A Black, Queer Female Mentor Fights for Funding and Respect So She Can Keep Helping Marginalized Students
We are sitting in a small restaurant in Ontario, California, next door to her organization on a sunny afternoon. It’s a place that she referenced because of her love for their tacos and tostadas and how often the students from her organization frequent the location.
“They have really good food here, and me and my students love it,” she says as she fixes her long brown locs. One of her employees joined us for lunch and gave her a few notes about her day while co-signing that this was, in fact, one of the best places to eat in Greater L.A.’s Inland Empire.
Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan is late to the meeting because of a scheduling conflict — something that happens regularly because of the many different hats she wears.
“Things are just really busy. I got caught up at school with a personal matter,” she says. “A student needed extra help navigating a really difficult problem and needed assistance. So yeah, it’s just been a really long, hard day.”
You can hear a small amount of frustration in her voice. But it’s not being busy that has her stressed — for being busy isn’t anything unusual for her. For Weiston-Serdan, 36, a full-time educator and founder of the Youth Mentoring Action Network (YMAN), the feeling comes from knowing that she could do so much more if she had the funding to hire additional support staff to help run her program.
“I want to give students the support that I didn’t have coming up,” says Weiston-Serdan, who grew up in Claremont, on the eastern edge of L.A., and struggled as a young person with the intersections of her queer and black identity. “YMAN has been around since 2007, and while it has garnered massive recognition both locally and nationally, it’s a challenge, but we’ve have had great success.”
In its 12 years, the Youth Mentoring Action Network has centered much of its focus on helping youth deal with various life lessons. Weiston-Serdan makes it known that she is dedicated to meeting the needs of underserved black, brown, and queer youth populations. The program focuses on engaging and collaborating directly with youth and giving them a voice in helping to solve the problems they face — whether related to academics or identity development.
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The program, inspired by Weiston-Serdan’s dissertation and book, Critical Mentoring: A Practical Guide, hopes to redefine practice around how people in the field think and do mentoring work.
“I am different, so the way I do my work will always represent that,” Weiston-Serdan says, referring to being a black queer woman working in a space that is often dominated by black heterosexual men.
In the book, she brings an intersectional approach to the idea of mentoring, looking at the ways that oppression keeps marginalized youth from going to college or finding full-time work. Her research and work focus on the idea that mentoring shouldn’t just be based on gender identity but also about ways of meeting youth where they are so that they can have a better understanding of who they are and where they are trying to go.
One of the most important things she believes in doing that work is visibility. Although being a black queer woman dedicated to mentoring has been difficult due to a history of being marginalized, her work with the National LGBTQ Advisory Council and the California Mentoring Partnership Research Committee points to the need for more queer women to be engaged in this work.
Her organization serves more than 500 middle and high school students directly, but it is estimated that it assists more than 6,000 youth and adults from the programs, services, and events that YMAN offers. Much of the outreach she does begins with her work as a local educator for Rancho Cucamonga, a city of about 177,000 in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, and her engagement with local activists from her hometown of Claremont. Her connection to Pitzer College in Claremont also serves her well, allowing her to actively engage the youth she serves with other college students who, like her, are trying to make a change in their local community.
The program, research, and community engagement have brought her great joy, yet she recognizes that her struggle to keep it going isn’t by happenstance.
“I truly believe that if I were a man, a black man, my program would be doing much better,” Weiston-Serdan says. “I spend more time looking for funding and worrying about keeping my staff paid than actually working on projects to help the youth.”
Weiston-Serdan, who sees this as a common occurrence for black women doing mentoring work, admits that she can barely keep going because she doesn’t have the funding she needs to support young people in the ways she wants. “A lot of the work comes directly out of my own pocket,” she says. When asked why she thinks she’s not getting more community and fiscal support, she speaks of the misogynoir and patriarchy that often live in the shadows of critical mentoring work.
“While my race, gender, and sexuality shouldn’t be a problem, I can always tell when it is a problem,” she says. During several moments, you can hear in her tone the emotions and passion she has for the work, but also the frustration and disappointment. “I am constantly having to go to different men in higher positions and practically beg for help. Help that doesn’t impact me, but the youth of my community.”
