Summer of Feminista: A Good Mentor Is Nurturing, Tough and Lets You Have a Good Cry
I dedicate this blog post to the best mentors anyone could ask for: Markos Moulitsas, Yawu Miller, Jack Sullivan, and Mary Olivella.
I was 20 years old and sleeping in my then-boyfriend, now-husband Markos’s apartment in Boston. Like the SWAT team, he entered the bedroom, dropped a stack of weekly newspapers onto the bed, and said the following: “If you want to be a journalist, then write.”
Over the last 16 years, he has proven to be not only the best life partner anyone could ask for, but also one of the best professional mentors I have ever had. He has offered his brutal honesty of my skills – even if it caused me to shed some tears! – edited my resumes, cheered me on as I attained prestigious writing positions, and let me flounder until I found my way again.
An example of the latter is when I re-entered the paid workforce after some time as a stay-at-home mother. Even though he publishes a highly trafficked website, he would not consider me for a job there. “If I do that, people will say that you only got the job because of me, not because you earned it.” He was right.
Over the years, I have been fortunate to be mentored by a few good people. While I have had at least a dozen editors and supervisors, good mentors are far and few between. Being able to strike a balance between nurturing someone else’s talents while also offering honest but fair criticism is a talent!
At my first paid job as a reporter for a weekly Black newspaper in Boston called the Bay State Banner, I learned pretty much all aspects of the newsroom: how to report and write stories; how to proofread and lay out articles; and equally as important, how to handle criticism whether from editors or readers. My editor, Yawu Miller, was that perfect combination of showing genuine interest in developing my abilities, and providing honest feedback – which, at times, was hard to hear.
I remember after he re-wrote one of my stories, he called me into this office and gave me a copy of a grammar and writing stylebook. He let me know that while he thought I was a promising writer of color who would be snapped up by a daily newspaper, no way would any paper hire me for some of the basic grammatical errors that I made. “Some of this doesn’t make sense!” he scolded me.
I forced a smile and graciously accepted the grammar book. Then I went to the office’s dingy bathroom to cry. As a woman who prides herself with ambition and a stiff upper lip, I am embarrassed by the countless number of times I have cried on the job. No shame, ladies. Studies show that we live longer!
As Yawu predicted, I would leave the Bay State Banner and land a coveted paid internship at the daily Boston Herald. There, under the tutelage of a chain-smoking, old-school journalist named Jack Sullivan, I was able to get at least four stories published on the front page.
Like Yawu, Jack knew which stories I could competently cover and receive good placement in the paper. He also offered me that all-important constructive criticism, making me sit right next to him as he edited my stories. Want to experience a cringe-worthy moment? Have someone read out loud your bum sentences. Yikes. This was in the summer of 1999.
It’s been 14 years since I’ve seen Jack or even lived in Boston. I have changed a lot, professionally and personally. I am now married (to Markos), have two children and we live in Berkeley, California.
Professionally, I changed with the media landscape, first working online as a reporter in San Francisco then re-inventing myself as an online organizer. I was able to make the switch thanks to the mentorship of one Mary Olivella, the Chief Strategy Officer of my current employer, MomsRising.org. MomsRising is a non-profit organization with more than a million members in all 50 states advocating for family economic security. Our staff is as diverse as the members we represent. Mary happens to be the first woman and Latina mentor I’ve had my entire career!
I have worked closely with Mary for at least four years to utilize my writing skills in ways I never had before: in helping our members tell their stories by ghost-writing blogs or letters to the editors for them; crafting OpEds as a concerned citizen rather than objective reporter; soliciting stories from other writers; describing our accomplishments for grant proposals; and writing online action alerts, which admittedly, was not as easy as I once thought.
Despite years in fast-paced work settings with hard-nosed newsmen like Yawu and Jack, the first few online action alerts I wrote to our members on behalf of MomsRising had been completely re-written for me. The “e-outreach” – getting people to take action on something you’ve written – is an art form that I am beginning to figure out. But there’s a learning curve.
I’m at the point in campaign organizing I was in journalism almost 20 years ago when Yawu sent me to my first town hall meeting and gave me the grammar book. (Yes, I read it.) I am working hard, learning and finding my way in my new career. The good news is I have a mentor who is confident in my abilities and offering her feedback and support every step of the way.
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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.