Mentoring Toward Revolution

"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

Mentors" by

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

change work.

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 cppk@people-link.com, 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.

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