Blog Entry Narrative Change, Education, Youth Development

This LA Leader on the Importance of Intersectionality in Black Male Achievement

by Janet Dickerson

Across the Black Male Achievement field, whether it be in the area of education, mentoring, public policy, criminal justice, or racial/social activism, youth engagement has been identified as key to meaningfully improving life outcomes and opportunities for Black men and boys. Another critical factor, intersectionality, is one that many leaders are actively integrating into their BMA work, with an eye towards ensuring that the diversity of lived experiences and perspectives of Black men and boys are treated with the sensitivity, respect and understanding that will adequately support their ability to succeed and prosper.

One such leader, Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan, is a nationally-renown scholar and mentoring expert based out of Claremont, California who is using her years of experience as an educator and practitioner to (as described on her website) "examine how marginalized and minoritized youth are served by mentoring and youth development programs." Dr. Weiston-Serdan -- who is currently on a national tour with her book Critical Mentoring: A Practical Guide -- sat down with CBMA to share insights on her work, the concept of critical mentoring, the organization Youth Mentoring Action Network she founded in 2007, and why an intersectional and intergenerational approach to youth and liberation work is critical to both Black Male Achievement, and the broader movement for racial and social justice.

CBMA: Can you share a little bit about your background; what was the personal journey that brought you to be involved in this work around mentorship and youth engagement?

DR. WEISTON-SERDAN: I'm an educator -- I should lead with that because that has really informed the work that I'm doing. I've been teaching for maybe 12 years now. When I got into education I always knew I wanted to be an educator. I had an amazing English teacher in high school. I knew I wanted to be like her, I wanted to run my classroom like hers. It had been a pretty long-term goal of mine to become an educator. I don't think I was ready for what I was going to see when I got here. That's what really kind of prompted a lot of the work that I'm doing now, is getting into the classroom, recognizing what my limitations would be, working within the education system and seeing what the young people needed in relationship to what I could offer within the limits of the system.

Then also, just navigating the world, as a Black queer woman and recognizing that some of the things that I needed, especially in terms of support and resources and guidance were different from what other folks needed. Between recognizing the limitations of the education system, and then also just navigating my own identities and the different things that I needed, that's really where I came up with this idea of critical mentoring and starting to explore what mentoring should look like for young people that were marginalized.

CBMA:  How important do you feel culturally responsive academic and mentoring environments are to ensuring success of young Black people?

DR. WEISTON-SERDAN: They are essential. The frustration that I have just looking from inside of the education system is that we are responding to a lot systemic problems in very surface ways. For example, one of my critiques of some mentoring programs is that people are so focused on fixing the young person. We're going to start this mentoring program, we're going to make sure these kids pull their pants up, stop wearing hoodies, put on suits and ties, we're going to make them talk right, we're going to make sure they get a job. Everything is focused on fixing them, and not really looking at the conditions they exist in. For me, that's really problematic because we can “fix them up” as much as we want, but they're still going into a system that's harmful and toxic in a lot of ways. 

How do we figure out how to use our mentoring, after school programs, and curriculum to educate, inform, and support them in actually making changes, rather than saying ‘you need to fix yourself, because that's what's going to work for you’?

In my opinion, it does a lot of the young people harm because we're constantly telling them that there's something wrong with them, not something wrong with the system. It also does us as a society harm because young people are not informed enough, or "woke enough" as they say, to make changes.

CBMA: What precipitated the founding of your organization, Youth Mentoring Action Network?

DR. WEISTON-SERDAN: I have a smile on my face because I get excited thinking about those early beginnings. I basically started this in my second year of teaching. I came from a predominately white school when I graduated from high school and when I became a teacher, I was teaching at a very diverse school. When I walked onto the campus and started interacting with the young people, I was really shocked at the difference between the school that I came from to this school, and the differences in how we were treating the young people, in the curriculum we were providing, and then as a result the differences, in how the young people were interacting and what they believed that they could do.

I remember feeling very disappointed because when I would talk to young folks of color I would ask them, what are your plans for college, what are you doing for the future, and there wasn't this investment in their future. That's really what prompted me to start the mentoring action network. We started in 2007, and it was originally a school-based mentoring program specifically for Black youth to try to get them to connect to this idea that they should invest in themselves more.

