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I have been thinking a lot about mentoring. The term mentor evokes the image of learning from the elder under a tree. In that image there is no mutuality. One has come to learn, the other has come to teach and pass on wisdom.

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In many professional environments mentors are encouraged as part of formal processes to ensure that staff get ongoing support to meet their professional goals. Framed as a professional requirement it results in a range of bizarre formulaic relationships.

Mentoring across age, gender and race carries its complications. In my work environment, it coincides with the idea that black and brown people need to be mentored more. Black and brown women and gender non conforming people more so. This approach is informed by evidence inferred from the paucity of black and minority senior women academics.

Black and brown women find these environments difficult because of institutional and structural racism that perpetuate exclusionary practices. There are enough studies on that here and here. This is not to argue that white women do not suffer exclusion. However, their exclusion is often based on gender and class rather than the intersection of gender, race and class. White supremacy has its rewards.

So what does feminist mentorship look like? How do you do this without replicating power hierarchies?

  1. Do not recruit “mentees”: anyone who feels the need to say that they have a deep commitment to mentoring young people or women of colour and goes out to recruit “mentees” wants a badge of honour. You position yourself as a power holder based on specific expertise that you have identified and wish to benevolently dole out. The most powerful and impactful mentorship relationships I have witnessed are between people who identified what they wanted and found people to cultivate those experiences with. If there is something to be learnt from your life and work people will find you.
  2. Unsolicited peer mentors: I was told a story of an unsolicited peer mentoring offer. The target of said offer was offended that a peer saw themselves as having experiences they could benefit from. Two, that they were identified as being in need of mentoring because of a deficit. Granted, we can learn from our peers. However, there is an unproductive power relationship that emerges when you set yourself apart as the peer who will mentor another peer. Let people ask for support. Support people at their point of need. If you think someone needs support that is not available through their line manager or within the institution, cultivate a relationship of mutuality.
  3. Listen: when you recruit mentees or offer unsolicited support, it is likely that you are a talker rather than a listener. After all, you proceed from a “here is what I have to offer you” rather than “what do you need approach”. Listening is a skill that many of us do not have. I have learnt to listen to what is being said and what is not being said. To repeat myself often because people choose to hear what they want to hear. To ask questions until I’m certain that the answers are not with the person asking for them. My mentors taught me the art of listening by listening to me deeply. You can only listen well when you de-centre yourself from any process and see it as a space of mutual exchange.
  4. Structure: the assumption that a formal structure to mentoring will deliver results is flawed. Meetings and structure create rigidity and formality that is often unhelpful for the development of an organic relationship. Meetings become a hierarchical place where one feels they have to bring issues to discuss and demonstrate their progress. Effective mentorship relationships are based on need. The most impactful experiences of mentoring I’ve had are with people I have been able to touch base with at point of need not on the things they imagined I needed support on.
  5. Not your manager: A mentor is not your line manager. Your line manager is responsible for holding you accountable to your deliverables. They should also help you work on the things that prevent your ability to flourish including reflecting on their role as a hinderance. While your line manager can be a mentor, those two roles do not need to coincide. Your mentor should help you figure out the intangibles of relationships, power and people management that make the professional environments difficult to navigate.
  6. Community: Rather than build a community of mentees, build a community of support. More often than not the people who ask to be mentored or who seek you out regularly for support share the same attributes. The concerns tend to be rooted in the same set of structural dynamics. Ultimately what people need are wider communities of support to provide strategies of survival based on where they are. When you build a community of support you acknowledge that strategies for resistance cannot be formulaic and based on individual tactics. Strategies for survival and thriving also need to be rooted in shared support systems that do not leave people isolated and dislocated. Rather than build a little crew of “mentees” build communities of care.
  7. Show up: I was in a meeting where a number of us were making an argument about what we needed as early career academics. This argument seemed lost on the older women academics in the room who worked in different environments. An older professor spoke up; “our responses to this issue cannot be based on our experiences. The demands placed on early career academics today are different. Think about what matters for those who don’t have the relative privilege you have”. It was a simple argument that those in the room should have understood when we said it, but her peers only paused when she spoke. She not only listened but also spoke up and with. Mentors should speak up and with those who they argue to be building up and with. Show up.
  8. You are not a fixer: Trying to replace medical professionals, line managers, parents and family in a mentorship relationship leads to a mini-god syndrome that is less about the person but more about feeling needed. If your mentorship relationship comes to an end because a good counselor is found then what was needed was a counselor. Your role was in getting them to identify what they needed. Your work is complete and you can continue dismantling patriarchy.

Happy Women’s Day.

Written by

I am an African feminist scholar based at SOAS. My knowledge production, teaching and change mission is rooted in African feminist movements freedom work.

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