity of their young people.

Research shows that an essential component to the healthy development of adolescents of color is their ethnic/racial identity. Ethnic/racial identity refers to the “social and psychological experiences associated with identifying with an ethnic or racial group.”  There are different aspects to an individual’s ethnic/racial identity, such as pride (i.e., positive feelings towards your group) and exploration (i.e., extent to which you are involved with and/or learn about your ethnic/racial group). Extensive research shows that a healthy ethnic/racial identity is related to many other positive outcomes among diverse adolescents of color, such as more favorable academic, psychological, and health outcomes. A positive ethnic/racial identity even helps to reduce the negative effects of racism on youth. Given that there are so many benefits to a positive ethnic/racial identity for youth of color, it behooves mentoring practitioners to include ethnic/racial identity as an important goal in their mentoring programs because it may lead to other positive outcomes in youth’s lives.

Drawing from the advice offered by Aerika and a colleague on how youth programs can promote the ethnic/racial identity of African American youth and on previous work that Bernadette and colleagues did in developing and implementing a culturally tailored and gender-based mentoring program for girls of color, we provide a list of recommendations on how organizations, programs and individual mentors can promote the positive ethnic/racial identity of youth of color in general.

How organizations & programs can facilitate a positive ethnic/racial identity in mentees

  1.  View mentees’ race/ethnicity as an asset rather than a deficit. Critical mentoring and positive youth development theories argue that practitioners and researchers should use a strengths-based perspective rather than a deficit approach in their work.  Some researchers even refer to these assets as community cultural wealth. Stating that your program targets youth who are “at-risk,” “vulnerable” or “disadvantaged” are deficit labels that assume that your mentees need to be fixed and “saved” from their problems. Not only should youth of color be approached from strengths-based perspectives that acknowledge individual and community assets, but their race/ethnicity should be viewed as an asset as well. What are the strengths and contributions in their racial/ethnic community from which youth and program staff can draw upon?
  2. Leadership and staff should include members of mentees’ ethnic/racial group. Mentoring organizations and program staff, administrators and board members, and volunteers should reflect (or have members from) youth’s racial/ethnic community (and/or from their geographic community). These similar-identity adults can serve as positive role models for mentees and help them to envision their future selves. Further, advisory board members should include individuals from mentees’ communities who provide consultation to staff. These individuals can provide a perspective that reflects an authentic understanding of mentees’ race/ethnicity/culture, and they could offer advice regarding program design and how best to reach and serve mentees and their families.
  3. Program curricula should be culturally relevant. Mentoring programs could take on a culturally specific philosophy that influences programming. For example, some mentoring programs targeting African American boys incorporate the principles of Nguzo Saba (e.g., umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination)) into their programming or use Africentric worldviews to promote African cultural values (e.g., spirituality, harmony). Incorporating a culturally specific philosophy has to be done with care and should be designed and implemented by individuals who are experts in these philosophies. If no one on staff has this expertise, then hire consultants who offer guidance and staff members who can implement these aspects of the program.
  4. Promote the racial/ethnic socialization of mentees. Mentoring staff should promote messages in their program that values the heritage and culture of mentees and that facilitates ethnic/racial pride in their mentees. This could take on the form of incorporating activities and materials, such as relevant books, music, projects, and museum field trips. Staff should also look at what is on the walls of their program space. For example, do the walls include art or images that instills ethnic/racial pride in mentees?
  5. Train mentors and staff on how to listen and talk about racially sensitive issues that youth may experience in their lives. Mentoring programs could be a safe place for youth to talk with adults and peers about social issues that affect their everyday lives, such as racial profiling, police brutality, immigration issues, and health problems disproportionately affecting their community (e.g., COVID19). Adults may be hesitant to bring up these sensitive topics because of fears about upsetting youth or they feel unsure about how to discuss these issues. However, youth may need to make sense of their experiences, thoughts and feelings in a nonjudgmental space with caring adults. In a study about culture-related incidents that took place in after school programs, researchers found that the most effective staff engaged in reflective dialogue, which involved having two-way conversations with youth, creating a safe space for these discussions, asking open-ended and guiding questions about their emotions, and listening to youth.
  6. Encourage youth of color to reflect on their experiences. Identity experts suggest that youth engage in self-reflection activities to help them make sense of their thoughts, feelings and motivations regarding their lived experiences. Engaging in self-reflection about their ethnicity/race can help youth of color affirm their ethnic/racial identity. However, experts caution that self-reflection needs to be done with care as youth of color become aware of negative stereotypes and misrepresentations in the media about their ethnic/racial groups. It is suggested that staff implement structured opportunities that help youth engage in positive and safe self-reflection, such as journaling, focused dialogue, arts and crafts, storytelling and photography, under the supervision of a trained staff member who has engaged in their own identity work and reflection too.
  7. Support the sociopolitical development of youth of color. In their book about talking to teens about race, ethnicity and identity, Rivas-Drake and Umana-Taylor state that promoting the sociopolitical development of youth of color may give them a holistic understanding of their ethnic/racial identity. Sociopolitical development is a process of growth in which a young person critically examines the political, social and systemic factors that affect society and individuals’ own status in society. Sociopolitical development also refers to a person’s knowledge, capacity for action, and behaviors that one engages in to make changes in society. Mentees can learn about the structural and social issues that are inextricably tied to their ethnicity/race.  Some adults may assume that young people don’t care or aren’t thinking about the social issues our country faces, but oftentimes they are concerned and have questions about it. Helping youth of color develop their sociopolitical skills can help them to understand their own status in a complex social system and how to help make institutional and systemic changes that improve the status of their ethnic/racial group in the U.S.

