"The term ‘mentor’ dates back to ancient Greece when Odysseus first entrusted his
friend Mentor with the education of his son, but the practice has existed in virtually
every culture on earth."
– From "Mentoring : the Tao of Giving and Receiving Wisdom" by
Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch
"The mentor does not supervise the protégé, but rather coaches and guides as a
peer. The mentor provides support to the protégé if she falters and encourages her along
if her practices is less than it could be. The mentor is a trusted counselor who is
committed to a close working relationship with the protege, offering feedback that can
move her to a higher level of competence and performance. The mentor is open to learning
and growing, too, and is able to appreciate and benefit form the new perspectives that a
protege can offer."
– From "Early Childhood Mentoring Curriculum: A Handbook for
Dan Bellm, Marcy Whitebook and Patty Hnatiuk.
Do you have mentors in your life? Are you anyone’s mentor? Could we positively affect
social change movements by building mentoring relationships into our political work?
I think we could.
I have been learning something about mentoring through my work with Taking The Lead – a
project of the Wheelock College Early Childhood Education Department – which has been
studying leadership development among people of color who work in the early childhood
field. Day care providers and aids, it appears, are fairly representative of the
communities they serve. Directors, coordinators, and decision-makers in the field,
however, are mostly white. Taking The Lead has been funding a few different sites around
the country in an effort to help them find leadership development tools that are
appropriate to the communities they live in. As it turns out, mentoring has played a
significant role in helping people gain access to power and resources in their field, as
well as the personal support, guidance, and confidence they need to change and grow and
play a different role in their work.
Here are some vignettes from Taking The Lead sites. Each reveals a different mentoring
model. Following that are my ideas about how we might use these lessons in our social
In California, people of color and people from working class backgrounds who are
directors of child care centers are being paid to mentor others who aspire to be
directors. In this way, a younger and less-experienced African American child care worker,
for example, can "apprentice" with a more experienced African American who is
playing a leadership role in the field. Their mentoring relationship is successful partly
because the protégé gets the opportunity to learn the tools of the trade, partly because
she and her mentor share a cultural background and an understanding of some of the
race-based barriers to education and other resources that facilitate "moving up"
in the field, and partly because she has access to a role model who serves as a reminder
that her goals are attainable.
In the Yukon Delta of Alaska, where many Native communities are off-road – accessible
only by boat three months of the year or by plane, Native early childhood educators are
looking to Native elders for support and advice as they work to affect how young children
are cared for in their communities. In sparsely populated villages where people do all
kinds of work – including subsistence work along with paid work – it doesn’t make sense
for early childhood educators to look for mentors with whom they could directly
apprentice. Rather they set up mentoring relationships with someone they admire or feel is
a good person. In Yup’ik terms, a good person is a good listener, someone who follows
traditional values, someone who takes care of himself and his family, someone who does not
have or has overcome a drug or alcohol problem, someone who feels at home with who he is
and where he is from. In many cases, the Native child care workers who are mentoring with
Native elders, have managed to stay rooted in their community while at the same time
gaining access to white/western-identified systems of support, education, resources, etc.
For example, they have helped make Head Start literacy programs culturally appropriate to
the Yup’ik people; they have learned how to "stand up and speak out" at
white-dominated professional meetings; and they have brought Native elders in to teach
Head Start teachers traditional Yup’ik forms of discipline.
In Springfield, Massachusetts, with its large latino population, many children are
cared for in family day cares run by Hispanic women who are, in many cases, isolated,
unlicensed, and unable to access the resources available to them because of language and
other barriers. Taking The Lead funding is being used to bring these women together in
small "peer-mentoring" groups that get support from an "existing
leader" in the community. Four committees made up of about five family day care
providers each plus a professional from the field who helps link them to relevant
resources and information meet regularly. They identify problems they are struggling with
and goals they want to achieve, and use the support of the group to attain concrete goals
as well as personal empowerment. Flora Rivera says this about their efforts to build an
association of latino family child care providers, "We have worked very hard for all
the things we have accomplished so far. And right now I feel very proud of all we have
done. We are wives, mothers, homemakers. We make a lot of sacrifices. I sit back and say,
my god I didn’t know there were so many gifted women – so many different cultures and
skills. We need to do what we need to do to support each other spiritually and mentally.
Wow. Did we do all this? Did I bring all these women and groups together? I want to hold
onto this opportunity and squeeze it so that I never lose it. In the period of a year, we
have changed so much. For the first time: I feel free. I feel confident. I feel
As a progressive social change activist, I am interested in exploring ways to get more
work done, and done well!. How can we be more effective? Avoid burnout? Ensure that
diverse communities help determine agendas and have equal access to decisionmaking power?
Help each other with difficult political (and other) decisions? Clear the pathways between
us all for more effective communication and exchange of support, concrete tips, tricks,
connections, mailing lists, technical advice, whatever?
Mentoring could be one useful aspect of an overall effort to:
- build leadership amongst us;
- recognize that the difficult work of becoming and staying a political activist requires
personal support as well as access to people with information, tools, connections, and
- and conscientiously create leadership development models that are culturally appropriate
and that draw off the strengths and attributes of different communities.
To follow up on this topic, I am soliciting your stories and thoughts about mentoring.
Write to me at [email protected], and tell me whether you have had any experience with
mentoring, how it worked or didn’t work for you, and if you think it would be helpful to
find ways to create more mentoring relationships among people doing social change work. I
will report what I hear from people in a future commentary.