Meet the Team: NaShonda Bender-Cooke


Meet one of the Youth Mentoring Collaborative's Board Members, NaShonda Bender-Cooke. Follow along with this interview between NaShonda and Hannah McKinney, Manager of Communications & Storytelling.


The Interview


Q. How did you first get involved with the Youth Mentoring Collaborative (YMC)? (HM)

A. "I had heard about the work through a colleague. Kind of stepping outside of the classroom was a goal of mine, but not in a traditional way of maybe becoming an administrator. So, a friend of mine knew I was all for mentoring programs after running a few successful ones myself. So I just wanted to be able to continue that growth professionally, and kind of share my successes, and continue to learn from other successful programs. A friend of mine told me about the work with YMC, and I’d just been intrigued - I learned about all the initiatives and groups that have been supporting YMC. I think both happened at the same time - I sought out YMC, and YMC sought me out. I was looking for a program that wasn’t just talking the talk. I’ve been a part of a lot of conversations that said, “Hey, this is what we need to do! This is what students need! This is what a successful, encouraging mentorship program looks like,” and that was the end of the conversation. I was looking for something that was actually happening, actually supporting the village to create those relationships and help sustain them and help find support for them in different ways. I was approached about becoming a Board Member, which was like perfect timing." (NBC)


Q. What is your 'mentor story'? (HM)

A. "I had mentors my whole life, but they weren’t part of a program. My mom of course was my mentor, personally and professionally. I had women in my neighborhood who mentored me throughout different stages of my life; who I could go to for support, who could tell me what path I needed to continue to take; who could give me the motivation and encouragement to continue to be different and do things that my friends weren’t necessarily doing. I’ve always had mentors in my life in different roles, even in church.

When I became a teacher, I reflected back on my childhood, watching boys of color grow up and take different paths in life. I used my professional education to reflect on what that journey is like. I went into Special Education because of the disproportionate number of African American male students who were in [Special Education]. I did my national board certification and my master's specifically for that; all of that addressed this need to help support African American male students. Growing up I had two brothers who took two very different paths in their lives. The difference was, one had a mentor in some shape or form, and one didn't. The one who accomplished so many wonderful things in his life had guidance, I believe when he most needed it. My other brother, who did not have that guidance, struggled a lot and continues to struggle. So I saw the difference.

When I became an educator and the opportunities came to me to create a mentoring program or be a part of a mentoring program, the reflection of my childhood pushed that, inspired that, to provide the young men in my class opportunities that they may not have had otherwise. To expose them to different resources in their community, not just in TV or media, but just [for them] to be able to say, “I met a guy today that was an architect, and that’s something that I want to do,” or, “I understand now why Ms. Cooke tells me I need to be a little more focused in class is because these skills are gonna help me be more successful one day, and she wants me to do that in my other class too.” I knew there were young men who needed that push, and I was the one who brought it to them. I may not have been the mentor, but I could partner them up with someone they could be connected to, who they could see and hear and feel and talk to every day, not just somebody that they saw on TV. That journey has just continued. I always feel like the one that brought the two together.
I am still in the classroom - this is my twenty-third (23rd) year. I was offered different opportunities to leave the classroom and I won’t. I’m just not done. I’m just not done." (NBC)


Q. Why do you think this work (capacity-building, identity-affirming, youth mentoring) is so important? (HM)

A. "I think because the village will never go away. The village may change; it might look different, and it might be different people, but the village never changes. The roles are always there. There will always be a need for support. There will always be a need for mentors. There will always be a need for different stakeholders to sit down at a table together and figure out how to create a society where peopled aren’t just using the buzz-words, “equitable,” “sustainable,” “life-changers,” and things like that. A lot of people use the words and think they know how to sound good, but there will always be people who just don’t want to have a conversation. There will always be people looking to make a change, and we know we can’t do it on our own, so the collaborative piece will always be necessary. So, it’s always good to have someone you can go to that has the same goal in mind, and that wants the same for the next generation. It truly takes a village. But that saying goes for so many different things, it’s not just about raising a child. It takes a village to be successful, to continue the growth of that village, to continue to cultivate the livelihood of that village." (NBC)

Q. Which of YMC's values do you feel most personally aligned with? (HM)

A. "It’s hard to pick between growth, relationships, and joy. But the one that sticks out the most to me is joy. I think a lot of people want to be happy in life, but in order for you to be happy you have to have something going on, some type of activity I think. But in joy… You can find joy in the simplest things. In joy, you find peace and success, and you almost find closure. It’s as if what your goal was, you succeeded. Your goal might not have been to have a particular result - it could just be the journey itself. So, you could find joy in all of those things. Joy can still be found in maybe not reaching a specific goal, but the growth you’ve made in that goal. To me, joy is so invaluable because it gets you through some of the toughest days, helps you to remain persistent, and to keep a positive outlook on what’s yet to come, and that’s something that we need to pass off to the next generation.

