Summer of Feminista: The Importance of Affirmative Activism and Multiple Mentors

To kick off Summer of Feminista 2013, we welcome Wendy Braun. 

Wendy recently received her PhD in Comparative Literature with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies. She is currently educating and mentoring students at Louisiana State University. Congrats, Wendy!!

My alma mater’s English Department recently circulated a strategic plan of action for the department, part of which included a consideration of circumstances and institutional policies surrounding the lack of non-white English faculty and graduate students. After the email was sent, Facebook was abuzz with statuses and threads from students of color at my alma mater, voicing concerns about the current and future state of the department and the university at large, as well as frustrations over the career implications of under-hiring of faculty of color on the national level. A few weeks later, one of the few departmental faculty members of color (and one of two African American departmental faculty members) resigned, and students were left to wonder about the connection. In Facebook comments, students revealed a feeling of deflated ambivalence in their department, their education, and their futures.

Embedded in the department’s strategic plan was a link to a 2007 report, “Affirmative Activism: Report of the ADE Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of African American Faculty Members in English”. This report defines affirmative activism as proactive steps institutions can take to “bring the diversity of the English faculty members of the twenty-first century closer to that of the United States population and to improve the integrity of the profession itself” (74). What is clear from this report and the Facebook conversation surrounding the lack of minority faculty and grad students, and the recent departure of a faculty member of color, is the importance of having mentors within an institution that nurtures and supports the mentor/protégé relationship in order to improve opportunities and morale and the “culture and climate of the profession” (70). While the report and subsequent Facebook conversation focused on African American underrepresentation and mentorship, the same holds true for Latin@ students, faculty, and scholars: Mentoring is an important avenue for professional, intellectual, and emotional development and the underrepresentation of Latinas in academia and other professional institutions disallows for vital mentoring opportunities.

While my cohorts on Facebook lamented the loss of a faculty member of color, they made it clear that they had other mentors--those that shared their underrepresented or marginalized identities, or career aspirations, or physical fitness regimens, or research interests, or family goals. They were also hoping that the strategic plan implied a change in current circumstances. Two conclusions can be drawn from their online anecdotes: 1) It is important for junior colleagues to have multiple mentors; 2) It is important that professional and academic institutions foster an environment of mutually beneficial mentorships, especially for its traditionally underrepresented employees. Multiple mentors and diverse representation means that the loss of one would not necessarily be detrimental to the protégés or the host institution.

For those searching for mentors, I have a few suggestions:
  • Diversify your list of mentors; don’t assume that one person can fill the role for you. This also places a lot of unfair pressure on the mentor.
  • Don’t just look for mentors in senior positions; create peer support groups that are rich and diverse.
  • Don’t assume mentors will find you; do the work—research, look outside your field or comfort zone, approach qualified candidates, and give thanks to those that provide guidance and assistance.
  • Become the mentor you want; volunteer, tutor, coach. Becoming a mentor and role model can bring out the best in you, and through community engagement your help others while bettering yourself.
  • Participate in institutional as well as personal improvement. Don’t assume that because you may have found mentors, that others aren’t in need of these opportunities.
While the Facebook conversations initially revealed despondence, the fact that the department seemed intent on concrete strategies for institutional improvement reassured many. More importantly, it created a great opportunity for dialogue about how to create a climate of mentorship that benefits those historically in need of it.

Works Cited:

Hubbard, Dolan, Paula Krebs, David Laurence, Valerie Lee, Doug Steward, Robyn Warhol. “Report of the ADE Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of African American Faculty Members in English.” ADE Bulletin 141-142 (Winter-Spring 2007): 70-74. Print.

Summer of Feminista 2013 is a project of Viva la Feminista where Latinas are discussing mentoring and what it means to them. Read how you can join Summer of Feminista.  Link and quote, but do not repost without written permission.