During National Mentoring Week 2020, The Diana Award staff reflected on their experiences of mentoring and the impact of mentor-mentee relationships on their personal and professional development.
In the ‘Working Women’ episode of The Michelle Obama Podcast, Michelle Obama reflects on three decades of work, friendship, and mentorship, in conversation with her former boss Valerie Jarrett. She takes listeners with her on her journey – from her childhood in the South Side of Chicago and her student years at Princeton University and Harvard Law School, to her career at the University of Chicago and eventually her position as First Lady of the United States.
Throughout these shifting situations, Michelle Obama acknowledges a constant – her relationships with mentors and the support, respect and responsibility that these relationships assume. So much so that she established the White House leadership and mentoring programme.
It was whilst listening to this podcast episode that I began to think about my own mentor-mentee relationships. Might I have been a different person – with different interests, ideals and ambitions – without their influence?
During National Mentoring Week, The Diana Award staff reflected on their experiences of mentoring and the impact of mentor-mentee relationships on their personal and professional development. Whilst reading their testimonies with eager interest, I observed certain similarities between their relationships.
Although each of these relationships are different, it appears as though they depend on similar ideals – support, trust, representation, responsibility, and respect.
Mentors can assume different forms and be found in diverse places – in schools, universities, families, communities, and workplaces. Michelle Obama found mentors through colleagues, initially at the University of Chicago Medical Centre and later in the White House Administration.
Head of The Diana Award Anti-Bullying Programme, Emily Kell describes seeking a mentor through the Teach First Mentoring Programme:
“During one of my first jobs, working in a small education charity, I was put forward for the Teach First Mentoring Programme. I attended a ‘speed dating’ event where 30 mentors and 30 mentees got to know each other through two-minute conversations. We scribbled our notes and placed ticks next to mentors. It was a match! Katie was ex-military and worked for a consultancy firm – a far cry from my own background. But surprisingly, it worked.
For the next year I attended monthly coaching sessions, during which we explored everything from career goals and ambitions to day-to-day challenges. I left each session excited to apply new skills and techniques to my work. I felt as though I had examined not only my skills and ambitions but also what made me an individual and what I could contribute to the world.”
Representation is also an important aspect of mentor-mentee relationships. Often, young people can feel marginalised within their communities, particularly if they cannot relate to the backgrounds, identities or experiences of their families, peers or colleagues... Mentors who not only share in our experiences but are also successful in their educations and careers, can represent ambition, progression and hope. They can support us in both celebrating and negotiating our differences.
Michelle Obama describes the presence of Valerie Jarrett in the White House Administration as ‘probably the most powerful thing I could see.’ The mere presence of a young, Black woman in a position of political power, tells other young, Black women that they can claim these spaces for themselves.
Similarly, mentors who share in our experiences can helps us to feel proud of our heritage. Mentoring Programme Coordinator (Birmingham Lead), Latoya Gayle describes her relationship with her grandmother:
“Although she is no longer with us, my grandmother played an essential role in my life when I transitioned from a partying, selfish, young lady, to a mother in my early twenties. Being from a Caribbean background, it was important to me that I was able to implement the closest cultural upbringing to that which I experienced as a child growing up in Jamaica, for my children in the UK. Her knowledge and wisdom were a godsend to. She had a loving and caring nature and was an amazing grandmother to my eldest child. He loved her so much and remembers her even now, which is a testament to the loving memories that she left behind.”
