My introduction to mentoring was unexpected.

During my sophomore year of high school, I got into my first fight — which was also my first offense — and I was expelled from school. I’d gone from being seen as a good student to being labeled a potential criminal in a matter of moments. The next time I was in a classroom, it was in alternative school surrounded by police officers. The long-term consequences were to be decided in juvenile court.

At the time, I was unaware of the ways these kinds of zero-tolerance policies disproportionately impact black girls and lead to unnecessarily severe consequences. I was dangerously close to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Thankfully, the judge presiding over my case saw the disconnect between my record as a good student and this incident. He decided I’d benefit more from guidance than punishment, and he sent me to the local Girls Inc, where they talked with us about making our short-term decisions align with our long-term goals. My time with the program was brief, but the experience with mentoring left an impression.

We talked about how to handle our emotions constructively instead of acting on impulse. We heard tips for fostering healthy relationships. And most importantly, we were given the opportunity to imagine ourselves outside of the systems that had labeled us as criminals.

I often think about how different my life could have been if I’d had access to a mentor from the start. I’d have decided I was worthy of college before the summer after my senior year. I’d have had more tools to navigate the network of oppressive systems I was born into. Perhaps I could’ve even had a somewhat normal childhood.

Mentors matter, and they might even help black girls avoid being thrust into the criminal justice system at an early age. They provide an adult’s perspective on the best way to achieve goals, and they often are the missing link between where we are and where we’d like to be. This type of encouragement is particularly important for black girls, who are seen as less innocent and more self-sufficient as a result of adultification, while also being excluded form educational and professional networks. Seeing adults who cared, by choice, left an impression on me. But low-income black girls don’t always have access to mentors.

Felisha Burleson, a foster-care alumna, founded The Patchwork Society to help give youth and professionals who are navigating the foster-care system the resources they need to thrive. She had a mentor growing up who she says played a key role in reminding her that she is in charge of defining her potential. That support led her to get a bachelor’s degree as well as her master’s.

Mentors expose black girls to people who understand black communication systems and beauty customs, and they also demonstrate that people who look like them are capable of success.

“It was important to see people who look like me accomplishing great things," Burleson says. “I aspired to be like them. Granted, I could turn on the TV and see a few women of color doing good things, but in my mind, those were not ‘regular people.’ Seeing regular people go on to accomplish things provided me with hope and introduced me to a world of opportunities that I did not know were available.”

Burleson says mentors can help girls establish boundaries, know when to reach out for help and provide a sense of community when things get tough.

Mentors can also act as a middleman, balancing the demands of the school system and the needs of black girls. If I’d had a mentor, I could have explained the harassment that I’d been enduring daily from my peers. A mentor would have noticed the change in my behavior over the days leading up to the fight and could have helped me find alternatives to anger.

And a person doesn’t have to be a formal mentor to support the social, psychological and professional development of black girls. Anyone with an interest in these girls’ well-being can take on the role in their lives, and often relatives, favorite teachers or other adults do this unknowingly. Trust and relationship development are critical parts of being a mentor.

Lauren Christine Mims, assistant professor of educational psychology at Ball State University, talks about this in relation to “dreamkeepers,” educators who take the time to develop deep meaningful relationships that improve student outcomes.

“During the school day, these teachers acted as disrupters, performing small acts such as inviting girls to work quietly in their classroom or standing in the doorway between class periods to provide girls with words of advice and encouragement,” Mims says. “These educators made a tremendous difference in the experiences of black girls and it is so important to highlight these actions, often performed by black female teachers with little to no support or recognition.”

Access to one teacher like this at school could have changed my trajectory. Researchers have found that having even one black teacher increases the chances that a black student will attend college.

Even those in administrative roles can have an impact. Starleisha Michelle Gingrich recently started her second year as an administrative assistant at Lancaster Country Day School in Lancaster, Pa. As a transracial adoptee, she remembers wishing she had access to a mentor in her youth to combat the anti-black bias she internalized.

In response, she developed an informal safe space around her desk so the children of color know she’s there to provide support or a listening ear. She regularly has students coming by to ask advice or to say hi.

In the years that followed my trouble at school, I developed several meaningful relationships with black women who encouraged me and informed me of opportunities. I finished high school without incident and graduated from college with honors.

Tasha Thompson, a self-published author who has worked with black girls and their mentors, points out it’s never the wrong time to expose black girls to mentors.

“Before a challenge, [mentoring] helps build a structure of support,” Thompson says. “After a challenge, it tells them that there is someone who believes [in them] despite what challenges they may have faced.”

She says that while developing these relationships isn’t easy, it’s worth it.

I’d have to agree.

A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a diversity content specialist whose work can be seen in The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, the Root and other places. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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