On Being Mentored

Today we are facing great chasms beyond just race and politics. If we want to really solve the challenges ahead, we have to start with fundamentals: understand others who are different than us. This personal story is an account of what happens when a retired teacher from Los Altos steps outside of her comfort zone to understand and help a kid from East Palo Alto.

When talking about mentorship, I discovered very few people mention an invisible elephant: belonging. The greatest mentor I had helped me understand and navigate the world of privilege and she also stepped into my world to understand the world of no privilege. Over 15 years, our relationship evolved from mentorship to friendship through lunch outings in Palo Alto, swimming lessons and deep conversations about race, books, culture and many others.

“I helped her understand ‘first world life’ in the Bay Area — that was part of our relationship. She had never even seen the ocean!”

My family arrived in East Palo Alto in the 90s from Mexico. We shared a house with other families. Our routine was simple. I went to school during the day while my parents went to work in the evenings. Often times to escape the chaos of the streets and drinking, I locked myself away in a room watched Star Trek or wrote my own science fiction stories.

In middle school, I went through a reading program with volunteer tutors. It was in this session that I met Chris. Her enthusiasm and passion for The Once and Future King caught my eye. I asked her to help me edit my stories. The editing exchanges became long conversations. Eventually we started meeting on the weekends.

For many years Palo Alto seemed like a foreign world. I would go there with my parents to clean offices on the weekends. But when Chris took me to lunch there, she made me feel comfortable being there, dining there and exploring that other world. I even walked all the way from University Avenue in East Palo Alto, cross the bridge, to go hangout at the Borders bookstore.

“There are huge gaps still in her being able to navigate through this culture. So much of your culture comes from your parents, we help our children.”

There were many times when I wanted to quit in college. College was tough academically and socially. During orientation my roommate was shocked, “wait, you don’t know Tiffany’s?” I thought she meant a person but she was referring to the jewlery store on 5th avenue. While I was in college, Christina hopped on the phone, listened and helped me focus. We discussed planning and budgeting each semester — it seems very mundane but as an immigrant you can miss out on these subtleties if your parents are not educated.

One summer I had an internship in downtown Los Altos and a long commute from East Palo Alto with the help of 3 buses. I spend more time commuting than exercising or fixing a presentation. Until, Chris introduced me to her friend (now the CMO at Cisco) who offered me her house for the summer while her family was in England. That was the first time I lived in a neighborhood where I saw people running freely without any fear in the afternoons. Chris’ guidance made up for those gaps I faced over the years so I can still compete and succeed in the world of privilege.

People poured a lot of money into diversity iniatives for companies in Silicon Valley. But from my experience with Chris, money doesn’t really fix challenges. It’s really the relationships with people that opens doors and creates understanding. But how can we scale this?

At the end of last year Dustin Senos, former head of design at Medium, proposed Holiday Office Hours (now Out of Office Hours) calling all designers to volunteer their time to connect with students or people who are struggling to break into the industry. What I love about this genuine effort is that we’re taking action to break the barriers instead of just writing another article. Imagine how much the world can change if we take the time to understand and help people outside of our networks or race just like Chris did with me.