How to “Do” Critical Mentoring: Making your Program More Culturally Relevant

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 9.14.50 PMby Torie Weiston, Ph.D.

Weighty events taking place all over our nation have prompted the mentoring world to begin looking closely at how to make our work more relevant for communities of color. Many are looking for ways to address gaps in mentoring practice. Many realize that existing practice often lacks the critical foundation required to serve the communities who need help most. Some are unsure about what steps to take, others unwilling to recognize that the shifting landscape requires bold and sweeping action, but all need to identify and implement more critical ways of doing our work if we truly mean to make a change.

In my work as a mentor and head of a mentoring organization, I have taken advantage of opportunities to listen to the young people I serve and to collaborate with them in ways that have informed my mentoring practice, strengthened my leadership, and deepened my scholarship. The development of the critical mentoring concept comes out of listening to the needs my protégés have shared as we travel the mentoring path together. Critical mentoring seeks to move mentoring research and praxis into a larger discourse around the critical examination of race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality as they pertain to mentoring. Critical mentoring challenges deficit-based notions of protégés, limited metrics that ignore meta-narratives and protégé adaptation to dominant ideologies. Furthermore, critical mentoring seeks to engage both the mentor and the protégé in processes that trigger critical consciousness and an ongoing and joint struggle for transformation.[1]

As the concept continues to develop and as I share it with others, the most common question is; “How do we ‘do’ critical mentoring”? While I truly believe the practice is evolving, there are three ways existing programs can make their mentoring practice more critical right now.

Program Goals

I’ve heard it said, “not about us without us” and the saying is fitting for mentoring programs working within and hopefully with communities of color. Every single mentoring program that fits this category should immediately take a look at their program goals. If these program goals have not been developed or reworked in collaboration with the community and most especially the youth being served, they must be changed. Doing work with young people of color means giving them voice and extending them meaningful opportunities to participate in building their programming. David Fetterman’s process for Empowerment Evaluation provides a structured means for “taking stock” and “planning for the future” in collaborative ways.[2]

Also, if the program goals aren’t connected to overarching issues of race, class, gender and sexuality, issues that must be addressed when doing transformational work in minoritized and marginalized communities, they must be re-worked. Talking to the young people you serve will surely uncover this, but acknowledging these issues and looking for ways your program can help, will make your work more critical.

Recruitment and Retainment

Several mentoring organizations cite lack of volunteerism as a problem in communities of color. It’s a sore spot and sounds a lot like the “we can’t get parents to come out” excuse that schools use when they lack skills required to engage communities. Studies on this subject have shown us that this lack of volunteerism isn’t so. An article in The Root proclaims that Black Americans showed “recession-proof” giving. The Corporation for National and Community Service said “5.7 million Black Americans did volunteer work in 2009, up 400,000 from the previous year.” Furthermore, Black Americans gave “792 million hours of volunteer time worth about $16.5 billion”.[3] If we look further, we could probably tell how much of these volunteer hours were dedicated to mentoring, but we need not look further to refute the claim that folks of color don’t volunteer. One of the most important ways to make your program more critical is to recruit purposely and to retain volunteers and staff of color. If you are working in communities of color and your staff, whether paid or volunteer, doesn’t reflect the community you serve, you’ve got a problem. In fact, it could be the reason you haven’t attracted people of color in the first place.

Also, consider program goals again. Is the work you are doing relevant and meaningful to the community you are serving? Don’t answer this question on your terms, attempt to answer the question on the communities terms. This process may require reaching out to the community again. Consider the ways you are asking for help. Maybe stuffing envelopes with donor letters isn’t the way the community wants to get involved. Consider volunteer time frames, folks have to work. If your expectations of volunteers are rooted in middle and upper-class traditions that assume people have paid time off or corporate support, you may need to re-think when, where and how each person in the community can help.


Anyone who is running a solid mentoring program understands that training mentors is a vital part of what we do. It is during the training process that mentors come to understand program goals, research-based mentoring skills and strategies for effectively working with protégés. Programs looking to become more critical need to include training components on race, class, gender and sexuality in their training modules. Programs working with Black males need to include training modules that help mentors to address the unique needs of Black males, programs working with LGBTQ youth should do the same and so on. Programs who do not discuss issues of race, class, gender and sexuality risk setting up mentors for failure and alienating the youth they aim to support. Mentoring training must help mentors be culturally relevant so that they can use the protégé’s “culture as a vehicle for learning”.[4] Whereas many mentoring programs are set-up to inculcate white and middle-class values, those looking to be critical must understand, appreciate and respect the values their protégés bring to the mentoring relationship as well as learn to aid the protégé in maintaining those values. Only then, will the mentor be able to help them navigate other worlds. To discount the “cultural DNA” youth of color have and force them to choose alternate and often oppressive ways of being harms them, renders the mentoring relationship useless and undermines the work the program may be trying to do. A significant amount of cultural relevance work can be found in education research and easily translates to the world of mentoring. Educational experts like Geneva Gay, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Donna Ford, Bettina Love, and Chris Emdin have provided pathways to help us understand how to do real and critical work in communities of color.

If mentoring programs want to continue doing work and receiving funding to do work in minoritized and marginalized communities, they must begin to make their work more critical, must make the basis of their work true and transformational, for the sake of your youth.

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

[1] Weiston-Serdan, T. (2015, June 20). Critical mentoring: A definition and agenda [Web log post]. Retrieved October 26, 2015, from


[2] Fetterman, D., & Wandersman, A. (2007). Empowerment Evaluation: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. American Journal of Evaluation, 28(2), 179-198.

[3] Fields-White, M. (2011, January 15). Black volunteerism increased in 2009. Retrieved October 26, 2015, from

[4] Ladson‐Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory Into Practice, 34(3), 159-165.