Profiles in Mentoring: A conversation with Torie Weiston-Serdan on Critical Mentoring

Written by Vera van den Berg

 Torie Weiston-Serdan is the founder of the Youth Mentoring Action Network— a non-profit organization that focuses on youth mentoring. Moreover, Torie Weiston-Serdan is the author of “Critical mentoring: A practical guide”. She examines how marginalized and minority youth are served by mentoring and mentoring organizations. Critical mentoring, central to Weiston-Serdan’s work, is also about youth centrism; making sure that young people have voice, power, and choice.  



What inspired you to become involved in the mentoring field?

Prof. Weiston: The primary reason that I was drawn to the mentoring field was because I had so much support. I always had help. I always had parents in my life who supported me, connected me with resources, and helped me to move my life and career along. I just wanted to give that back.

I knew as a teacher who was working with young people, I knew that teaching wouldn’t let me spend much time with every youngster. If you have 38 kids in the classroom, you don’t have time to spend one-on-one time, or time to follow up on how things are going. Thus, that motivated me on some level too. Also, I felt that there are some kids that just needed that extra push.

There are a lot of kids that have different resources, but there are still a lot of kids that don’t have anyone to rely on. That was another thing that motivated me. Because I saw kids who had great potential to go anywhere, but who never had anyone that supported them along the way.


How did you start with your mentoring program?

Prof. Weiston: It was in my second year working as a teacher that I started to look around on campus and asked kids what they planned on doing after school. I just heard way too often “I am not sure, I’ll just go to the local community college or whatever.” I couldn’t understand why.

Thus, the first time that I started a mentoring program was for people of color on my campus. It was for those whom I felt would benefit from a push or support to get into college. Before starting the program, I did my research and had everything set up like I thought was right. However, I did it wrong. My first mistake was that I didn’t ask the young people what they needed. I had based the mentoring program on what I thought they needed.


What was the difference between what you thought was right and what the young people needed?

Prof. Weiston: I had put out expectations about what they should and shouldn’t be doing. I also already assumed that college was the way that they wanted, and should, go. Even if they didn’t know if that was what they wanted to do. Thus, I developed a program around my academic values but I hadn’t asked the youth about what they wanted, about their aspirations.

I noticed that some of them were helped through the program, but others weren’t. Thus, something needed to change. Learning this made me a better mentor and definitely a better program coordinator and advisor for other programs.


What did you learn from the students about their aspirations?

Prof Weiston: I actually learned that a lot of the young people I worked with wanted to do something in music or art. It helped developing a music program, which is still operating. That was the most surprising thing. I thought a lot of the students would say they aspired for the traditional road – referring to attaining a college degree. But giving the students room to express their aspiration, we ended up recruiting a lot of mentees who wanted to something different than the traditional road.


Hearing those aspirations from students, did you notice any gaps in their expectations and aspirations? If yes, what where the reasons?

Prof Weiston: Yes, there were gaps sometimes. A lot of the time the problem was that adults were still very centered. As a result, I think the young people got limited in their imagination. You sometimes hear a young person say “this is something that I really want to do” and you hear an adult reply “well, that’s not something that you can do”. Thus, young people ended up searching for something that they thought would be feasible, but we hadn’t given them the way to imagine the possibilities.

I often think when we see young people lost or when they don’t know what to do, we haven’t given them any options that made sense to them, that made them happy, that fit their standards. Now, I always ask my mentees what they want from the mentoring relationship. Even though that sounds like a really easy question, a lot of youngsters don’t know how to answer that question because no-one has ever asked them what they want.


When you started the program, were you the mentor for everyone?

Prof Weiston: Yes, I was a mentor and I had recruited primarily African-American mentors in our school community. Every mentor had two-three mentees who they were responsible for. That was also another mistake. Again, we were imposing these ideas and I thought that race-based matching was the only way to match. In this case, I thought they needed a mentor who would look like them and represent them. I still think that that is true. However, the mentee needs to decide whether that’s also true for them.


You had a lot of experiences and learned a lot of important lessons when you first started your mentoring program. Was that also the moment that you established the Youth Mentoring Action Network?

Prof. Weiston: The first year that I started was in 2007 and it was a school-based mentoring program. It grew after that first year and in 2010 I started the Youth Mentoring Action Network.


You also created Critical Youth Mentoring. Could you tell us a little bit more how that got developed?

Prof. Weiston: Yes, as I mentioned, a lot of it came from my interaction with young people and being able to step back and listen to what they were offering me. Another part of it came from my PhD-process. At that moment I was studying how mentoring impacts the academic success of Black suburban youth. Thus, it was kind of a cross between those two: (1) I was working with the young people and (2) I was studying the PhD which involved a lot of critical race-theory too. That’s where critical mentoring comes from.

The more I worked with young people and the more I studied, the more I realized mentoring programs where focused on changing the young people instead of changing the circumstances around them. For example, I would ask young people why they didn’t show up in math class. To which they would answer that the class was not a welcoming environment or that the teacher was racist in some kind of way. I, as a mentor, was thinking that they needed to adapt or assimilate in order to get good grades. However, the youngsters would say, “How does that work for any of us?”