How mentors can support ethnic/racial identity in mentees

Our recommendations are applicable for all adult staff and volunteers, no matter their race/ethnicity, who work with youth of color. Staff and mentors of color as well as White staff and mentors need to reflect upon their own identity and status in the U.S. as well as the identity and status of the youth they serve.

  1. Show interest and help mentees learn about their ethnic/racial group, such as their group’s contributions in our society and the world. If you don’t share ethnic/racial background, ask mentees to teach you something about their group. This is a good opportunity for both mentees and mentors to learn about mentees’ ethnic/racial group.
  2. Engage in activities with mentees that are associated with and/or support their ethnic/racial group. This is another opportunity for mentors to learn about their mentees’ background and for mentees to learn more about their own ethnic/racial group. For example, in learning together about the mentees’ ethnic/racial group, mentors can ask mentees about excursions they are interested in doing to learn more about mentees’ ethnic/racial group. Perhaps the mentee would be interested in going to a restaurant that serves food from their culture or attending a local community event or museum about the mentees’ culture or history.
  3. Help mentees to identify positive role models who share their similar ethnic/racial identity. If serving older youth, connect mentees to similar-identity role models who work in a career that interests the mentee. If serving younger youth, take the time to learn together about similar-identity role models in a range of fields (e.g., science, fashion, engineering, culinary arts, sports, theatre).
  4. Discuss your own ethnic/racial identity with mentees. Mentors can set a good example by modeling the behaviors and attitudes that are associated with a positive ethnic/racial identity. Learning about your ethnic/racial identity can help mentors also better understand their own complex identities.
  5. Support the sociopolitical development of mentees. Mentors can ask mentees about social issues that are important to them and their ethnic/racial community. Not only is this a good way to get to know mentees and their community, but mentors can provide a safe space for mentees to talk about social issues they care about. A listening ear can help mentees verbalize how they feel about an issue and make sense of it. Further, mentors can guide mentees in figuring out what kinds of steps/actions they want to engage in to make a difference in the social issue. Perhaps the mentor can help the mentee to write a letter/email to their school principal about an important issue at their school or a letter/email to a local elected official about a community issue. These actions can help to empower youth in making positive changes in their community and could also contribute to a sense of pride about their ethnic/racial group.
  6. Advocate and be an ally on social issues affecting mentees’ ethnic/racial community. Mentors don’t have to sit on the sidelines as youth of color and their communities continue to get marginalized in the U.S. Mentors typically have a more privileged position compared to their mentees on the basis of their status as an adult. Mentors may also be privileged in class, education, age, gender, sexuality, race and/or some other characteristic. This privileged status puts mentors in a position where they could be heard by powerful others and mentors could contribute to positive changes that help to improve the lives of mentees of color and their communities. Watching mentors engage in social change activities may instill a sense of pride in mentees about their ethnic/racial group.

Bernadette Sánchez is a Professor in Community Psychology at DePaul University and an expert in the role of race and ethnicity in mentoring relationships among urban, low-income youth of color.

 Aerika Brittian Loyd is an Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of California Riverside. She is a community-engaged developmental scientist who studies how intersections of race, ethnicity, gender and identity inform health and development for youth and young adults of color.