Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Critical mentoring: For those of us who mentor in troubled spaces

Source: http://fundingattractions.blogs.thompson.com/2011/03/21/grants-management-certification-program-deadline-extended/classroom-of-empty-chairs-4/

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women, those of us who are poor, who are lesbian, who are Black, who are older--know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.
(Lorde, 1984, p.112)

Lorde captures my, and so many others’, experiences with academe. Black women in academe, from the undergraduate student to the full professor, operate in trouble spaces. The nature and extent of the trouble varies in terms of stage of career, lifespan, geographical location and type of institutions, among other factors. Academia has its own established set of hegemonic practices and policies, rooted in and drawing sustenance from wider cultural systems of race, class, gender, and sexuality hierarchies. These practices are powerful, and support and perpetuate constructed norms that negatively impact the preparation, recruitment, and retention of Black women (Combs, 2003; Patton, 2004; Thomas and Hollenshead, 2001). So how do we thrive and flourish?

I wish that I had some magic answer, but indeed I don’t. One thing I do know is that good mentoring helps in our navigation of these troubled spaces.  There are enough books on mentoring to probably circle the earth. Many offer good words and advice on how to find a mentor. Consequently, I won’t spend my time rehashing these good tips.

Instead, I focus on those who mentor. Little is written for those of us on the other side of the mentoring equation. So I thought that as we enter into this new season of academe, I would write to those Black women who engage in critical mentoring.

The problem we continually face is the shortage of Black women who can serve as role models for those who aspire to successfully complete their degrees and possibly join the ranks of academia and for those of use once here to emulate. While academia espouses to inclusiveness, often the policies and climate portends otherwise. This has indeed been one of the most difficult challenges I face as a mentor. How do I survive and thrive while simultaneously supporting others in their quest to do the same?

  1. I quickly learned that if I wanted to do well and survive in academia that I needed to establish boundaries . Here are a few techniques I used to establish boundaries: 

·       I spoke with some of my more demanding students and informed them that there were times when I was not available although I was on campus. In order to gain their trust and assure them that I valued them, particularly because some did not feel valued and often felt neglected in this environment, I responded within the time frame that I indicated.

·       I work diligently to protect the boundaries between my time at work and my time with my family. Again, I have found that honesty helps my students to accept these boundaries. One tactic I use to ensure that I am available and attentive is to limit when I respond to emails. This has become even more of a priority with the introduction of smart phones.

·       I encourage students to seek solutions on their own. I have to resist the urge to “fix” the problem. Instead, I ask “What do you want to do?” Asking this question encourages mentees to critically think about what they want in their lives. Sometimes by simply posing this question they are able to think through a strategy on their own and I have to be willing to accept their strategy. This is a practice of self-empowerment encouraged by Black feminists. In order to help others and ourselves we have to recognize our strengths and our limits.

2. Consciously recognizing limitations: Indeed every mentor is not for me and neither is every mentee.

·       How do we reconcile that not all Black women are for us as we seek out mentoring experiences? How do we wait and see who is indeed for us? How do we reconcile our desires to be mentored by someone who looks like us but for reasons often unknown to us are not available to mentor? How do we acknowledge and push beyond the pain of mentoring experiences that end on less than a positive note? These are hard questions to confront. The key, again, is to be honest.

·       The racial-gender order of academia limits how many of us are able to walk the halls of academia. As a result, there can be sense of competition that is more harmful than helpful. Some of us become bruised along the way and as such might not be psychological available to mentor. At other times, the individual might not feel equipped to mentor. Or maybe the person simply has no interest in mentoring. Regardless of why that individual cannot be available to mentor we have to remember that everybody is not for us and vice-versa we are not for everyone.

·       As we explore our mentoring relationships we must be mindful of imposing our institutional expectations onto the bodies of a few.

3. You don’t have to be the only one: Expanding your circle of mentors

·       I have accepted that mentoring does not have to be my singular responsibility. My experience of being one of three Black women on campus, at least among those self-identified as Black, has resulted in me having to be creative in how I mentor.

·       Although I found myself in the position of being the only “one” openly, accessible, and available colleague, I made a conscious decision not to approach mentoring alone. My initiative involved organizing a group of women of color, from diverse disciplines, to engage in peer-mentoring.

·       I, and you, have to be creative in how we form community both within and outside of our institutions.

4.  Finding your own circle of mentors

   As a so-called mid-career faculty member, I find myself even more isolated in the sense that there is an increasing expectation for me to help others coming behind me, while I have limited access to women who are ahead of me. Given the limited number of Black women in my discipline, while I attempt to address the sporadic and haphazard interactions experienced by many of my colleagues, I am left with sporadic and haphazard interactions of my own. To address this deficit, I have reached out to others using Facebook and other social media in an attempt to have my needs met. Over time, I have transcended the boundaries of fields and geography to create a patchwork of support. Some of these experiences have been short-lived, but have filled the void at that time.

We work to create community where none exist. Mentoring networks are key to surviving and thriving in academia. We will benefit by developing a cadre of individuals who meet our diverse and evolving mentoring needs. For those of us who mentor, we have be ever mindful of replenishing our cup by being: conscious in our decisions to mentor, by being truthful and by working to actively protect our sprits.

Excerpted from “Black Women Occupying the Academy: Merging Critical Mothering and Mentoring to Survive and Thrive” in Laboring Positions: Black Women, Mothering and the Academy (Sekile Nzinga-Johnson, editor)

This is the first post of my 31-day blogging challenge. This is the also the first post under the general theme of “Coexsisting, Resisting and Thriving in Academe” which is the tentative title of a project I’m currently undertaking. 


  1. I don't work in academia, but as an independent contract teacher I can relate to a lot of your comments on mentoring. I enjoy teaching because I genuinely like helping others. Since I see my students on a one-on-one basis, I usually end up developing a mentor/mentee relationship with each of them to some extent. It can be draining at times, so I set my boundaries by limiting the number of students I take on at one time.

    I also struggle to find my own community of mentors that I can lean on for guidance. There aren't a lot of women who have the same combination of interests that I do. I find that most professionals have their own goals and dreams that they're trying to realize which doesn't leave much quality time to reach back and help others coming behind them.

    1. Finding community is a challenge. As you point out, part of the challenge is the individualism we confront. Sometimes we really have to create a patchwork of community members and stretch our imagination of who might be included. I hope that you find your community

  2. As a life coach (which can be a mentorship role at times) I too have to squelch my desire to fix things but I always try to keep in mind that any time I do someone else's work for them, I just prove to them that I have answers, not that they have their own. A very strong belief that everyone is capable of handling their own issues and sometimes just needs a mirror held up so they can see themselves clearly, helps me to maintain that boundary.
    I look forward to writing alongside you in this 31 day blog challenge. Good luck!!

    1. Thanks for sharing this thought. I'll like how you framed it--we are not empowering when we answer. Good luck to you also during this challenge.

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  4. Thank you for writing this post. What resonates most with me is the question of how to be supportive and mentor those coming behind us while not stretching ourselves too thin. Despite all of the joy I get from mentoring, I can find myself feeling resentful about how much of my time it takes and how little mentoring I see by some of my colleagues. I love your idea to organize a group of peers to do it together. And I also think that Facebook and other social media platforms are a good way to mentor across geographic space.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts over the next month! <3

  5. It's funny you mention the resentment we sometimes have to confront as we thrive to mentor. This is something that's not always discussed, but that is real. When we mentor, we have to be ever conscious of the entire experience and the range of emotions involved in the process. Thanks for reading and commenting.