How Mentors Support Young Adults as They Gain Awareness of Societal Inequality and Engage in Social Action

Authors: Lidia Y. Monjaras-Gaytan & Bernadette Sánchez

Young people have been at the forefront of many sociopolitical issues — whether they are protesting, getting involved with community organizing, sharing their views on social issues on social media, or simply challenging their friends’ racist opinions. They are demonstrating that at a young age, they are becoming critically conscious (that is, reflections about the structures that create and sustain societal inequities as well as actions they take to change these systems of oppression). As young people continue to witness inequities (e.g., police violence, education attainment gap) in and outside their communities, they may take steps to fight for social justice — especially now that many of them have digital platforms to voice their opinions and become more aware of social issues. Due to the sociopolitical climate and the rise of youth activism, our research team wondered, what are natural mentors’ (i.e., mentoring relationships developed organically outside of a program) roles as youth navigate inequitable systems?

To explore our research question, we examined survey and interview data that we collected between 2017-2019 from college students at an urban, midwestern 4-year university. The majority of students who participated in the study were college juniors and seniors who had completed a service-learning course (i.e., a course that intentionally integrates community-based service with academic learning).

We learned that mentors DO play a role in young adults’ critical consciousness. Through surveys of 259 racially/ethnically diverse students (57% White, 23% Latinx, 15% Asian American/Pacific Islander, 9% African American/Black, 1% American Indian/Native American) we found that:

  • When young adults critically reflect and/or take action to challenge these systems of oppression, they turn to their natural mentors to discuss and further reflect upon societal inequalities.
  • Having conversations with mentors around social justice issues is related to youth critical reflection and/or critical action.

We also interviewed 30 of the above college students to better understand how natural mentors supported their sociopolitical development. We found that natural mentors supported this process in a variety of ways including:

  • Mentees were able to reflect and dialogue with their mentors on social issues (e.g., gentrification, women’s rights), current events (e.g., political climate during the Trump administration), and shared interests and experiences (e.g., being a Latina) because mentors gave them a non-judgmental space to do so.
  • Mentors shared information and resources with mentees regarding social issues and opportunities for involvement in social action, such as inviting them to protests or sharing information with them about social injustices happening around the world.
  • Mentors role modeled social action and community engagement.

Our work shows the important role of mentors in young peoples’ sociopolitical development, particularly when they are making sense of oppressive systems and engaging in social action. Although our study was conducted with young adults, mentors may support younger teens in similar ways. We hope our research informs the way you view mentors in mentees’ sociopolitical development, and that it also informs future training for mentors.

If you would like a copy of the full article, Act, Talk, Reflect, Then Act: The Role of Natural Mentors in The Critical Consciousness of Ethnically/Racially Diverse College Students, please email Lidia at

Recommended readings:

Albright, J. N., Hurd, N. M., & Hussain, S. B. (2017). Applying a social justice lens to youth mentoring: A review of the literature and recommendations for practice. American journal of community psychology, 59(3-4), 363-381.

Anderson, A. J., & Sánchez, B. (2021). A Pilot Evaluation of a Social Justice and Race Equity Training for Volunteer Mentors. American Journal of Community Psychology.

Sánchez, B., Anderson, A. J., Weiston-Serdan, T., & Catlett, B. S. (2021). Anti-Racism Education and Training for Adult Mentors Who Work With BIPOC Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research.

Sánchez, B., Catlett, B., Monjaras-Gaytan, L. Y., McGarity-Palmer, R., Anderson, A. J., Liao, C. L., & Keys, C. B. (2020). The role of mentoring and service learning in youth’s critical consciousness and social change efforts. In O. Prieto (Ed.), Mentoring Children and Young People for Social Inclusion (pp. 32-46). Routledge.

Weiston-Serdan, T. (2017). Critical mentoring: A practical guide. Sterling, VA:  Stylus Publishing, LLC.