Black Empowerment Series: The Importance of Mentorship

(As this is an essay on mentorship, I’d like to identify and thank some of my own mentors for their guidance and counsel throughout the years: George, Adrienne, Olethia and Luther Stith, Irene Farrah, Ms. Virginia Griffin, Bonita Middleton, Dr. Janice Mayes, Dr. Randolph Hawkins, Robert Hill, William Strickland, Khallid Muhammad, Ernest Allen, Dr. James Turner, Ruby Sales,…)

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We Black folk face so much difficulty in this world, seemingly from every direction and in every area of human activity ( thanks in large part to white supremacy). No reputable political scientist, sociologist, or economist can (responsibly) advise us differently.

Since many of us face innumerable and unfair societal limitations and injustices, it behooves us to develop means to facilitate our advancement despite the presence of such limitations. One important practice we can incorporate is that of acquiring mentorship. Mentorship within our community appears to be a dying phenomenon. This is unfortunate because  un-mentored adults are more likely to be incompetent, disorganized and inadequately prepared when compared to their counterparts. I should also add that the arrogance, scattered reasoning, and poor judgement I witness daily makes this lack of mentorship painfully obvious.

What is a mentor?

Simply put, a mentor is a wise and trusted counselor, advisor or teacher.”

Relatives, teachers, neighbors, community leaders, coaches and employers/work supervisors can and often do, play mentorship roles in our lives, and for good reason.

How do mentors benefit us?

Mentors enhance our lives and personal/professional development in several ways. A professional mentor, a supervisor at your job for example, teaches you the written and unwritten rules and expectations at your workplace. Armed with such intangibles and the additional insight they provide concerning past incidents, job trends, opportunities for promotion and acquiring specific skill sets, we enjoy a more rewarding and productive work environment/experience.

A coach helps us identify areas where we need to improve and they develop training drills and exercises to facilitate our improved strength, technique and understanding of our sport.

A general life mentor like a parent for example, exposes us to the experiences, habits, character development, and attitude adjustments we need to live fulfilled and empowering lives.

Regardless of the person and what type of mentorship role they play in our lives, we can expect certain benefits from our interactions with them. Generally speaking, mentors:

  • Prevent us from wasting precious time and energy in our lives by helping us avoid bad decisions and errors in judgement.
  • Equip us with important skills, training and tools that make us more competent and valuable in our chosen careers or vocations.
  • Introduce us to important contacts and opportunities for growth and advancement. Sometimes a call, email or letter of recommendation from a mentor opens doors that were previously locked to us.
  • Provide wisdom, insight and maturity that becomes part of our own social DNA. These lessons stay with and positively influence us for a lifetime, often long after our mentors die and become ancestors.
  • Help us to make sense of our pain, loss and setbacks. They also help us develop “thick skins,” and the resilience needed to persevere and learn from the inevitable challenges we face in our lives.
  • Help us identify areas in need of improvement in addition to potentially damaging flaws in our thinking, technique and approach. Like good coaches, mentors can also train us or introduce us to resources that correct these deficiencies.

I generally prefer to avoid giving rigid advice ( since so many things in life are relative and dynamic) however I must suggest certain preferred qualities to consider when seeking a mentor. Mentors should be significantly older, accomplished and more experienced  than you. If they don’t know more, and haven’t experienced and done more than you, how can they advise you to do and be better?

Since you will spend time with a mentor, and seek to learn from this person, you should respect and generally get along with him or her. This person should feel the same about you. Like any rewarding relationship, this one is built on trust and respect.

How do you get the maximum benefit from a mentor?

Because a mentor is older, more knowledgable and experienced/accomplished than you, debating and challenging them is a colossal waste of your and their time. You should not feel intimidated or threatened by your mentor in any way. You are there to learn from them not “test” or compete with them. Therefore spend most of your time asking for their opinion, help or advice. Allow them to better assist you by sharing your goals, concerns and apprehensions (If your mentor is wise and seasoned as he/she should be, they will often know when you are not being honest and open with them anyway).

Not being competitive with your mentor doesn’t mean you should not apply critical thinking or blindly accept what they say. If you are confused about their advice, tell them. If something he/she says seems contradictory, explain that to them respectfully or through another question. Real mentors will not appreciate you being phony or patronizing with them. They want an authentic and honest relationship with you and only through this type of relationship will you truly benefit.

How do you get someone to be your mentor?

Let’s say you have identified a person who is your senior and who is knowledgeable and accomplished in the field of your interest. You used the internet to identify this person or you met them personally at a conference or community event. Or perhaps this person is your relative, family friend, professor, coach or supervisor at your job.

You think this man or woman has what it takes to properly advise you and aid in your personal development. But how do you get them to mentor you? Ask them directly! Explain your interests and how you know them or heard about them. Explain that you really believe you would benefit from his/her mentorship. Provide them with your contact information if necessary then wait for their response. This is the formal approach but it is not the only approach.

Sometimes you attract a mentor who sees you perform, reads your writing, or observes your job performance and this person mentions how impressed they are with your work or talent. Over time they become a mentor without either of you mentioning the term once! If you are targeting a professor you can ask questions in class or stike up conversation during their office hours.

I want to remind you that it is fine to have more than one mentor. I have an assortment of trusted and respected relatives, former professors/professionals, and older activists/organizers that I count as mentors.

There is also nothing wrong with adding new mentors at various stages of your life. New circumstances or objectives sometimes require you to bring additional advisers into your life. I have developed a few new people into my mentorship circle this year. I can say honestly that all of my mentors  have made my life exponentially more fulfilling and productive. In fact, when I receive praise or admiration for my work, I often credit all the mentors I have worked with and learned from throughout the years. At the age of 47, I mentor people myself now, and it is a role I take very seriously.

In conclusion, I strongly encourage you to keep your eyes open for people you respect you exhibit strong mentorship qualities. Excellent mentors are beneficial for all the reasons already discussed. One warning in conclusion however: Some people may be experienced, knowledgable and mature. You may see them as potential advisers. But some of these folk use their status to take advantage of students, employees or others (sexually, financially or in other ways). People are not always what they seem. So use discretion, proceed with caution, research the person and “trust your gut.”

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Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.

Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at truself143@gmail.com.

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