Selena Wilson

Methodologies of Mentorship: An Interview with Selena Wilson the new President of the East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC)

Mentorship and development programs have come into vogue in the professional sphere, but these skills have been applied in youth centered programs for decades. Such programs, like the one Selena Wilson leads at the East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC), help youth of color develop valuable life skills and form healthy relationships with role models. As more companies implement retention and professional development programs for their employees, Wilson offers transferable frameworks of co-created and collective leadership that companies can emulate. 


EOYDC is an organization that has been providing mentorship programs serving youth in the East Oakland community for 43 years. Selena Wilson, new in her position as CEO and President, has had a long history with the organization and with mentorship more broadly. She sat down with Bold Culture to share her experience with the organization and her vision for her leadership.


How was mentorship introduced to you?


I was exposed to mentorship at a really young age. I was born in Philadelphia, and moved to Oakland when I was three. My parents struggled significantly with mental illness. So, there were times when I had to rely heavily on a village of support. I would often have to live with someone from that support network, sometimes for months at a time. And while that was not mentorship in the traditional sense, I learned at a very young age about the importance of extended, chosen family and support networks. 


When I was four or five years old, my mother’s friend introduced me to a West African dance class at EOYDC. It became an important extension of family for me, especially as I navigated difficult times during middle school. From then on, mentorship became a significant part of my life. Conversely, it became something I sought and still seek to pay forward. 


Through EOYDC’s cascading mentorship program, where we intentionally train young people to mentor their younger counterparts, I became a junior youth leader at 12. I mentored elementary school kids and made my way up through the program. While I started as a counselor, at age 18, I trained to become a leadership coach. Age isn’t a factor, it’s about learning how to deeply observe and deeply listen to ask facilitative questions. EOYDC’s “near peer” mentoring program is designed to have benefits for both the mentee and the mentor. Including these different layers and levels of mentorship and mentors has been so valuable for me and it’s something I continue to promote within the organization. 


There are so many different mentorship paradigms out there. Which frameworks does the EOYDC use and why?


EOYDC uses several different mentorship frameworks, including a character-based framework based on six pillars. We also use a positive youth development framework for all our youth leaders, coaches, and staff. 


Overall, EOYDC uses a trauma-informed and healing-centered approach. This approach is both necessary and valuable because we both work with youth and are staffed by a community facing a lot of trauma from adverse childhood experiences. EOYDC works with primarily Black and Brown youth. We work to decolonize minds in this space and we deal with internalized oppression. 


Respectability politics is really important. What makes our coaching and training for youth different is the intentionality of it being culturally affirming. It aims to decouple Black excellence from a proximity to Whiteness, while still being honest with the youth we mentor. For example, if we examine how professionalism standards are rooted in White supremacy and how it ultimately aims to assimilate BIPOC into Whiteness, we can work to decolonize this from our minds. 


It’s about balancing having real conversations with Black and Brown youth while not devaluing their lives. We teach young people through this decolonizing framework that it’s ok to leave certain spaces if they compromise your identity. It is important to have conversations about the systemic barriers these kids face. We decenter Whiteness as a comparator. We ask, “Where do we want our kids to be, irrespective of their identity?” This question helps guide us through holistic programming.


Congratulations on recently taking over as President. What changes do you plan to implement?


My predecessor, Ms. Regina Jackson, had been with EOYDC for 27 years. In all those years, I’d maintained a relationship with her. I was able to grow alongside the organization’s growth. Now, as CEO and President, I am both proud of the work EOYDC has accomplished with Regina, while also recognizing the directions where I’d like to take the organization. 


I’d like to address the impact that East Oakland’s gentrification has had on displacing families and, therefore, youth participating in our programming. Some staff members and I began noticing that a number of kids were falling asleep during the program. The staff realized youth would get up early to commute from periphery cities because they wanted to maintain that sense of community and connection to our program, even after being displaced. My goal is to start offering satellite programming for these families, as Black-led spaces are limited in their new locations. It is important for Black kids to have that sense of belonging in their lives. 


Which mentorship models or tactics would you say are transferable to a professional space? Where should companies or startups begin to identify frameworks for their staff?


When looking to implement mentorship or leadership programs in the workplace, utilizing co-design and co-creating methods for the people they are intended to benefit is really important. Programs must have intentionality and should be designed around the vision or outcomes you want to achieve. 


Making the distinction between a mentor and a sponsor is also important. A mentor is someone who builds a relationship with you and engages in coaching, guidance, and support on a regular basis. A sponsor, on the other hand, is someone who has a significant amount of institutional power and who will advocate for you. 


There is a collective responsibility to think about any power one may have and how to leverage it as a sponsor to advocate for those who may be marginalized or have less power. How can we be mindful about things like power dynamics and intersectionality? Decolonizing our minds by moving from transactional to relational interactions is important, especially in mentorship.


How do you form successful mentor/mentee relationships? How is that success measured?


Mentorship needs to be a long-term relationship, otherwise it can have adverse reactions for those who are already vulnerable. It can exacerbate trust issues. It is also important to find a mentee/mentor pairing that connects well. Then, based on the relationship and the mentee, a mentor can assess how much interaction is necessary and adjust over time. But, the main measure for success is fulfillment. It is the extent to which the mentee is able to progress against their personal and professional goals with the support of mentors. That is how the mentors will know if they are actually helping mentees grow in the areas in which they want to grow. Both mentees and mentors should feel a degree of fulfillment and value from this experience. And often, because it is such a deeply relational and intentional process, quality mentee and mentor relationships outlive their “formal” engagement timeline.


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