Culturally Responsive Mentoring for Youth of Color

Culturally Responsive Mentoring for Youth of Color

Stop Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children

“This project was supported by Grant #2017-MC-FX-K051 awarded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.” 

Toolkit Home

The topic of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) is often sensationalized, full of misinformation about who is impacted, and the complexities of how CSE often occurs. One simple explanation is that CSE is the exploitation of vulnerability.1 CSE is enabled and reinforced by oppression, prejudice, and inequality.1,2 Because of this reliance on systems of inequality, youth of color may face additional risks for CSE. Effective mentoring is culturally responsive and operates with an understanding of the social context in which youth live. Culturally responsive mentoring relationships can act as a buffer in preventing CSE in youth of color. 

What do we know?

  • Cultural responsiveness is essential to successful mentoring programs. This is needed from both agency professionals and mentors.
    • “Cultural responsiveness is being capable of genuinely embracing, working with, and continually learning about cultural differences”3
    • Cultural responsiveness includes awareness, knowledge, skills, and attitude.3
  • It is important (for programs and mentors) to acknowledge the impact of systemic oppression, marginalization and inequality.4
    • Co-learning and open discussion within the mentor/mentee relationship is shown to increase relationship closeness and youth outcomes.4
  • An empowerment model of mentoring is responsive to systems of oppression and discrimination.
    • The goal of mentoring revolves around facilitating healthy youth development and capacity-building.4
    • Empowering relationships with a mentor can support youth development and equip youth with skills to engage in higher level thinking and re-interpretation of marginalized identities as assets.4
    • Mentoring programs that focus on a mentee’s strengths and leadership rather than adult-driven activities appear to increase youths’ sense of empowerment and build skills.4,5
    • Positive youth development program characteristics include safe and supportive environments, planned and consistent opportunities for interaction and connection with adults and peers, and engagement opportunities for youth to plan, make choices, and learn from their experience.5
  • Ethnic-racial identity (ERI) is a key developmental process for youth of color.6
    • ERI includes beliefs and attitudes about ethnicity and race and the development of these attitudes and beliefs.6
    • Previous racial discrimination may create cultural mistrust toward adults of a different race which can be a barrier to relationship development (including rapport building) with a mentor of a different race.7,8
    • Feeling good about your community of origin/culture may be particularly important for youth of color, serving as a protective factor. 5,7
    • For youth of color, mentoring can improve academic performance, self-esteem, and ethnic identity.7
  • Youth are more likely to choose a mentor of the same race.8 However, a racial match is not always possible or preferred by the youth.
    • It is important to consider the needs, experiences, and preferences of the individual youth. Access to a mentor of the same race, ethnicity, or social class may be more important to youth who have had experiences of discrimination or prejudice or who are not well connected with their own cultural community.
      • Frequency of time spent together, consistency and levels of trust may be more important than race match or social class.9
      • Research indicates that racial similarity may matter in early phases of a relationship, but it did not impact trust levels long-term.9
      • Cross-race/ethnicity matches can be beneficial to mentees that have limited exposure to different cultures.8
      • Similar outlook and values were related to liking the mentor, relationship satisfaction, and the desire to continue the mentoring relationship.8 Matches based on shared interests are associated with greater effectiveness in terms of youth outcomes.8
Culturally Responsive Mentoring

So what?

What does it mean? Why is this information important?


  • Mentoring relationships can reproduce or reduce inequality.4 This should be intentionally considered when developing mentoring programs and establishing mentoring matches. Cross-race mentoring relationships may facilitate cross-cultural understanding among both mentors and mentees. However, these relationships can be harmful if they reinforce racism and other forms of oppression.
  • Discrimination can lower self-efficacy.4 Self-efficacy is a protective factor for children who have experienced child abuse and neglect.10 Marginalized youth may feel disempowered as a result of prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination.4
  • Mentoring may facilitate the development of racial and ethnic identity formation.8 In 46 studies,7 ethnic identity was connected to positive outcomes for youth of color, including positive psychosocial, academic and health outcomes for adolescents of color.7,8 ERI also promotes well-being and combats the effects of discrimination.4,7 Youth of color who have greater racial pride tend to have better outcomes,4 (pg. 365) and this can also help inoculate youth from the effects of discrimination.4
    • Ethnocultural empathy from both agency staff and mentors plays a role in developing ethnic identity.7 Mentees reported enhanced satisfaction with the mentor when ethnocultural empathy was present.
  • Positive Youth Development (PYD) and empowerment approaches fight against oppression, discrimination and marginalization because they seek to avoid recreating the structure of oppression in the mentoring relationship.4 Agencies can implement these approaches by welcoming youth to share in decision making and allowing them to have a voice in choosing their mentor versus agency staff making matches without their input.
Culturally Responsive Mentoring for Youth of Color

Now what?

