query: mentoring organizers

colist at comm-org.utoledo.edu colist at comm-org.utoledo.edu
Sun Jan 25 08:55:43 CST 2004

[ed:  thanks to Jeff for responding to Steve's query.]

This is in response to Steve Taylor's request for information on 
mentoring experiences.  The following is based on my own 

I organized with a handful of organizations in Chicago from 1995-2002. 
Although I am no longer a community organizer (having migrated to the 
funding world), I still mentor community organizers in Chicago.  In my 
career, I have had formal mentorships with four organizers that lasted 
anywhere from two months to seven years, and have mentored three 
organizers for between two months and three years.  I feel fortunate to 
have spent this time in Chicago, which has several organizers with 20+ 
years of experience in the field, and a developing culture and practice 
of mentorship.  

In a field that takes years to learn to do well, mentoring helps to raise 
the learning curve of new organizers.  Done well, it also helps remind 
both mentor and mentee of the excitement that brought them to 
organizing in the first place.  With this in mind, I make a distinction 
between formal and informal mentoring.  Formal mentoring involves an 
agreement (verbal or otherwise) between mentor and mentee about the 
nature of the relationship, and some understanding about the work that 
each party is committing to do. I've found that where there hasn't been 
a conversation about the terms of the relationship, important things can 
still be learned, but one or both parties often ends up disappointed that 
they didn't get everything they could have out of the relationship.  I feel 
this way about most of my influential college professors  -- "if I had only 
spent more time with them outside of class..."  Mentoring is a risky 
experience for people, and the more explicitly defined the relationship 
is, the harder it is to let slide.  

My working definition of a mentor is "someone who holds you 
accountable for your own growth and development."  It's a definition 
that doesn't depend on age or experience.  I've been in peer mentoring 
situations that serve this function.  However, I still encourage people to 
shoot as high as they can in choosing a mentor.  The difference that 
experience makes is that it allows someone to see your blind spots - 
those things you need to learn that you're either ignorant or afraid of.  A 
mentor can only teach what they know, so it helps to have someone 
with a breadth of experience.  

The mentorships that I've had have included some or all of the following 
activities: a regular meeting, written reflections or journaling shared with 
the mentor, "shadowing" of the mentor, observation and critique of the 
mentee at work, and a joint project.  

*Meetings:  I've arranged them weekly, biweekly, or monthly, depending 
on the mentorship.  The key is regularity.  My best mentoring meetings 
have had an agenda.  Part of the agenda may be devoted to the 
mentee's progress in a particular area (I spent several months working 
on my own ability to follow-through on projects), discussion of journal 
entries, debriefing actions, strategizing around upcoming work, or 
whatever else suggests itself.  I remember every once in a while having 
the "I'm not sure I want to be an organizer anymore" discussion, and 
even though I stayed with it at the time, it helped me to remember why I 
was doing the work.  

*Written Reflections: it was drilled into me from the beginning that I 
should take an hour and a half a week to write and reflect on my work, 
and I would often photocopy those writings to give to my mentor to 
prepare for meetings.  It's an additional level of accountability to self 
that made my mentorships more productive.  

*Shadowing the mentor:  Some of my most important learning 
happened in watching mentors work.  One even took me on some one-
on-ones with him. Much of the real learning happens in debriefing what 
you see with the mentor, ideally immediately after a meeting, action, or 
other common experience.  

*Observation and critique of the mentee at work: This is often the most 
delicate part of the mentor's work.  You can do real damage to 
someone if you're not careful.  A couple of rules I've lived by is always 
to point out what someone is doing right as well as what they're doing 
wrong, and don't hold someone accountable for something you haven't 
taught them yet.  

*Joint project:  Sometimes there's a piece of organizing work you're 
responsible for together.  Other times, you might screen movies, read 
books, or do an activity together.  With one of my mentees, we had 
read passages from the Tao Te Ching as a way to talk about leadership 
style. I'm teaching another mentee to play chess as a way to talk about 
organizing strategy.  A mentor of mine recently asked me to design a 
learning program for myself around power as if it were a college course, 
and following my course plan will be the basis for our meetings over the 
next year.   

In all of this, I'm concerned that organizers learn how to mentor.  The 
future of the field depends on it.  

Jeff Pinzino

jpinzino at woodsfund.org <mailto:jpinzino at woodsfund.org> 

> From: "Steve Taylor" <steve at miltoxproj.org>
> Hello all -
> At some point in my life and my career as an organizer, I seem to
> have changed from being someone who had mentors and was primarily
> focused on learning knowledge and skills into someone who also
> mentors others and tries to pass on knowledge and skills. This
> has naturally come as somewhat of a challenge for me, and I do
> struggle a bit with the balance between encouraging others and
> letting them make their own decisions and mistakes, but also
> trying to help things go well and offer my own suggestions when
> appropriate.  
> So I'm very interested in what other people's experiences have
> been as mentors and teachers of organizers (both paid and
> unpaid), as well as what people's experiences have been as
> learners and mentees (is that a word?). (And naturally I
> recognize that we all do learn from each other, regardless of our
> backgrounds, experience, etc.)  
> Any advice or perspectives about all this would be much
> appreciated and I think helpful to the list at large.  
> Steve Taylor
> National Organizer
> Military Toxics Project
> 207-783-5091 (phone)
> www.miltoxproj.org
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