My involvement as a founding board member of Project #HereForYou started simply enough as a natural evolution of a mentorship with its founder when the genesis of the organization was a mere twinkle in her eye.
Project #HereForYou encourages allies to step up and be there for survivors of sexual abuse. I’ve been marinating lately on what skills I may bring to the table for this group, and a couple of premises about the nature of Project #HereForYou hit me. The first is that survivors need to have a safe emotional place to land and the second is that everyone can be a support figure.
But what does it mean to be on the other side of the hashtag? How do allies equip themselves with the tools to be that safe place?
So much of our formative years are spent with an emphasis on how to be good students. We’re encouraged to learn from our teachers, our family, and our elders and soak in the wisdom of their experience. While this is certainly worthwhile, very little of our educational path is spent nurturing the necessary and important other part of the equation: the art of being a mentor to someone else.
This is a life skill that may hold the key to naturally building a stronger and more diverse workforce. To see successful women up close is to identify an achievable professional path forward. However, I bet if most adolescents were asked to draw a picture of what a mentor looks like, they might draw a man, maybe in his 40s, wearing a suit. Or maybe a tweed jacket professor-type with a pipe. I just ran a Google Images search on the term “mentor”, and wouldn’t you know it, I had to scroll through 84 pictures—include not one, but two of Yoda—before I came across an illustration that depicted a woman in the role of mentor. With such a paucity of women depicted as mentors, it might come as no surprise that women in particular may not self-identify as mentors.
Professionally, there’s almost an inherent arrogance to it. It’s stepping forward and saying, 'I am so seasoned in this space, I’m going to show you the ropes.' This is particularly challenging for women, who historically were expected to be modest, humble and demure, seeking connection more than advancement. The modest and humble might not presume to provide guidance to someone else. This is a paradigm that must be broken both for the sake of the mentor and the mentee.
As I look back as far as I can remember, I have gravitated into mentorship roles. An early experience that stands out was when I was one year out of college, barely knowing where the coffee machine was, I eagerly mentored a new intern in our office—on what, I honestly can’t remember, maybe on where the decaf was stored. On some level, it may have made me feel more important in an office politics hierarchy, but on a much more gratifying level, it created a friendship and filled me with pride in her success—even though none of it in particular could be attributed back to me.
I think about the amazing women and men that took time out of their lives to mentor me. And I cringe at some of the questions I asked along the way. At 23: ‘is it time for me to start wearing makeup to the office?’ (Flash forward, I’m in my 40s and evidently the answer is still ‘no’). But some of these conversations fundamentally changed the course of my life. Whether evaluating whether to go to law school, change a career path, or navigate through a myriad of challenges, I’ve had sounding boards whom I felt safe to ask the 'stupid questions', show my insecurity, talk through the fear, set the goal and be accountable. They listened without judgement, asked the uncomfortable questions, and gave input on their best assessment of who I was at the core and what would make me succeed.
As important as professional mentorships are, the real treasure is in the healing mentorships that provide support for the whole self. Whether it’s a twelve-step sponsor, a crisis line counselor, a therapist, or a cherished friend, these relationship require a lot of the mentor. Patience, inquiry, follow-up and listening more than talking are all skills that can be practiced. Perhaps the most important aspect of these interactions is the ability of the mentor to apply empathy without also borrowing the trauma.
To offer a mentorship is to offer another perspective and an investment in another person. It is an acceptance that no mentor can fix everything, but that every mentor can listen and provide a space for the survivor to speak their truth. I am positive that I have taken much more than I’ve given. And as the gray hairs start coming on fast and furious, and I start looking more like some of the “mentors” in stock photography, I know there’s more work to be done to pay it back (or forward). I know I can change lives but I likewise have no doubt that I’ll be enriching my own.
Plus, I look awesome in tweed!
Einat Clarke is a Founding Board Member at Project #HereForYou, and Senior Child Safety Counsel at Google, LLC.
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