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Building Mentorship Programs for People of Color

It’s incredibly important to have a mentor at ALL points of your career and life.

And, I mean ALL points. Even if you have 30 years of experience and you feel like you’ve reached your peak – nope, get a mentor or your own council or as the young kids say, a squad. Even if you have 1 year of work experience but 7 years of volunteer experience, assemble your league. Or when you’re learning to walk as a 14-month-old, gather other toddlers from the neighborhood to share stories and speed walking techniques. Rotate your power rangers to get a different perspective on your life. Whatever you need to do.

This is a picture of my growing squad of RVC fellows. They keep me grounded.

Even if you feel like your professional trajectory is fine because you are your own mentor and you are flexing all day every day, then get a mentor for your personal or spiritual life.

WHY IS MENTORSHIP IMPORTANT?

As someone who’s worked, volunteered, and implemented mentorship programs, everyone needs and deserves a mentor especially people of color. Here are a list of reasons based on my experience:

  1. Sounding Board and Guidance – People of color need mentors who can ask the critical questions to reflect on their goals and values as they build their career. They also need people that understand how to navigate the professional ladder as they continue to grow and gain experience.
  2. Building a Network – Our society is based on relationship building. When it comes to finding jobs or moving up, it’s all about who you know. There is power in who is in your corner and people of color often do not have access to people who are willing to be in their corner or anyone at all.
  3. Skillbuilding – Mentoring and being mentored is a transferable skill! You set agendas, craft questions, asking for help, learning to reflect, challenging your values or defining them, critically analyzing yourself or work environment, and building important relationships. Please note that these skills are part of the process of a mentor relationship and no one gets these right off the bat.

As the fellow at Rainier Valley Corps, I was tasked to revamp the Mentorship Program and here are my lessons learned so far as someone who has been a mentor for the last 8 years:

BE INTENTIONAL IN YOUR PROCESSES

You must establish a solid foundation for your mentorship program to work off. Make sure you evaluate the values of the organization in every single part of your planning process. I found this article from First Round to be a helpful resource for people shaping mentorship programs.

  • Recruitment
    Ideally, if you are pairing mentees and mentors for a professional purpose, it’s best to pair someone who has 5 – 10 years of experience more than the mentee. Conversations and the potential for guidance are optimal at this point.

     

    • Who are you recruiting? Where are you advertising?
    • What are the priorities of the people you are trying to match? Do mentees know what priorities they want in a mentor?
    • Are you having a conversation about what can be important to them in a mentor?
  • Matches
    Sometimes it’s not enough to match people based on their backgrounds or areas of interest. Compatibility between two people are also important to consider, if not would determine the success of a long-lasting mentor/mentee relationship beyond the program.

     

    • Are you creating a space where both mentors and mentees get to know one another? Who has the power to choose their pairs? How are you preparing them to build an authentic relationship?
  • Accessibility

When building a mentorship program, we have to think about accessibility points:

  • Location of mentors and mentees; how do they commute?
    Consider whether or not mentors and mentees can travel easily to a mutual meeting place based on where they live/work.
  • Cost of attending meetings (driving and purchasing drinks/snacks)
    There is this awkward (yet understandable) dance between mentors and mentees about paying for drinks/snacks for meeting with each other.
    Assumptions:

     

    • Mentors pay because they are likely to have a higher paying job.
    • Mentees should pay because they are asking for the mentor’s time.
  • Loss of work hours (if applicable)

At RVC, we consider meetings with mentors as part of our employees’ professional development. That means, we count the monthly 1-hour meetings as part of our employees’ work hours so it doesn’t negatively impact

BE FLEXIBLE AND HAVE A STRUCTURE

Not everyone can make it through a formal process especially in the beginning phases of starting a mentorship program. That’s okay. Mistakes will be made. There will be gaps in your structure at the beginning. Here are my recommendations for setting up a mentorship program:

  1. Set up a philosophy around how mentorship should work for your organization. RVC believes mentorship is about coaching and collaborating to find answers.
  2. Set up an onboarding process for each mentor pair to go over the structure, logistics (time commitment, quarterly check-ins, volunteer manual, gift cards to compensate for meeting beverages) and ask for their needs and support during this commitment.
  3. Coordinate a space and time where potential mentors and mentees get to meet. Compatibility is an important aspect of pairing and people should be given a chance to factor that in their choice.
  4. Check in at least once every other month with both mentors and mentees.

SUPPORT THE LEARNING EXPERIENCES OF BOTH PARTIES

A common mistake in a mentor and mentee relationship is there’s an expectation that one party (mentors or mentees) holds the responsibility in driving the agenda and the relationship. It needs to be collaborative or at least clarified at the first meeting about how each party will function in the relationship. A good foundation goes a long way and it’s also good to provide some suggested agendas for each pair to work with:

First Meeting: Get to know each other

  • Expectations of mentor and mentee/fellow
  • Mentee Needs from a professional relationship
  • Communication Styles
  • Create a Mentor / Mentee Commitments & Agreements
    • What are the commitments to each other?
    • Monthly meetings? (required at least once a month)
    • Asking for help?
    • Communicate honestly?

Fellow Leadership Development Topic: Conflict Mgmt & Emotional Intelligence

  • What is their conflict management style?
  • How do they practice managing conflict?
  • How do they want to be held accountable? And others?

Provide potential frameworks/agendas for the mentor/mentee pair to work with until they start driving the agenda on their own. The point is not for everyone to follow a linear pathway for mentorship but to find their unique flow.

TAKE MENTORSHIP TO THE NEXT LEVEL

People view mentorship as a solution for the lack of representation in higher positions or as a move people of color up the ladder. Unfortunately, mentorship is often a passive activity for people to simply provide emotional and sometimes professional support, provide guidance, and be a connector. THESE ARE ALLLL IMPORTANT. AND we need to take it one step further. We need mentors to advocate for young professionals of color for higher positions and access to spaces where they can move up.

My time at RVC is to think about how to push mentorship as an active collaboration between the mentor and mentee. How do we build networks for young professionals of color to pipeline to higher positions? AND build opportunities for senior professionals of color to share knowledge and build their next steps? I would love to hear people’s experience and lessons learned on building dynamic mentorship programs.

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