Spoiler Alert: Your mentor doesn’t even have to be alive!
Gone are the days when senior organizers would take the time to guide younger ones. Today older workers, those in their 50s and 60s who may have been part of successful movements, need to justify their salaries. They can’t jettison responsibilities to take younger people under their wings. Looking for a mentor who has the time, skills and patience to show you the ropes is like finding a needle in a haystack. In fact, it’s kind of like the time my boss wanted me to find and hire a field organizer who was a Spanish-speaking African American with lobbying experience, connections to faith communities, and who had reporters on speed-dial. Right. With a unicorn on a leash.
The mentor you’re hoping for likely doesn’t exist, so here’s what to do instead. Make yourself a mentorship board made up of individuals from whom you will learn very specific skills or traits. Forget the idea that you might learn an entire vocation from one person. Instead, listen to podcasts on your topic and others. Delve into other fields and industries and you’ll be surprised how thinking in unrelated fields will affect your thinking about yours.
Your mentors don’t have to be near you at all; you can learn from them from a distance. They could even be historical figures. Read biographies and autobiographies. My favorite genre is memoires because I love learning about people’s journeys and seeing my own journey in theirs.
Get to know someone before you ask them to mentor you, and then be very specific about what you want. Be very specific about how much time you want from them so they aren’t scared to help you. You can say something like, “I really would like you to be my mentor, and what that means is that I’ll buy you breakfast once every six months so I can get your feedback on some questions I have.” You don’t even have to tell them they’re your mentor. You could just tell them how helpful it was to get together with them, and ask if you could do it again.
When I was an undergraduate I wanted a mentor, so I walked down the halls of my department’s building and knocked on doors asking professors if they’d mentor me. I heard a few no’s, but then I heard a yes, which is all I needed. I worked with that professor for years and published a paper with him, which I couldn’t even tell you the meaning of today. But I learned a ton… about plant systematics.
Now I have mentors in advocacy. Some know they’re my mentors and other don’t. Some are dead, like Emma Goldman, and others I meet with for lunch every few months. I don’t take the dead ones out for lunch. If money’s tight, suggest a beverage instead of a meal. If you meet your mentor at Starbucks, order off their secret “short” menu and get out of there for under $3.
And if you haven’t already downloaded these free guides, you can get them at the links below. If you can think of other tools that would be helpful, please let me know.
One of the biggest challenges organizations have is the campaign planning process. To help serve them, I’ve created a guide of the 11 essential points that I use with organizations, as well as with my grad students at Johns Hopkins. In it you’ll find the critical elements your campaign must have. Use this as an easy reference guide for staff, volunteers & trainers.
- The 10 steps of power mapping
- The questions to ask and where to find answers
- Easy reference guide for staff, volunteers & trainers
- What coalitions do
- Who to recruit
- How to pick the best coalition name
- Attracting diverse coalition partners10
- Leadership & structure of coalitions