What are the key aspects of the Critical Mentoring Program?

Prof. Weiston: We talk about race and practically from the frame of critical race theory. That’s a lot for people to begin with and for the most part, if you’re not a person of color or marginalized, you don’t necessarily notice the everydayness of racism. So we talk about how this plays out for people who are “other” in any kind of way. Once we become aware of that and once we process that, we can ask ourselves “in what ways does that impact our mentoring?”

We also have to talk about what do we not say to young people and what are we avoiding. What are we doing in our mentoring relationship to reinforce these systemic problems around race? I point to youth centrism as an example. The fact that mentoring programs are youth centric, we think we are addressing those problems around youth. However, as mentoring programs we often take away the voice of the young people we are serving. Because (1) because they do not help us make decisions, (2) they don’t collaborate right next to us. It reinforces the powering control issue within race, class and gender sexuality. Thus, we are often reinforcing these issues in our mentoring programs.

Critical Mentoring is a lot of “self-work”. How do we really start to acknowledge the way we operate and how do we start to change our mentoring processes as well? How do we center the young people and how do we make sure they have voice? How do we work alongside them when they process these issues?

People often assume that I am talking to people of color all the time, but that’s not the case. I would say that, that’s where this work is well-received. However, not all the time. Some mentoring programs are, for example, only focused on people of color. I might not have to educate them on race, but on class or sexuality. When we are talking about using and hearing the voice of youth, we also need to include queer-voice. So how do you have conversations about sexuality and gender?

It’s all about reflection and intersectionality: making sure that everyone is taken care of, that we are centering young people. I can’t emphasize this more. If we centralize young people more, it will help us to get a lot of things right. Young people are naturally revolutionary!


What are some of the reactions you get from people you train and ask to reflect on their own life to think critically about what place they take on in a mentoring relationship?

Prof Weiston: In some situations people are visibly upset or you can see their disagreement. Other situations people become reflective. They might not immediately draw the conclusion, but they come to a stage where they can process it.

For example, I get this question all the time: “What if I am a White person and I cannot necessarily identify with everything my mentee of color goes through?” Or, “Regarding the race-based matching, can I not be a mentor as a White person?”

I explain to them that the reflection is the key component. It’s important to ask yourself why you are in that mentoring relationship. Are you thinking this is your moment or is this something that you are willing to build alongside this young person? Furthermore, I talk to them about racism and how this remains a problem. We have lived in the same society that everyone is part of. Whiteness is not just about white people, it’s a global phenomenon. So living in a racialized society, people of color focus on whiteness as well. There are examples of how mentees of color want a white mentor because they link whiteness with being more superior or something better than a mentor that would look like them.

Thus, I always tell white mentors that there is a necessary place for them, but that reflection needs to be a part of it. Also, the constant listening needs to be a part of it. You need to make sure the young person is centered. Also, you need to continuously check your privilege and motivation for engaging in the mentoring relationship.


Critical mentoring seems like a vital part that every program needs to make part of their mentoring organization. In what way do you see critical mentoring applied in other programs?

Prof. Weiston: I think it’s easy to say what I think is necessary. I think every mentor should be trained as a mentor, but furthermore a critical and cultural relevant aspect to the training is vital. That is missing a lot of times. For example, conversations about race continue to be complicated. They continue to be taboo and to be avoided. The mentoring world has done a great job in avoiding this issue. However, I also think that the mentoring world has a lot to offer in this round.

We might not be offering critical mentoring consistently and systemically quite yet. I do think that people are doing it. I give a lot of credit to the smaller mentoring programs who are doing it. It’s more our national programs that need to get in line.


Knowing all this, when you recruit mentors for your program, what are the requirements for those mentors?

Prof. Weiston: I worry about how much potential mentors care about young people and what they have to give. Once we orient them, that’s where I start to identify who will be able to work as a mentor. We have a program where we follow our young people all the way through high school. So we don’t even try to serve a thousand kids. We scale by training mentors, rather than by housing them. We have a small community of mentors and my main focus is “do you like young people” and “will you be able to listen to young people.” If you cannot like, enjoy and listen to young people, we cannot even get to the race questions, because you won’t be able to receive what a young person has to offer or is dealing with. That’s the biggest requirement.


You train a lot of mentors. Do you also reach out to mentoring programs to train their staff on critical mentoring?

Prof. Weiston: A lot of mentoring programs started to recognize that we do cultural training and that they need that. Either they have a problem in their mentoring program or that they have a lot of White mentors, but serve a lot of young people of color. So, when people come to me, they are already reflecting.

We have directly impacted 800 kids. In terms of programs that we have trained, we probably trained around 20-25 programs. Every time that we are training, we train between 20-100 mentors.


These are all very positive developments regarding the development of critical mentoring. What other developments do you hope to see in the near future?

Prof. Weiston: I hope that we get more national involvement. In this year 2016/2017, I have been to New York, Boston, Louisville, Northern California and so forth. Thus, the one thing that we see is that the conversation around race and sexuality is shifting. We are trying to make sure to serve people who really want it.

It’s time to shift mentoring from a more passive relationship to a more active role in a young person’s life. I want young people to love themselves, and to be better than we are.