This December, we are sharing resources, stories, tips for mentors and mentees to help us all learn more about one another and come together in support of opportunity and inclusion for all. This blog post shows that, in some cases, youth can teach adults a great deal about what it means to not just be inclusive but celebrate difference.
I was once invited to speak as a mentoring expert at a local college’s Queer resource center. Prepared to talk about the importance of mentoring queer youth, I was taken aback when our room introductions included names and pronouns. I was the one who had entered a room of experts, and they taught me the value of highlighting and celebrating differences in a meaningful way. Not only did they openly express themselves by making their pronouns part and parcel of their names, but they also demonstrated full acceptance and acknowledgment of one another. Leave it to young people to show us the way. As we center and listen to the young folks we mentor, I believe we find that it is adults who often learn to celebrate differences. And the mentoring relationship provides a compelling opportunity for us to learn it.
We often hear how young people involved in mentoring relationships perform well in school or are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, but we don’t often look at or hear data about how mentoring relationships are a conduit for liberation work. And that liberation work is mutual, evoking in both mentor and protégé a sense of justice. When we talk about celebrating differences, we are talking about opportunities for our young people to engage with social and political issues that impact different types of individuals on a daily basis. This engagement isn’t from a distance either: it is often a result of their lived experiences; situations they have endured or witnessed.
Learning from my protégés to celebrate and value differences became the crux of my critical mentoring practice, which is now a concept youth-development and mentoring practitioners are working to understand and implement. Critical mentoring seeks to move mentoring research and practice into a larger discourse around the critical examination of race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality as they pertain to mentoring. Meant to challenge deficit-based notions of protégés, the process seeks to engage both the mentor and the protégé in processes that trigger critical consciousness and an ongoing and joint struggle for transformation. As a result of this work, each learns much more about “difference.” By nature of the mentoring relationship, we should center our young people by listening and learning about the ways they see the world: how they navigate within and often bear witness to the trauma and the challenges they must endure. Our ability to listen, to focus in on what young people say about all of this, becomes our chance to not only celebrate difference—because that alone is not enough—it is our chance to act in partnership as they move to enact real change.
Our young people have so many answers, and too often we structure mentoring relationships in ways that ignore their voices. If we are to celebrate difference, then we must begin by acknowledging that some of those very differences imbue expertise. The young people we mentor are not just empty voids waiting to be filled: they are human beings with a trove of experiences who can see the world in ways we have yet to imagine. They can help us understand the very essence of difference. Critical Mentoring presents us with an opportunity to do the work young people have been asking us to do. Will we answer the call?
About the Author: Torie Weiston-Serdan is founder of the Youth Mentoring Action Network and author of Critical Mentoring: A Practical Guide.
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