Even those who do not share in our backgrounds, identities or experiences can be effective and supportive mentors. However, mentors have a responsibility to acknowledge their own privileges and interrogate their own unconscious biases. Michelle Obama argues, ‘Some of it is people’s limited view – their own biases, their prejudice, their racism…There are a lot of people who have been told that a little Black kid, or Brown kid, or working-class kid, is only supposed to achieve so much…If you are going to take on a position of being a teacher or counsellor, you have a responsibility to clear your head of your prejudices and bigotry…’
Sometimes these biases emerge from assumptions about certain identities, cultures or communities, and at other times from the reputation of certain schools, classes or even siblings. Mentoring Programme Coordinator (Mentor and Safeguarding Lead) Marissa Laing narrates her experiences of being constantly compared to her five sisters:
“My twin sister and I are the youngest of six girls, which established certain expectations of us growing up. When I succeeded academically, it was because I was Thalia’s little sister. When I learned to handle social situations, I’d learned that from Pari. When I did well at sports, I was Cara’s protégé. I spent years making myself sick with stress, trying to fill the boots that my sisters had laid out for me. One day, my netball coach – Mrs Probyn, my personal hero – sat me down and spoke with me about what I wanted to be and what motivated me to push myself every day. I realised that I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted. I had just been trying to be what my sisters had been.
Mrs Probyn taught me the importance of being an individual and following my own path. She taught me to appreciate the things I did differently from others. Now, I try to ensure that every person I work with can see the unique skills, qualities and characteristics they bring to the team. Everyone has a contribution to make and a voice to be heard – somebody just needs to be the person to hear it.”
Another important aspect of the mentor-mentee relationship is responsibility. The responsibilities of the mentor towards the mentee might differ, depending on their relationship and the individual needs, ambitions and objectives of the mentee.
Nevertheless, I would argue that every mentor-mentee relationship should be founded in support, trust, and transparency. We should be transparent about our successes and failures, both personal and professional. Michelle Obama describes mentors as, ‘…living, breathing role models – not just in what we say, but what we do… No matter what we say, young people are watching what we do…If you are perceived by young people as being perfect and untouchable, they give up.’
Just as mentors learn from our own successes and failures, their mentee might also learn from these experiences so that they might assume the position of mentor later. Emily Kell continues:
“I am very grateful for the support I received early in my charity career. It launched me into the sector and equipped me to tackle challenges with resilience and determination. Being a mentee also taught me how to be a good mentor and role model myself: how to lead a team to success and get the most out of colleagues through enabling a supportive, empowering environment. From senior managers to junior starters – everyone can benefit from mentoring.”
Responsibility in the mentor-mentee relationship should be shared. Just as mentors hold a responsibility towards mentees to impart knowledge, experiences and specific skills, mentees hold a responsibility towards mentors to uphold the expectations established between them.
Respect between mentors and mentees should be mutual, such that their relationship shifts towards something resembling reciprocity. Sustainable mentor-mentee relationships necessitate consistent communication and collaboration. Anti-Bullying Training Manager, Paul Hanmore describes the enduring relationship between himself and his Youth Work Practice diploma supervisor:
“Eight years after completing my university degree, I made the choice of returning to study and doing a diploma in Youth Work Practice. Each student was assigned a study supervisor as your point of contact and personal assessor. It soon became apparent that we had an excellent relationship, and I came to see her as a mentor. We were able to have a discussion on a variety of matters, both professional and personal. She was able to guide me to reach balanced and solutions focused conclusions. We are still in touch after ten years, which is testament to the strength of the relationship.”
What all these experiences show us, is that successful mentor-mentee relationships can be transformative for both mentor and mentee. Whilst mentees might develop professional skills – such as networking, public speaking, and time and work management – and nurture personal characteristics – such as confidence, critical thinking and creativity – mentors might also learn about themselves, either professionally or personally. Deputy CEO of The Diana Award, Alex Holmes describes his relationship with his mentor, and the impact of the work which emerged from their relationship:
“My mentor was my headteacher and his support allowed me to test out my ideas when I was at school. When I started my anti-bullying work – which came from my own experience of bullying – he gave me confidence, self-belief and listened to me. Being able to trust someone about my experience of bullying, and then discuss what I thought would help me and others in the same situation was invaluable. As a result, the idea I had at school became a national idea and helped peers to mentor each other. It stands as a reminder of the importance of mentoring relationships, particularly at a young age.”
Michelle Obama leaves us with the prevailing thought, ‘I want young people out there to know that when they are looking for a mentor they also have to think about – what are you going to bring to the relationship?’