What are the implications? What can we do?


General Practice Implications for Individuals

  • Understand the presence of cultural mistrust, and the ways this may look in mentoring programs. This mistrust is often in response to previous experiences of racial or ethnic discrimination.8
  • Identify training opportunities and resources to further educate yourself on systems of oppression, ERI development, and other topics that will increase your effectiveness in serving youth of color.

General Practice Implications for Service Providers

  • Access resources such as the “Cultural Responsiveness Assessment” to aid staff in becoming more culturally responsive.14
  • Program mentors, staff, interns and others should be racially and ethnically diverse—participants benefit from seeing their identities and life experiences reflected by the adults in the program.5
  • Support racial and ethnic identity development.4,7 ,8,11
  • Agencies should provide youth with opportunities to learn more about their racial and ethnic heritage and/or participate in cultural activities. Cultural socialization assists in ERI development.6
  • Program structure should center around youth development rather than designing programs to “fix” youth who are struggling academically or behaviorally.5,8

General Practice Implications for Communities

  • Support and/or develop settings and programs that provide safe environments where all young people can develop healthy identities and relationships.5
  • Support and promote school success for all youth. This may include advocacy to confront school push-out - and the disproportionate rates of suspension, expulsion, and justice system involvement youth of color face.12
  • High school completion is one of the strongest predictions of health and well-being for youth of color.
  • Invest in communities of color.  Support local businesses, events, responsible neighborhood development, and community-building efforts.

Mentoring Practice Implications for Individuals

  • With support from program staff, mentors should identify and develop opportunities for mentees to explore their racial or ethnic heritage.8
  • Work with mentees to identify strengths in their community.
  • Advocate for mentees in the school setting. School connectedness is lower in schools that suspend youth for minor offenses compared to schools that are more lenient in their policies.12
    • Advocate for moderate discipline policies and restorative practices, rather than zero tolerance.12,13
      • African American, Hispanic and Native American students experience disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion compared to other racial and ethnic groups.12
      •  “African American girls in urban middle school had the fastest growing rates of suspension of any group of girls or boys”.13
      • When African American girls school discipline issues are taken to the court systems, it perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline.13
  • Find ways to support school connectedness, which is associated with positive physical and mental health outcomes.12
    • Encourage daily attendance and help problem-solve around barriers.
    • Help with homework or identify other resources to assist.
    • Express interest in the youth’s school experience when you are together.
    • Promote and help navigate pro-social relationships at school.
    • Support the youth’s engagement in extracurricular activities and assist in navigating barriers.