I see it every day in the classroom. Students are looking for instant gratification, and not necessarily consciously enjoying the learning and learning to be proud of themselves and find joy in that. I think all those other things - growth and relationships - come with aligning that with what your joy is." (NBC)


Q. What are you most excited about in YMC's future? (HM)

A. "Definitely supporting the mental health of students. The Healing-Centered Mentoring™ program. As an educator, you see it every day. Sometimes it’s a diagnosis that students have received, some of them have not received it, but you just recognize it, and sometimes it's recognizing trauma. We have been trained to recognize trauma and report it, and that’s it! We’re not trained on how to support them - and if we know how to do it, it’s outside of the norm of the schedule. Like, “Hey, we’re in math class right now, so you’re gonna have to talk to that student about what’s going on after the test.” I’m like no, I’m not gonna do that! I’ve never been that teacher. I’ve gotten into debates about what I’m doing with my students in class if I’m not doing what’s expected, and what’s expected is usually academically run. So, mentoring groups, I think, can address that area that teachers are not given the opportunity to. As a mentee, I have the opportunity to say, “let’s talk about what’s going on." The math can wait, and the civics assignment can wait. Tell me what’s going on, and let’s figure out how we can help you heal from it. A lot of times people will practice taking a break from whatever is stressing them out or bringing up trauma. We don’t know as adults how to release trauma. Once we learn how to do it, we can pass it on to the mentees who we’re working with, and then the mentors can learn how to do that. I am really excited about addressing the mental health disparities in the community. I see it every day, and I want to be a part of the solution, not just identifying the problem.

I’m also excited about the possibility of getting involved with policy. It hasn’t been one of my favorite arenas, but a necessary one. I am not new to it, but I’m excited to go back to it in this way. I think maybe mixing the [Healing-Centered Mentoring™ and policy] is where the excitement is for me." (NBC)


Q. What is your specialty as a Board Member? (HM)

A. "Probably my expertise is being an educator. Being on both sides of the table, as an educator and as a parent. Being able to recognize students and mentees and their needs from different aspects, but trying to get to the same goal. I feel like I’ve been able to understand both sides, even as a Special Education teacher. I’ve been a Special Education teacher, a Regular Education teacher, and a mom. So, when we all have a goal of supporting the student, we all come to the table with various experiences, and we can share that knowledge and get to our goal of supporting the student. My expertise is probably making connections and making sure all voices are heard." (NBC)


Q. Share a fun fact about you! (HM)

A. "I’ll share two! One is I have an identical twin. She and I continue to play tricks on people because we look so much alike. So, when I visit her and see some of her people, they don’t know it’s me. And I bring her into the classroom, and the kids don’t know it’s not me. I’ve got some stories of when we were in high school, and we did that - it was entertaining, but we got in trouble.

My second fun fact that my students love to bring up is that when I met President Barack Obama, I got stage fright. I got invited to speak as an educator and volunteer at his rally; I was helping to campaign for particular candidates. He came over to me, and he shook my hand, and I didn’t say one word, I just froze." (NBC)


Q. Is there anything you'd like to add that we haven't talked about already? (HM)

A. "I think it’s important for others to remember that we are constantly modeling for the next generation. They are watching us to see how we are going to handle difficult conversations, how we support one another, and how we engage in being lifelong learners. Children and mentees are always watching us. They watch the way we dress, the way we walk, the way we talk, and the way we interact with people with which we may not have such a strong or positive connection. We have to be conscious of that. We have to remember what we would like for our students, or others, to one day be able to practice and do as well. We have to be able to do it at all times. They say a person’s true character is obvious when no one’s watching, or when they don’t realize others are watching. The way we treat each other is constantly being watched by the next generation, and we have to be careful with that, because, they’re not gonna do as I say and not as I do - that doesn’t work. We have to be good to one another, willing to learn from one another, and have conversations with one another that may not necessarily be comfortable. Everybody’s going through something, so treat everybody with dignity and respect." (NBC)


This concludes the interview. To learn more about NaShonda and the rest of the team, visit Our Team.