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Palko POV: Mentoring Matters

Black feminist philosophy holds us to a high standard of solidarity. When we breach a barrier or achieve a success, we are obligated to turn back to help someone behind us. Michelle Obama articulates this responsibility as “when you've worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity...you do not slam it shut behind you...you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.” 

It is from this ethical standpoint that I value mentoring so greatly. I conceive of mentoring as a broad set of practices that range from small acts of allyship to (formal or informal) mentoring to sponsorship. Many of us have the best of intentions to help others but are unsure of where or how to start.

Throughout my career, I have benefited from (seemingly) small acts of allyship that signaled support of my endeavors. For PhD students, the dissertation committee easily assumes mythical status, its members serving as guardians of the academic world. These are the giants we are being trained to walk among and whose intellectual habits shape us in profound ways.

Joe, a member of my dissertation committee, passed away this winter and I recently had the chance to travel back to South Bend to attend a colloquium honoring his intellectual legacy. This was my first trip back to Notre Dame since moving to UVA in 2016, and the combination of a nostalgic homecoming and an occasion of mourning predictably prompted reflections.

In my work with our interns at the Women’s Center, I talk a lot about the power of an effective network and how to build a thoughtfully-considered web of support. Those conversations came to mind as I listened to people from all corners of Joe’s professional life speak at his memorial colloquium. They beautifully captured the expansive impact he had on 20th century literary studies and on his students. But there was another side to his mentorship that was left unarticulated, and to allow it to go unremarked upon would compound the loss his passing has already created.

screenshot of social media post with Michelle Obama quote and photo

I was 30 and a newlywed when I began my doctoral program. My husband and I knew we wanted children, and that we didn’t want to wait until I had completed my degree. When I was finishing my last semester of coursework, I got pregnant. We were over-the-moon thrilled… and then I looked around and realized that none of the women graduate students I knew were having children. Some of the men’s wives were, and one or two women had come into the program already having had children – but women weren’t having children while working on our degrees.

This was a daunting reality to confront. There was no maternity leave for graduate students at the time. (My husband would end up driving me to campus to teach my last class of the spring semester when our daughter was 9 days old because I hadn’t yet been cleared to drive post-c-section). I wanted both of these things – a doctorate and a baby – more than I could explain. I was nervous about how my pregnancy would be received and unsure of how to break the news.

That semester, I was doing an independent study with Joe. Through the years, I had often heard him speak of his son and how proud he was of him. He so clearly delighted in being a father. One morning, when I’d had to eat through our entire meeting, I decided to share my news with him. His immediate enthusiastic, joyful response instantly assuaged the doubts I had started having. To say they never returned wouldn’t be accurate – but his encouragement and unwavering confidence that, of course, I could both have a baby and finish a PhD provided crucial support over the next few years.

Joe’s teaching of global postcolonial theories profoundly reshaped my worldview. The ways that the same system, colonization, played out in both generally similar but culturally specific ways from continent to continent were especially striking moving as I did from my undergraduate focus on American literature to a comparative program for my PhD. This framework left me with concrete reminders of the limits of both free will and of an individual’s ability to overcome the restrictive impacts of the structures and systems that run our world.

To this day, I approach the work I do now in the Women’s Center through this theoretical framework. It highlights the importance of crafting responses that account for these systems. It cautions us against expecting people to be able to overcome the limitations imposed by the system. It heightens the joy of celebrating with them when they manage to do so anyway.

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How can we amplify a diverse range of voices? To whom can we pass a metaphorical microphone?

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In decision after decision, I turn back to the ways that Joe, with his abiding interest in the relationship between culture and politics, reminded us of the power of stories. I strive to model for our staff and students an understanding of people’s ability to tell their own stories and influence their reality through the narrating of it. How can we amplify a diverse range of voices? To whom can we pass a metaphorical microphone? And how can we frame these stories so that their telling brings us a step closer to a better world?

The Women’s Center recently hosted “Mentoring Matters: The Value of Intergenerational Mentoring” for UVA’s Reunions, and I enjoyed the opportunity to hear about the ways that accomplished colleagues across Grounds engage with mentoring in their careers. We’ll share specific resources and panelist information from this event below but so much of what they offered came down to modeling. They spoke of modeling humility so that others are permitted to say, “I don’t know,” modeling how to repair a relationship, modeling a commitment to diversity and inclusion through sponsorship that speaks up for people not yet in the room.

David Leblang shared the acrostic TEACH, urging the development of Trust, Empathy, Abundance, Community, and Humility. Kimberley Bassett pointed out that asking mentees to reflect on how they embody their values can also provide the mentor with the space to reflect on this in their own life as well. Lisa Cannell advocated for the exponential power of sponsorship. We know that when a person with power and influence takes an interest in and speaks up for someone with as-yet unrealized or underdeveloped potential, the sponsored individual benefits. Our organizations then benefit from the sponsored individual’s talents. And system-wide, sponsorship stands to radically reshape our workplaces into more equitable settings where a wider range of people thrive and fewer organizations will miss out on what those individuals have to offer.

And I shared with the audience the impact that Joe’s empathetic response had had on me. A renowned Gramscian, Joe was adamant that “The life of the mind is lived through the body.” This philosophical stance of his makes his mentorship and support of me, a pregnant grad student, all the more meaningful. His support made literal his acknowledgement that I wasn’t just a mind, that I was embodied as well, with particular needs.

Here at the Women’s Center, we celebrated our graduating students a couple of weeks ago. Apiding, one of our student speakers at our reception, reminded us of the obligations that come with privilege, obligations to use our training to identify inequities and work to redress them. There is near constant media attention to the barriers women face in pursuing careers and families – distressingly constant, given the lack of progress made in changing the structures that make the two so incompatible. I am encouraged, though, by the growing attention to what mentorship can mean in the #MeToo era. As Joe’s support of me shows, there is an important role for men to play in providing mentorship, sponsorship, and visible support for women striving for success.


from the Mentoring Matters seminar:

PANELISTS:

KIMBERLEY BASSETT, Associate Dean, Office of African-American Affairs
Kimberley Bassett’s role as Associate Dean includes advising, mentoring, and coaching both students and colleagues.

LISA CANNELL, Managing Director, Darden School
Lisa Cannell draws upon years of human resources experience in a variety of settings to collaborate with Darden faculty and leaders on talent management research and solutions for corporate partners.

DAVID LEBLANG, Ambassador Henry Taylor Professor of Politics; Professor of Politics & Public Policy, Batten School; Senior Fellow, Miller Center of Public Affairs
Beyond the classroom, David Leblang has been recognized as an outstanding mentor including an International Studies Association award for mentoring women in the International Political Economy field.

ABBY PALKO, Director of the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center
In addition to mentoring young adults throughout her career, in recent years Abby Palko has enjoyed working with several staff members approaching and transitioning into retirement.

RESOURCES

“A Smarter Way to Network” by Rob Cross and Robert Thomas, Harvard Business Review

“Sponsoring Women in the #MeToo Era” Insights from Martin N. Davidson, Written by Lisa Cannell, ideas.darden.virginia.edu

“5 Tips for Voicing Values in the #MeToo Era” by Lisa Cannell, ideas.darden.virginia.edu

on mentoring & the near-retiree:

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