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Without getting the necessary financial support for YMAN, Weiston-Serdan will not be able to provide the emotional and academic mentoring that so many Inland Empire students need. “As a black queer woman, I have had to learn how to establish funding streams that do not depend on funders,” she says. “While I was versed in funding streams before, I have really had to make magic happen in order to serve my participants.”
Complicating her financial challenges, Weiston-Serdan says, is that most mainstream or large, long-established philanthropic organizations are run by men, who, based on her experience, rarely understand the needs of programs that focus on gender, race, and sexuality.
“There aren’t that many women doing this work. There aren’t as many queer black women being allowed to do this work because space isn’t being created for us to do it,” she says, cutting her critique with a warm and inviting laugh.
Weiston-Serdan explains that the hardest part isn’t helping the youth who come to her with multiple needs, but navigating the politics that live within the structures set for mentoring work. “I honestly just wish I was given the same respect that black men are given that do this work,” she says. “I’ve done the research. I’ve done the work. I shouldn’t have to beg for the money to help youth get the support they need and deserve. I also shouldn’t have to beg for my work to be respected either.”
For Weiston-Serdan, funding is only one of the many hills her mentoring work faces. She talks about seeing much of her research co-opted with little to no credit. Full erasure of her voice and work is something she often has to confront in educational spaces, she says.
“Once, I learned that there was a group that created a guide using my concepts from my book and dubbed it ‘MEN-toring,’” she says.
There is also a lack of support from black cisgender male scholars, she says. “Rarely do I ever get offers of support from male educators,” Weiston-Serdan says. “I spend so much time supporting my brothers and their work. But when my book was released and I reached out for the same support I gave them, I felt like these same men didn’t make any offers to have my back.”
Weiston-Serdan isn’t worried so much about credit these days; her larger concern is the lack of visibility that black women have in mentoring work. “I know I don’t get the same respect because I am a black woman challenging the status quo of the work that we do,” she says. “I have been in several rooms where I have brought black men to task and they asked me what my ‘deal’ was.”
She says she’s been called angry or aggressive when talking about the erasure that’s happening in the work, whereas she feels that men get to be “passionate” about it. “There are so very few programs set up to support marginalized youth the way YMAN does. Many of them forget to acknowledge young black women, and yes, that makes me angry.”
Weiston-Serdan sees black women continuing to get a bad name in mentoring work while doing much of the emotional and mental heavy lifting, noting that she often feels really alone in her field mentoring marginalized youth.
“I really only know of Dr. Bernadette Sánchez doing this work,” she says. “I’m sure she’s tired and worn too. We have to fight for everyone, but yet, no one is fighting for us, the ‘other.’ As youth mentoring work moves forward, much of the work only centers on the narrative of black and brown men, cisgender men. What about gender non-conforming folks? Non-binary?”
Sánchez, a community psychology professor at DePaul University in Chicago and a youth mentoring researcher, echoes Weiston-Serdan’s experiences. “I have noticed I have been the only woman of color in mentoring spaces,” she says. “It took me a long time to get the respect in the work, and I think a big part of it was because of my identity. Mentoring hasn’t always been intersectional.”
“Why do men always get to come first in doing the work?” she asks, before saying that in order for it to change, men need to hold themselves accountable. How can they do that? “Just give us the credit we deserve and stop making it hard for us to get the funding we need, honestly.”
It’s deeper than that, Weiston-Serdan says.
“I feel the same way about whiteness as I do about cis men who push black women out of mentoring spaces. Check your privilege and stop taking up all the space. Look, you don’t have to like me, but you do have to respect the work that I am doing. I am here for the youth, and that should be the one thing that matters more than anything.”
Jonathan Higgins is a speaker, writer, and social justice advocate whose work focuses on issues that affect both the black and LGBTQ communities. He has lectured at numerous universities, including William and Mary and the University of Oregon, on topics related to intersectionality, race, gender, and sexuality.Submit a Letter to the Editor