Commentary: Reexamining mentoring

Often when I meet with a friend or acquaintance in a public place, others assume that I'm acting as a sort of guide or mentor. As a state senator, and now as the Senate Majority Leader, my public persona and elected position both certainly offer a kind of "gravitas shorthand". And I do have some potentially useful learned and lived experience to share as I approach 50. But the relationship is rarely one-sided. Good mentoring flows in both directions.

I mentor friends and acquaintances in some areas while they simultaneously mentor me in others. The often-imagined model involving a wizened guru imparting knowledge to a young whippersnapper belies the basic essence of any strong mentoring relationship. It must be a rapport-filled relationship that acknowledges, uncovers, and champions the power and talents in both people.

I've been mulling over this idea for months, and a recent social media post by a fellow Smith College alum, Lara B. Sharp, helped to sharpen and clarify my own understanding of the mentor/mentee relationship. Sharp posted on Facebook an apt, outrageous, and hilarious account of an interaction she'd had with an older man — a total stranger — who offered to "mentor" her. It soon went viral for so many reasons: the unabashed sexism, the incredible presumptions, the farcical nature of the conversation, and the fact that so many of us have been trapped in similar situations.

It also didn't hurt that she referenced the work of powerhouse writer and thinker Rebecca Solnit. Sharp was reading Solnit's book "Men Explain Things to Me"—which many believe brought the concept of "mansplaining" into popular culture — when a stranger approached her and, with what Solnit identifies as a toxic mix of "overconfidence and cluelessness", offered himself to her as a learned sage.

In one particularly absurd exchange, Sharp tries to clarify, "It's a book about how men explain things to women ..." He then interrupts: "Oh, so it's a book on men mentoring women!" He's excited to mentor her.

Let's be clear. He knew nothing about her. Or her life's work. Or the path she's forging in this life. He didn't have a lot to offer in his proposed mentor relationship. Anthony Tjan — co-author of the New York Times bestseller "Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck" — writes about the critical components necessary for effective mentoring. The bottom line: "For real mentorship to succeed, there needs to be a baseline chemistry between a mentor and a mentee."

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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