To be a full time teacher and see how it has since grown exponentially, I think about the words of [CBMA CEO] Shawn Dove where he says, “If you're not afraid then your dream isn't big enough.” I'm at the point where I'm starting to make decisions about really getting into this work full time and making sure that I grow it in the ways that it needs to be grown. 

CBMA: How does your organization (and also you as an educator) use data to measure the impact of your work, and what kind of data do you use?

DR. WEISTON-SERDAN: I have to first say that data is complicated. From the educator perspective, every time I think about upending the system, I also think about how I'm using the tools of the system. When I think I'm resisting I end up using a lot of the tools of the system, which can be harmful. I do use some of the basic data that schools use: we look at GPA, behavior and attendance rates; we definitely look at high school graduation and college graduation rates within our program in relationship to peers in this area.

Right now we have a 100 percent high school graduation rate, and 98 percent of them go to college, which is important to us. Then 100 percent of the students who go to college stay in college, which is one of our pride factors, because we know that a lot of young folks of color end up having a lot of other issues when they get there, in terms of funding, navigating the system, etc., so we try to do a lot of work with those who do want to go to college to make sure that they're ready and supported when they get there. We keep in touch with them and try to help them establish a network on campus by connecting them to other young people who have gone through our programs. We use some of that data, as well as a lot of focus group and case study data.

For me, the more important way of figuring out whether we're being successful at what we do is actually sitting down with young people and talking to them to find out if we are actually meeting the goal. I will just say though as a disclaimer, again sometimes the quantitative data is hard. Because when I look at things like GPA, I can only impact that so much. I can't account for racist teachers, I can't account for racist policies, I can't account for that within the GPA. I can only hope that the support I'm providing that young person will help them to navigate the system better. 

CBMA: Why do you feel intersectionality is so important, both in education and mentorship specifically, as well as Black Male Achievement more broadly?

DR. WEISTON-SERDAN: Again I go back to my experience as a Black queer woman, and recognizing how the different ways I'm having to navigate, and how people are interacting with me all depend on how they are looking at problematizing by different identities. For me, I've tried to be as mindful of that as possible with the young people I work with, and recognizing that being Black, being Latino, being male, being female, being queer, being heterosexual -- these are things that are received and handled differently by different people at different times. Especially in my work with young Black and Latino men, it's about helping them understand gender norms, patriarchy and toxic masculinity, and the roles they play in their formation as young people and as young men. 

With young Black men, helping them recognize that you're not less of a man if you're queer, you're not less of a man if you're trans. That's so important to make sure we recognize all of us.

I feel like we're in such an emergency situation as a nation, we have to be a united front now than anything. The more that we do that work ourselves, and help our young people do that work and recognize what that looks like and how that impacts all of our lives, that's getting at the heart of liberation and critical youth work, in my opinion.

CBMA: What inspired you to write your first book CRITICAL MENTORING, which you’re currently on a book tour with?

DR. WEISTON-SERDAN: I've just been inspired by working with young people from all different perspectives, and hearing them say that they need to be more involved in this process, that they have something to say and contribute. That's really where the book comes from: me being a student of young people and hearing them say "This is what we need. We want love, we want respect, we want a voice in the programming that we're involved in, and we want you to listen to what we need." It's also a sort of pleading with adults that if we don't figure out how to engage in this intergenerational dialogue, that young people won't need us anymore, and I think that's going to be, for me, a sad time. 

It also goes back to my activist heart of saying that the best movements are the ones where we're unified. If young folks and old folks could find a way to talk to and support each other, that's going to be the way to go. This book is all of that. It's saying, here's a practical way of changing your program, of changing the language of your programs, of really centering young people to try to get mentoring to be what I think it used to be. What I think our ancestors used to give us. This is what I want mentoring to look like again.


To learn more about Dr. Weiston-Serdan's work and upcoming book tour appearances, visit her website at www.torieweiston.com, and follow her on Twitter at @TWeiston.

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