In my work, I have the honor of mentoring a community of young women who come from poverty as they move forward to college careers. Many of my students have histories of youth homelessness and childhood trauma. In the past twelve years of doing this work, I have learned some lessons about mentoring.
The first and hardest lesson to learn was how little I know. When I started out I had a PhD and I knew a lot about how to succeed in college, but I did not know very much about the real world. I am a white, middle class, middle aged woman, and until twelve years ago I had spent most of my life hiding from reality in libraries. Having studied anthropology, I was able to set my beliefs aside and simply listen and be present with the women I was working with. They generously taught me about their lives and the complexities of race, class, gender and homophobia in American society. Learning to dissect my own white privilege was a humbling and painful experience, but it has made me a better person.
I learned that the last thing my students need is another volunteer boss. They have spent their lives battling systems of injustice where well meaning people tried to “fix” them by setting themselves as authorities. What they do need is to have their right to self determination validated and championed. The single most important thing you can do when mentoring a young woman is to remind her that she is in charge of her life and in control of her body. If one of my students is making a choice I disagree with—for example, choosing to stay in an abusive relationship—I will say, "I think you deserve better, but it is your choice and I will support you no matter what decision you make." I mean it, and follow through. I avoid offering unsolicited advice except in extreme circumstances. Listening and sharing is much more important than advising.
After "You Are in Charge", my second favorite teaching is "Don’t Panic". Life is overwhelming, especially if you are poor. Most of my students do not get much support from their families of origin, and none of them are supported by mainstream American culture, which demeans low income women daily. When you are in survival mode, it is easy to shut down or blow up. When someone is pushed to the limit, it is a big help to just remind her to slow down, take a deep breath, and care for herself. Sleep. Eat vegetables. Do not panic.
One thing that makes people panic is not being sure if you are accurately judging a situation; there is a feeling of crazy-making vertigo when your gut says one thing and your social conditioning says another. Validating the reality of women who have been marginalized is an extremely helpful gift, especially in a culture where so many people ignore reality or actively deny it. You can help women with responses like, "No, you did not imagine that. The professor really was being sexist when he said that."
As a mentor, do not be afraid to bring your whole, authentic self into the relationship. Talk about your failures; do not take yourself too seriously or put yourself on a pedestal. The young women I work with benefit from knowing that I have made mistakes and lived to joke about them, and that we all suffer and fail and can still recover to live and love and grow and triumph in the long haul. Do not think you have to have it all figured out before you can be a good mentor. We are all in this together, as equals and neighbors, and we can support each other toward positive change starting today, meeting each other where we are at now, as long as we have the courage to be real with each other.
A final piece of advice: Show, do not tell. Young people learn best when they see people modeling values and skills. Teach compassion by being compassionate, courage by being courageous, responsibility by being responsible. Young women need strong women role models who can provide alternative visions for what it means to be feminine. The best part of mentoring is having a constant reminder to live your own values to the fullest, so that you can embody the lessons you most want to pass down to the next generation.
Polly Trout is the founder and North King County program manager of Seattle Education Access.