Summer of Feminista: Learning from the Gray

Michelle is a crunchy, Xicana, feminist, mama, and Licensed Clinical Social Worker who writes at when she’s done wrangling a toddler, a puppy, and five chickens, seeing patients, and renovating her house- which is to say, almost never.

I struggle with mentoring. Not as a concept, I happen to think it’s a great idea. My struggle is more in my personal experience. I haven’t had the type of mentors I expected or imagined I would. And I definitely haven’t had the kind I’ve read about or seen in movies.

When I look back at my life, I know I would not be where I am today without the guidance and support of some very key people. People like my cousin Ramon, who inspired this little Mexican girl to look beyond our agricultural town. He encouraged me to write stories, read books, and by being the first person in our family to attend college, planted the seed that my life could be more than getting married after high school and finding a good factory job.

There were others, too: teachers and professors who encouraged me, elders who imparted their wisdom, friends and colleagues who shared the same challenges. With this mish mash of people and a little self-determination, I made it through college and began a professional career. All the while longing for, but never feeling like, I had a mentor to my call my own.

To me, a mentor was someone who had achieved what I aspired to and would serve as my go-to person when facing life’s major decisions. Providing feedback and guidance, steering me in the “right” direction, giving me insights into how to succeed as they had. They would lead by example, be a moral compass. Sit me down for a talk when I strayed and give me step-by-step instructions for both my personal and professional life. And while I had all of those things from a variety of people throughout my life, there wasn’t the one person, like I imagined it would be.

A while back, I was lamenting to an older friend about how I had never found that mentor I was seeking. His response was that perhaps my expectations were unrealistic and had I come across a potential mentor, I probably didn’t recognize it. His words stung, but rang true. I was quick to dismiss people I considered flawed (and let’s face it, that’s everyone) as possible mentors. I also found it difficult to find someone who could meet everything that was important to me, all the conflicting and complex aspects of my personality and aspirations. If there was such as thing as being un-mentorable, I was sure I was it.

So you could imagine my surprise when I took a leadership position and was introduced as the “mentee” of a former supervisor. My impulse was to dismiss it, to say, “Yes, this person trained and supervised me, and taught me a great deal, but I wouldn’t call him a mentor.” That was a serious title, one I hadn’t been willing to give out, much less have assigned for me. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that perhaps I had been mentored all along.

Like this supervisor, he had a lot of faith in me; sometimes he put me in situations where I was in over my head because he wanted to show me what I was capable of- and it worked. And the older friend I wrote of, he kept me grounded. Whenever I would go too far up the Ivory Tower, he would remind me where the real work happened in a community. And another supervisor, she held my hand as I “walked through the fire” (her words) to find my way as a woman of color in a leadership position; she was kind but held me accountable with the gentle firmness that I needed. When I open up my thinking, I can name more mentors than I have space to write about here.

As a leader, I made a lot of mistakes; I hurt people, spoke without thinking, and did things that came back to haunt me. Those mistakes taught me to look at myself differently, and to be open to learning from those around me who had been where I was. People who, like me, had faults and weaknesses and had lived to share their hard earned wisdom. Instead of looking for that one perfect person who could fulfill all of my expectations and was living the life and had the career I aspired to, I looked to the different “mentors” already around me; a collection of personalities, characteristics, and skills that reflected my unique identity. Some were people I knew in real life and some were people I admired from a distance. Without a doubt, I learned the most from those I could engage with and whose faults and gray areas I could experience directly.

Although I didn’t find that perfect one-on-one mentor relationship I imagined, what I got was better. I learned from the gray. I learned from and struggled with people who were flawed and real and who I continue to respect and admire, despite it all. They taught me I could make mistakes, make amends, have strengths, weaknesses, and faults. And that what was important, wasn’t being perfect, but having the self-awareness to know I wasn’t and to seek out people who could help fill in my gaps.

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.