Establishing (& maintaining) Effective Mentorships

By Tunisia L. Riley & Kyla Bender-Baird* 

This past Sunday, the Emerging Leaders Network of NCRW presented an enlightening workshop on establishing effective mentorships. The workshop was comprised of two sets of mentor/mentee relationships including Deborah Siegel, Founding Partner of She Writes, blogger, and author most recently of Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild and her mentee, Courtney Martin, author and blogger for; and Khushbu Srivastava, Independent Strategy Consultant and her mentee Vanessa Singh, SIPA Student at Columbia University.

Coincidently both sets of mentor/mentee relationships began at a panel discussion. Tunisia also met her mentor at a panel discussion; it all began with one email. If you’re interested in establishing a meaningful mentorship, each panelist agreed that you must put yourself out there, be useful, be accountable, trust worthy, and follow-up—but also realize that long-term, sustainable mentorships are just like any other relationship. They’re about personal/professional connection and chemistry. If you attend an event, collect business cards, exchange information and follow-up. Research your potential mentor and the work they do, and send them a note reflecting your interest in their work/research/organization. You don’t have to say “will you be my mentor,” but you DO have to introduce yourself and start a dialogue. Mentees found kinship with their future mentors and sought them out.

Beyond discussing the catalyst and sustainability of mentorship relationships, panelists also discussed toxic mentorships, how to avoid unrealistic expectations of your mentor, having a “portfolio of mentors,” how to make the mentorship relationship work for you, and mentors of different genders, generations, and race. The workshop tackled challenges of intergenerational tension; gender dynamics and male mentors using their position to sexually harass female mentees; the racial politics of establishing mentorship cross-racially; and class differences on how we communicate and what we expect of others.

Panelists acknowledged the complex socialization we are all operating under. We need to understand that we are working within a world divided by various power dynamics but not let those divides cut us off from establishing meaningful relationships.

Both mentoring pairs in the workshop, while reflecting on current and prior mentorship relationships, noted that the relationship is a two way street. There is fluid exchange of ideas and assistance within the mentor/mentee relationship and it’s up to you to pinpoint your needs as well as those of your mentor/mentee.

As human beings, we are relational. But as socialized people we place hierarchy upon our relationships, including that of the mentor and mentee. The workshop proved, however, that sustaining a longstanding mentorship relationship requires follow up, honesty, usefulness, accountability and the natural process of any relationship.

*Tunisia L. Riley currently volunteers with NCRW in their Communications Department. She holds a BA in English and Women’s Studies from the College of William & Mary and an MA in Women’s Studies from the University of South Florida. Her interests are on Black women’s use of creative expression as a means of healing, empowerment, and activism. She believes “when we tell our stories, we empower those around us to agitate injustice, inspire change, and create activism.” Tunisia currently serves as the editor of Under the Microscope a site for women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to tell their stories. Under the Microscope is for, by, and about women in STEM, consider submitting your story today.

Kyla Bender-Baird is the Research and Programs Manager of the National Council for Research on Women. Both Kyla and Tunisia serve on the NCRW Emerging Leaders Network Steering Committee.

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