Mentoring For Us By Us

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It’s been my passion to mentor young people since I began my teaching career over twelve years ago. I had come from schools with lots of resources, I went to teach in a school that had fewer resources. I immediately noticed the difference and the disconnect. I was incensed.

My early understanding of mentoring was situated squarely within the context of these schools and in schools more generally. In my view, I had students sitting in front of me, they needed help, the help they needed was academic and I along with others like me were the ones to provide that help. I was clueless. I fumbled my way through my first year as a mentor while building a program. Young people taught me so much in that first year, and I listened. I wasn’t sure what to do with what they taught me, but I was sure that they had good ideas. I heard young people say that they needed support, I heard them say they were tired of navigating racism in school, I heard them say they needed spaces that reflected them and what they cared about, I heard them say that academics weren’t everything and that there was a bigger world out there they needed help managing and learning about. It seemed so simple, what they were asking for and yet, as a teacher operating as a member of the school, it seemed impossible to provide. What was most difficult in that first few years was listening to young people share their needs and wants in a mentor and in a program and trying to reconcile that with the school system I had built this program within. 

The two were not reconcilable. I ended up creating a non-profit organization tasked with providing mentorship, college, career and life readiness support for marginalized in Southern California. As I learned more the organization started focusing in on how to do this in culturally sustaining ways; ways that allowed young people to speak their truths, ways that acknowledged structural racism, classism, gender inequity, and homantganism while at the same time helping young people to build their own capacity. We listened to young people, we listened more, we changed policies and procedures, we collaborated with young people to build out our programs, and we finally changed our mission to “leveraging the power of mentoring to create a just and equitable world for young people.” Now, my non-profit, The Youth Mentoring Action Network, is a growing grassroots organization collaborating with young people to provide them with quality mentoring and other opportunities. We are also partnering with young people to provide schools, colleges and universities, non-profits and corporations with the help they need providing mentoring and youth advocacy support to their communities in culturally responsive ways. 

We haven’t stopped listening. As society continues to wrestle with its most pressing issues, we have found that supporting, resourcing and loving women and girls of color should be among our top priorities. Every iteration of civil rights movements tend to overlook and fail women of color. I refuse to allow my critical youth work to follow that same pattern. Since my work begins from a mentoring space, I want to understand more about the mentoring experiences of girls and women of color. We all know mentoring exists in these communities, but much of the research has overlooked it because it may not be called mentoring. Youth mentoring research has been a monolith; focusing primarily on data sets from formalized programs and by proxy, the young people attracted to those programs. The knowledge about mentoring, how it works, who it works for and why it works, stems from these foundational studies and has informed sets of standards and training curriculums that continue to guide the field. As more attention is paid to issues of equity, mentoring and the researchers who study it, require a more nuanced understanding of what mentoring is and how it operates in the lives of various types of marginalized youth, especially girls and women of color. The current research draws from traditional and hierarchical mentoring models and utilizes data from formal mentoring programs, the current research focuses on mainstream approaches that are generalized to the entire population. But girls and women of color often find themselves in informal or naturally occurring mentoring relationships which have evaded traditional forms of data collection. This study will center the voices and experiences of women and girls of color as they share both how they engage in mentoring as well as how these relationships have impacted their lives. 

Given my experience doing this work alongside young people, I felt it was time to make another contribution to the mentoring research. I want to learn more about the mentoring experiences of girls and women of color, and I want to a use a community-based research model that represents our community and collects data in ways that traditional methods cannot.  “Mentoring for Us” is a project that will engage women of color in a study of the mentoring experiences of women and girls of color. It’s a “for us, by us” research project and it takes an innovative approach. In fact, the whole concept is innovative, staying aligned with the idea that building alternatives to existing research narratives is not only a contribution to the research but an act of resistance. We’ve put together a Kickstarter campaign so that women and girls of color can fund this project. We want our funders, the ones we answer to, to be representative of the community we are studying. All of the incentives are named after feminists or feminist concepts, and the Wall of Woman incentive is being created by an artist who is a woman of color, this whole project is a vibe. The researchers engaged in the scheme will be both girls and women of color and all materials produced will be produced by us. This will be a “for us, by us” production. Girls and women of color deserve it, and we will do it, together. 

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