Black History Month reflections: Part 2

In honor of Black History Month, we had a chat with our Executive Director of iMentor Chicago, Halleemah Nash, to discuss her mentors, the importance of college success, and how we as a community can best support students of color at this moment in history.

iMentor: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us—we know things are exceptionally busy right now in Chicago. Halleemah: No problem at all! Thanks for including me in the discussion.

iMentor: When you joined the iMentor team, you mentioned how much your own mentors have influenced your life and career. Tell us about those relationships.

Halleemah: My mentors are the bedrock of my success in every area of my life. I have different mentors for each facet of my life: My professional mentor is my example of excellence and quality leadership in the workplace. I have a personal mentor that guides me in my financial decisions, reminds me of the importance of life balance, taking care of my body, and being a good steward of the personal relationships I’ve been blessed with. And finally, my pastor is a spiritual mentor that ensures that the intangible part of my life is also nurtured. I speak with all three of my mentors frequently and use them as a soundboard for decisions.

iMentor: You become a mentor yourself this past year, to a young woman who is a member of the first class of students at iMentor Chicago. As you think ahead, how can we better support students of color on their road to college, as well as once they get there?

Halleemah: I think that we have to promote excellence as a pathway to securing competitive opportunities, especially on an ongoing basis. The hard work and preparation that it takes to get a student in the door has to be sustained to secure future opportunities, such as scholarships, internships, or graduate school applications. Excellence is an ongoing commitment that must be consistently employed to help students of color not only get into the door, but then stay in the room and ultimately secure a seat at the decision making table.

iMentor: You’re a first-generation college student yourself, just like so many of the students we serve. Who or what inspired you to think about your life beyond high school? When did you start to consider college as a real option?

Halleemah: I actually give equal credit to two very different sources for my college aspiration. The first, and more traditional, source was my high school counselor Donna Thompson who also acted as a mentor for me while in high school. But the second was actually the comedic sitcom “A Different World” which was set on the campus of a historically black college. When I discussed my initial plan to leave school early and get a job to secure my own independence, Mrs. Thompson pointed to college as a stronger pathway towards my goal. It was Mrs. Thompson who planted the seed, but watching collegiate life on television with characters that looked like me and came from similar circumstances made the college experience enticing and real. Mrs. Thompson nurtured a college aspiration for me, and “A Different World” inspired my college choice in Howard University. I was able to envision myself living a collegiate life because after seeing myself represented there in a way that felt natural and fun.

iMentor: What are some ways we can plant the seed and nurture a college aspiration among other students of color who are smart and capable but unsure how to get there?

Halleemah: I don’t think there is a single answer, and although this may sound obvious, an important solution is mentoring. It’s a means to provide students with individualized and proactive support. The unique nuance of the adult/student relationship shines a spotlight on the goal of college success while also providing insight into the steps that have to be taken.

iMentor: So much of the news lately has been around violence against black men and boys, the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers, and the black lives matter movement. Why is it important, during Black History Month in particular, to bring a sustained awareness to these and other issues? What part can young people play in keeping these issues as part of our national dialogue?

Halleemah: The many recent tragedies related to racial injustice have understandably hit a nerve in our society. The one silver lining here is that it forces us to raise our critical consciousness around these issues. Individuals now feel the necessity to step up and be a voice for those who until now have been silenced. Moving forward, we should challenge ourselves to remind young people of color of the importance of using their own voice and power in changing this narrative.

iMentor: Let’s bring it home to Chicago.

Halleemah: Chicago!!

iMentor: How do you think iMentor can positively change or impact students of color in this city? What are we providing that makes us stand apart from the other college access organizations doing great work here?

Halleemah: We’re using mentoring as a way to demonstrate that college is a viable route to success. If we think about the usual pathways to success in low-income communities, options are often minimal. Notorious BIG illustrated this perfectly in the song “Things Done Changed” where he recites:

Because the streets is a short stop: Either you're slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot

I speak to high school students in communities all over Chicago where the feeling is that prosperity and success can only be accessed through the underground economy or athletic ability. But by providing thousands of Chicago young people with college educated mentors committed to their success, we are offering another option. Being a mentor says “success can be attained through college completion and I am an example of that.” When I was a teenager, I watched TV to find this pathway. But now Chicago students have mentors instead.

This work is profoundly important and significant to me because I am product of it. I feel gifted with the opportunity to be a visual representation of the end game. Far before I ever became an Executive Director with limitless possibilities, I was a high school student in a low income community where post-secondary education was the exception, not the rule. I attended a high school where less than half the student body reached graduation and far less went on to college. But great mentors, a strong work ethic, and the will to reach back as I climbed motivated me to push through to get to the other side. And on that other side was limitless professional opportunities, incredible global experiences, and connecting with the most influential people in the world. My access was granted by my college degree. And that is the soul of the work that I am leading at iMentor Chicago.

Halleemah Nash, the Executive Director of iMentor Chicago, has a diverse background in nonprofit management. For more than a decade, her experience in the Windy City has included managing charitable programs, fundraising, and events for the Chicago Bulls; implementing an annual plan of services for more than 9,000 young people; and leading strategy around education opportunities for public housing residents for the Chicago Housing Authority; Halleemah is a proud product of Compton, Calif., a city that has greatly shaped her ambition, values, and interest in reaching back as she climbs. She is a first-generation college graduate who holds a B.A. in business administration from Howard University and a master's of divinity and certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University.