Mentoring Practice Implications for Service Providers

  • Consider whether your program is promoting healthy ethnic/racial identity among mentees.8 Mentoring programs should prioritize ways to facilitate identity development in mentees from marginalized backgrounds.4
  • Recruit mentors who want to foster mentees’ ability to reach their full potential, versus “saving” or helping a “needy” youth. The latter reinforces a “savior complex” which is disempowering and recreates a power imbalance.4
    • Strengths-based approaches in mentoring lessen the likelihood that mentors will recreate oppressive damage.4 (vs. deficit-based “to fix”).
    • Facilitate youth empowerment and increase cultural responsiveness by making “youth voice” central to your mentoring program.4
  • Access resources such as, “Culturally Responsive Mentoring Workbook 20168 to help train and ready mentors. Mentors can be most effective when they:
    • Learn patterns of cultural differences14
    • Examine own biases (self-reflection).4,8,11
    • Learn to apply cultural knowledge in the mentor/mentee relationship.8
  • Prioritize high quality relationships and seek to meet the desires of youth in terms of preference for a same or cross-race mentoring match. Encourage mentees to participate in choosing mentors.
    • Ask mentees, parents and mentors their race, ethnicity and cultural preferences.8
    • Help mentees and mentors identify other similarities and shared interests.
  • Conduct targeted outreach to recruit mentors of color (as needed to meet the youths’ needs and racial and ethnic preferences).
  • Provide mentors and mentees with safe opportunities to discuss and explore issues around race, oppression, discrimination.8,11
    • Ensure youth are provided opportunities to voice concerns or identify biases, prejudices if they occur in the mentoring relationship.
    • An empowerment approach calls on mentors/agencies to help mentees navigate and effectively manage experiences of discrimination.11
    • Agencies and mentors should be an advocate for a mentee in the face of discrimination.11,12
  • Provide mentor and mentee training to help navigate matches across race and ethnicity and to effectively support youths’ identity development.4
    • Help both mentor and mentee learn about different cultural backgrounds and perspectives. 4,8,11
    • Help mentors understand and practice cultural humility.
    • Understand and increase empathy for systems of oppression, and inequality. 4,11,14 Help mentors understand mentees’ social context.4
      • Failing to do so may result in poor relationships and early termination of relationships.
      • Help mentors explore the role “internalized privilege” plays in perceptions and assumptions14

Mentoring Practice Implications for Communities

  • Identify and connect with natural mentors and leaders already in the youth’s community/neighborhood.
  • Develop community collaborations between key stakeholders invested in youth development and equity for youth of color.  This may include community centers, social service agencies, schools, faith communities, juvenile justice, child welfare, and other representatives.



  1. Countryman-Roswurm, K. (2015). Rise, unite, support: Doing “no harm” in the anti-trafficking movement. Slavery Today, 2(1). 26-47.
  2. Butler, C. (2015). The racial roots of human trafficking. UCLA Law Review, 62(6). 1464-1515.
  3. Ortiz, J. (2018, July 25). Meeting youth where they are: Why social-emotional skills and cultural responsive mentoring is critical for college and career. Retrieved from
  4. Albright, J., Hurd, N., & Hussain S. (2017). Applying a social justice lens to youth mentoring: A review of the literature and recommendations for practice. American Journal of Community Psychology, 59, 363-381. doi: 10.1002/ajcp.12143
  5. Muno, A. (2014). And girl justice for all: Blending girl-specific & youth development practices. Afterschool Matters, 19(1), 28-35.
  6. Nelson, S., Syed, M., Tran, A., Hu, A., & Lee, R. (2018). Pathways to ethnic-racial identity development and psychological adjustment: The differential associations of cultural socialization by parents and peers. Developmental Psychology, 54(11). 2166-2180.
  7. Peifer, J., Larence, E., Willism, J., & Leyton-Armakan, J. (2016). The culture of mentoring: Ethnocultural empathy and ethnic identity in mentoring for minority girls. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 22(3), 440-446.
  8. Sánchez, B., Colón-Torres, Y., Feuer, R., Roundfield, K. & Berardi, L. (2014). Race, ethnicity, and culture in mentoring relationships. In D. L. DuBois & M. J. Karcher The SAGE Program on Applied Developmental Science: Handbook of youth mentoring (pp. 145-158). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412996907.n10
  9. Gaddis, M. (2012). What’s in a relationship? An examination of social capital, race and class in mentoring relationships. Social Forces, 90(4), 1237-1269. doi: 10.1093/sf/sos0003
  10. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2015). Promoting protective factors for victims of child abuse and neglect: A guide for practitioners [Factsheet]. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.
  11. Alvarez, A., Blume, A., Cervantes, J., & Thomas, L. (2009). Tapping the wisdom of tradition: Essential elements to mentoring students of color. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 40(2), 181-188. doi: 10.1037/a0012256.
  12. Daly, B., Buchanan, C., Dasch, K., Eichen, D., & Lenhart, C. (2010). Promoting school connectedness among urban youth of color: Reducing risk factors while promoting protective factors. The Prevention Research, 17(3), 18-20.
  13. White, B. (2018). The invisible victims of the school-to-prison pipeline: Understanding black girls, school push-out, and the impact of the every student succeeds act. William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law, 24(3), 641-663.
  14. Mass Mentoring Partners. (2016). Culturally Responsive Mentoring [Workbook]. Retrieved from…

Toolkit Home