Moving toward critical mentoring: Social justice trainings as a starting place

By Amy J. Anderson

Over the past few years, I have been involved with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a multiracial coalition of individuals who support social movements led by people of color. As a white woman, I wanted to not only learn more about my own role in racial justice, but also engage in social action. One piece of my engagement was the development and facilitation of a training for new, and predominately white, SURJ members on systemic racism in Chicago. Attendees were challenged to expand interpersonal-level definitions of racism to incorporate a systemic understanding necessary for transformative social change. Training experiences in SURJ led me to question how this same critical learning is needed among adults (and white adults in particular) who work with diverse youth. Namely, how can mentors be supported in their own learning of systemic oppression and privilege, in order to better support their mentees?

Issues of race, ethnicity, and gender have long been recognized within the field of youth mentoring. Given that many formal mentoring dyads occur across lines of social difference (e.g., cross-race match), this is a necessary conversation for many reasons. Of importance is the potential for adults to perpetuate biases toward youth, or for mentors’ ability to be limited by their own understanding of social forces in their mentee’s life. Mentor biases and lack of understanding about social justice issues can not only harm the quality of the mentoring relationship, but most importantly it may negatively impact the mentee.

Researchers have called for a social justice lens in mentoring, as well as added training to support mentor’s cultural humility (Albright, Hurd, & Hussain, 2017). In Critical Mentoring: A Practical Guide, Torie Weiston-Serdan (2017) explicates how mentors should engage in critical mentoring practices that focus on dismantling oppressive systems and center youth. A necessary pre-cursor and active ingredient to critical mentoring is the understanding of social justice issues impacting mentees’ lives. However, there has been limited research examining the effectiveness of social justice trainings to build understanding of these competences among mentors.

In a recent study, we examined the role of two separate social justice trainings on adults’ cultural competence and self-efficacy for race equity. Both were two-day trainings, and covered topics related to systemic oppression, privilege, and racial identity development. Our findings provide preliminary evidence for social justice trainings for mentors, and suggested three key takeaways:

  • First, social justice trainings have the potential to improve mentors’ and staff members’ attitudes around cultural humility and racial self-efficacy. Analyses of both trainings demonstrated adults’ increased sociopolitical awareness, and confidence in their abilities to address race equity issues at their organization, or with their mentee.
  • Second, although mentors who have a similar-identity as youth benefit from participating in social justice trainings, mentors who have different identities based on race, gender or class may benefit more from participating in such trainings. It is important to recognize mentors may need ongoing and differentiated support in order to best support their mentee.
  • Third, improving mentor and staff attitudes around cultural humility, and their confidence in mentoring abilities on issues of race and ethnicity, may improve their mentoring relationships with youth and ultimately the lives of young people (e.g., improved behaviors, grades).

By providing social justice trainings as a mode to better support mentors to support their mentees, mentoring programs can help prevent the negative effects of adults’ biases on youth outcomes. Moreover, through social justice trainings mentors can learn to support mentees in a manner that best appreciates their unique experiences across systems and their communities.

To learn more about this study, visit:

Anderson, A.J., Sánchez, B., Meyer, G., & Sales, B.P. (2018). Supporting adults to support youth: An evaluation of two social justice trainings. Journal of Community Psychology.