Today’s Youth Have Spoken–It’s Time for A Different Approach

By Torie Weiston-Serdan, Ph.D., National Mentoring Resource Center

A key part of my role at the National Mentoring Resource Center is to represent a different way of thinking. With the Youth Mentoring Action Network, my work involves critical mentoring at the intersection of othered identities. As an active Research Board member at the NMRC, it’s important that I illustrate how, in specific cases, unconventional practices can be lifesaving.

It is no secret that LGBTQ+ youth often have their collective experiences minimized, where the concurrent racial, gendered, and sexual discrimination and violence in their everyday lives is often overlooked. As my team helps our community to navigate their journeys into adulthood with the added stressors of belonging to marginalized populations, it’s imperative that we employ a range of strategies and perspectives. One of the biggest challenges we seem to face in our communities as youth mentors, advocates, and sponsors, is that ‘relatability factor’. How do we guide someone who’s having a totally different experience from our own?

In Homecoming: Overcome Fear And Trauma To Reclaim Your Whole, Authentic Self, Dr. Thema Bryant shares something that embodies the why and how behind the work I do. She states, “I refuse to participate in the silencing of myself. I do not consent to the erasing of myself.” When we’re mentoring, we’re mentoring ourselves.

Remember: We Did It, So They Don’t Have To

I don’t believe young people should be guided to live through the same challenges and obstacles their mentors have seen. Especially when they have the privilege of being mentored by someone who’s already been there, why should they? Too many adults say things like, ‘Well I went through it. I don’t understand why they can’t.’ This school of thought suggests that surviving trauma and harm is an act to be edified, instead of eradicated.

Oftentimes, the work I do with many mentors who are seeking to improve young peoples’ collective experience is more about them and less about the youth they’re hoping to serve. As we all do our part to empower our mentees in their quest to self-actualization, it becomes more important to mine and present our own baggage for deep examination.

Admittedly, I used to work from a deficit-based perspective. I was mentoring in the vein of targeting what about that person I thought needed to be fixed. I wasn’t ignoring all the context around them that was racist, classist, sexist, etc… Instead, I was trying to solve their issues by applying my own understanding and neglecting the best ways I could assist them in helping themselves. I’ve since abandoned such techniques, giving way to more meaningful connection and cultivation of community.

By acknowledging my own perspectives and offering them firstly for insight, I was able to refrain from inserting manipulative biases. It’s true that when we put a magnifying glass on our own ideas and assumptions, we’re better at checking them at the door as we create authentically safe spaces.

Affirm, Affirm, Affirm

Safe spaces are important, but for a lot of us, they are still an enigma. I’ve noticed that a lot of what we think we’re setting up for young people, we haven’t even set up for ourselves. One valuable lesson I’ve learned about curating safe spaces is that they begin with affirmation.

Growing into our fullest selves takes being supported in our truth. Young people need to be loved into existence: to know, without a shadow of a doubt, that their lives matter. At YMAN, we communicate this understanding by holding abolitionist values, queering space, centering youth voices, and encouraging the elimination of negative self-talk. We often tell our mentees how brilliant they are, and we remind them to say it to themselves.

Some of the most impactful work we’ve been able to do is through our intentional creation of opportunities for critical thinking and reflection. In these spaces, where youth benefit the most from seeing themselves represented, we surround them with as many folks that mirror their lived experiences as we can, further affirming their identities and empowering them to speak up.

Respect Their Voice, There’s Power in Their Choice

Today’s youth aren’t necessarily more sensitive than earlier generations; they have a greater ability for transparency. Gen Z and Gen A have never known a world without quickly developing technology and evolving social norms.

In spaces where youth didn’t have a say before, their voices now have been carried via digital amplification into powerful positions. Social media, self-driving cars, the metaverse: young people are default experts at navigating a world that looks much different from the one in which we grew up. I always save this advice for nonprofits: if you plan on serving someone, whoever you’re serving should be at the center of their own services. They should be telling you, ‘here’s what we need.’ Not the other way around. Today’s youth haven’t stopped sharing since their births. If we want to go farther than ever before, now is the time to listen; then let them lead the way.

Accountability Is Key (Get Ready to Be Challenged)

As adults, holding the valuable keys of authority includes a heavy cape of accountability. If you’re working to center today’s youth in building their communities and sustainable systems, be willing to be challenged.

Today’s youth are voicing their opinions and sharing their feelings by various means and innovative routes. They also hold more knowledge and opportunities for creativity than we ever did at their age. Being hyper-aware, they know their autonomy only goes so far. With all the added time on their hands, they have more energy to remind us of our responsibilities. Effective mentors will benefit from leaving our egos at the door, affirming ourselves and our youth, respecting the voices of the younger generations, and immediately getting to work.

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