Willie Braziel has understood the value of mentorship for a long time. Growing up in the 1960s in an isolated Black community in North Minneapolis, he recalls that he and his friends could have easily found negative influences if they had set out to. Instead, they found the Hospitality House Boys Club, a Christian group that facilitated activities like sports and choir. The club also had youth leaders who would talk to kids like Willie and his friends about what they wanted to do with their lives, and take them on testimonials to large local companies like Control Data (now 3M).

Having a venue for positive connection and mentorship was deeply influential for Willie, so much so that he started coaching basketball at age 14. He had experienced what it was like to be coached by people who concerned themselves with giving back, and he wanted to be that coach for others.

Fast forward to today and Willie, now the operations manager for HealthPartners Institute’s Office of Health Professional Education, has been coaching, mentoring and volunteering in his community for nearly 50 years. On this episode, he recounts his experiences and the lessons he’s learned about the value of mentorship. Listen to the episode or read the transcript.

We can’t be what we can’t see

In the tradition of the Boys Club’s testimonials, Willie stresses the importance of showing youth what they can be if they set their minds to it. His coaching work is an example in of itself, but it doesn’t stop there. Willie recalls times in the mid-2000s when he and a group of leaders from Regions Hospital would go around to local schools and read to the kids. He wanted minority children to see him in that role, as an example of success from within their own community.

This mentality also extends to Willie’s work in medical education. When he’s engaging with a student who’s shown an interest in the medical field, Willie makes a point of highlighting all the different branches of work they can pursue. He points out that they can be in the field without being in a high-level position. They can be lab technicians, health unit coordinators, any number of roles that are well-paying and necessary. He expands the idea of what success can look like to make it more attainable.

Teaching through sports

Willie encourages success through his coaching, too. He sees sports as a way for youth to build responsibility and confidence, so he works to make sure that those values carry over to his players’ lives outside of athletics. He wants every one of them to have the opportunity to pursue higher education, and that requires more than being a great player.

To that end, Willie ties basketball participation to academics. Previously, regulations in his district allowed student athletes to participate in their sport as long as they were progressing towards education – in other words, not failing any classes. But as Willie points out, a report card full of D’s will limit even a star player’s opportunities.

So he challenged the district and got them to raise the requirement to a 2.3 grade-point average – the minimum requirement to be considered an early academic qualifier for D1 college sports. He also started having study halls before practice and holding his players to a standard of behavior. In some cases, that’s meant benching talented players, but Willie has seen those players go on to have success playing in junior college – meaning that his lessons stuck.

As Willie shows us, a good mentor can do a lot. They can make space for positive connections, deepen community and give people skills and paths for long-term success. By giving back, mentors show us how to be better.

To hear more from Willie, including success stories, learning moments and why we should do things that our grandparents wouldn’t, listen to this episode of Off the Charts.