Active Listening: Whitney Whiting-Gonzalez's Leadership Story

iMentor continuously works to amplify Black voices and experiences. We are highlighting some of the leadership stories of Black staff as they describe what motivates them to invest in iMentor students and pursue education equity work.

Whitney Whiting-Gonzalez, national manager of career pathways and design, works to better position iMentor students as they pursue their college and career journeys after high school graduation. When we spoke to Whitney, she shared how her identity and experiences throughout her career in education have shaped the way she supports students at iMentor.

What first inspired you to get involved in education equity and build a career in this field?

I attended college with the goal of working on Wall Street afterwards and combining my passion for numbers and analytics with teaching those concepts to others. In Fall 2009, the first semester of junior year at NYU, I took a “Money and Banking” course that was equal parts learning about the history of economic policy and learning about the impending housing bubble as well as the corrupt practices of Wall Street. With each class, I knew I wanted to make a shift from signing off on junk credit default swaps and predatory loans, which harshly impacted Black and Brown individuals who wanted to own homes, to teaching Black and Brown students about economic theories and policies. Upon graduating, I decided to work at the same TRIO program of student support services that had been a part of my academic and social post-secondary readiness. For the next six years, I taught year-long personal finance courses to students and tapped into my eagerness for teaching others. I was happy that my students could in turn share their knowledge with others.

How does being a Black professional influence you?

How I show up in every aspect of my work is defined by my narrative and experiences in academia and on the job. From recalling moments of being celebrated for creativity, intellect, and talent, to wondering if I had a seat at a table because I brought diversity to the organization’s staff, I draw on these moments to ensure that I am intentional in my work. I am always thinking about the students we serve and how what I create impacts others.

Was there a distinct moment when the importance of representation in the education system was reaffirmed for you?

From 1st to 8th grade, I attended a Catholic school on Fordham Road in Bronx, New York. During that time, I had one Black teacher, my 3rd grade teacher. Our principal was an Italian woman who had been born in a Bronx area that had once been predominantly Irish and Italian, and had slowly, then swiftly, evolved into a community with many new residents who were Black and Puerto Rican. The leaders of the classroom were white. In high school, this quickly changed. Three of my four history teachers were Black men, the Financial Aid counselor in the college office was a Black woman, my AP French teacher was a Black woman, and there were many self-identifying Black educators who I interacted with. Seeing so many Black faces and hearing their narratives was not only refreshing but also affirming.

From your experience in student-facing work, what are some ways people can better support Black and brown students and help them gain access to more educational resources?

From my work as a program manager working with Black and Brown students, there is power in being able to relate to young people because of similar backgrounds and experiences, as well as employing active listening when interacting with them. Even if experiences aren’t similar, it is important to build empathy and validate a student’s existence, creativity, and talents. When they question what is being presented, affirming their thought-process, and responding with “I hear you, tell me more…” can go a long way. Lastly, because the resources written for students of color lack depth and understanding of how to support their unique needs, we must go the extra mile in researching resources that do not pander to Black and brown students or reinforce the notion that they need to be “saved”.

What advice do you have for students in this program who want to build their leadership skills?

I love the quote “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” But I regularly sit back and reflect on whether a student not speaking up is due to not knowing how to use their voice, not having a space to do so, or if students are deliberately not speaking because they feel the intention of the conversation isn’t genuine. Leadership will look different for every individual and the ways we approach leadership development should look different too. There is no harm in wanting our students to be advocates for themselves and their paths; however, the adults in their lives must be cognizant of whether they are providing the right type of assistance.