Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Best mentors give challenging advice, criticism - Chicago Tribune

Best mentors give challenging advice, criticism
Trusted individual can bring areas to your attention that you might not have noticed

Barbara Rose, Chicago Tribune | YOUR SPACE
March 24, 2008

The best mentors offer advice we don't always like to hear. They chide us, goad us, challenge us. Some even have the gall to tell us to straighten our frizzy hair.

Sometimes we reach out to them, but just as often they attach themselves to us. They can be annoyingly opinionated, and it can be hard to remember they have our best interests at heart.

Consider the experiences of Cook County Circuit Court Associate Judge Patricia Mendoza. She never planned to go to law school until a family friend and lawyer got on her case.

"I was very shy," recalls Mendoza, who talked about her friend at a recent "speed mentoring" event sponsored by Chicago's Alliance of Latinos and Jews, a 14-year-old non-profit group that builds bridges between the two communities.

"You would look at me and I would blush. My mother's friend insisted I apply to law school. I kept saying no. I told her, 'That's you, that's not me.' I just couldn't imagine being her."

When the older woman brought her an application to DePaul University College of Law and insisted she fill it out, Mendoza consoled herself with the thought she would never get in—but she did.

When she tried to drop out before her first set of finals, a professor refused to sign her withdrawal forms.

When she passed the bar and settled into a satisfying public-service practice, her mentor—by then a judge herself—prodded her again.

"You really should think about becoming a judge," she recalls Circuit Court Associate Judge Consuelo Bedoya-Witt telling her.

"No, that's not me, that's you, again," Mendoza told her.

But the seed was planted, and once again it took.

"One piece of advice I give to people now is, if someone you trust encourages you to do something and you're thinking, 'It's just not me,' don't just dismiss it. Sometimes people see something in us we don't see in ourselves."

Unspoken codes
Angelique Power, director of marketing at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, was a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute in the early 1990s when she took a part-time job working for an executive at a large corporation.

Oblivious to the company's unspoken codes, she dressed like an art student—rhinestone-studded cat-eye glasses, untamed hair—while taking a keen interest in her boss' work.

"I made sure I understood what was happening and, whether I was asked or not, I would talk to her about my opinion," Power recalls. "I think she was kind of taken aback and amused so she started to build a relationship, ask me questions, hand me challenges and allow me to rise to the occasion.

"She would invite me along to watch meetings, hand me projects to run, and when I graduated she offered me a full-time job" and later promoted her to run the department.

But not before setting her young protege straight. For starters, she told Power to straighten her hair—a potentially sensitive directive to a multiracial woman.

"She said, 'Here's the uniform, take it or leave it.' I took it,' " Power says. "There's always an unseen map. There was a cultural code you had to follow to be taken seriously. It's not anything you would find in any handbook, but it was critical for me."

The mentoring relationship deepened into a mutually beneficial friendship.

"This was a woman who was a high-ranking executive, but in my role I could always be very honest," Power says. "Others might be sycophantic. I became sort of the beacon of honesty."

It was hard to break away, Power recalls. But when she left the company and her mentor for the MCA, "I was ready to take everything I learned, all this business savvy, and bring it back to the art world, which is really what I wanted to do all along, and not brush my hair if I don't want to."

Thinking big picture
Aon Corp.'s chief diversity officer, Corbette Doyle, a champion of corporate mentoring, counts among her early influences a college professor who persuaded her to change her major from mathematics to economics.

"He gave me a world view of global business and made me think big picture in a way that I hadn't," says the Tennessee-based executive. "First I was going to be a lawyer, then a math professor, then an actuary. They were all fairly narrow disciplines. He really pushed me to take a lot of liberal arts classes and to think broadly about the array of opportunities."

When she was offered a fellowship to get her doctorate in economics he convinced her to turn it down.

"Go to work and get somebody to pay for your MBA," he told her. And that's what she did.

"He was the epitome of a great mentor," she says. "The best mentors help you think twice about paths or steps you shouldn't take, and that takes a lot of insight into the person you're helping."

Thursday, March 6, 2008

My Failure by Jam Donaldson

We’ve all had our share of failures in life. Lord knows I’ve had mine. The porno letter-writing business, my Tax class in law school, the cashless ATM scheme, dating that married guy. But there’s one particular failure that I can’t seem to get out of my mind. This is a failure of a different kind. I failed my cousin.

I have a cousin. He’s bright, handsome, and sweet but unfortunately he is on his way to becoming depressingly average.

Let me explain. My cousin grew up in a working class suburb. He was surrounded by a family who loved him, he was an average student, he was part of a local band and an all-around good kid. He got into college on a band scholarship and I could not have been prouder. His mom, dad and grandmother never went to college so it was a great achievement for him to be attending a local university on scholarship.

Growing up in an area where very few black men go on to pursue higher education, I was thrilled that he seemed to be on the right path to better himself and most importantly act as an example to his two younger brothers.

But, as you probably guessed by the title of this post, things didn’t quite go as planned. In the summer before his junior year, I got the news from my mom that my cousin wasn’t going back to college. I immediately called him to ask what the deal was. He told me that he had lost his band scholarship (his story changed several times as to exactly why this happened) and he could no longer afford to attend the school. He was going to work for the next semester and save money and go back to school in the spring or the following year. Well, we all know what that means, most folks who leave college never go back and I was determined that he get his college degree. SO, I offered to pay his tuition. I didn’t care what I had to do—whether it was taking out loans or selling ass on 12th Street, I was making sure that boy graduated from college.
See, I am blessed to have come from a family where education was stressed, C’s were not acceptable and college was not optional. So I tried to convince him of the importance of him staying in school and getting his college degree. And even with my offer to pay his entire tuition… he refused. He wanted to work, and by working he could save for school and also get a car. After trying and trying to persuade him, it became clear that the desire for a car was far stronger than his desire to get his college degree.
So long story short (I know I know, too late) he ends up working at some dead end random job, he never goes back to college and now has two kids by two different women. He’s not even 24. I feel like somehow I failed him, the family failed him. I know there is nothing we could have physically done, but I cant shake the feeling that our family and community let a vibrant life full of potential slowly descend into mediocrity, and did nothing.

See, for too long we have defined failure by its extreme manifestations: ending up in jail, becoming a drug addict, being a teenage mother. But, in my opinion, when we don’t see a young person all the way through to realizing his or her potential, its just as big a failure. In our community, mediocrity, doing enough to get by, is becoming an epidemic. And that realization hit me really close to home. I wonder what will become of these young people? In a world and an economy where there is little use for the ordinary, what happens to this generation? Where are the dreamers? Who are the innovators? Where are the parents who don’t allow failure, who read to their children, who tell them in the dark of night as they put them to bed: “you can be anything you want to in this world and the possibilities for your life are endless”?

Its like our bar of standards has dropped so low that as long as someone graduates from high school, we say they’re doing fine. As long as they aren’t in the system, we say they’re doing fine. Excellence is scarce. Vision is non-existent. You have a 62 inch flat screen and your kid doesn’t have a computer in the home. We aren’t taking foreign languages, we aren’t going into technology fields.

I want to go back to the mentality of our predecessors and embrace a philosophy of goals and success and striving to be the best and reaching the highest of heights. In this global economy, we cannot afford average. This is no longer a world where you can graduate from high school, join a union and work in a factory for thirty years and still be able to raise a family. By not challenging each other to be the best in whatever we do, we are doing ourselves a disservice and more importantly we are setting our young people up to be members of a self-imposed underclass.

With access to more opportunities than ever, our young people seem perfectly content settling for less. And I cant help but think that its our fault. Have we told them that there’s more, have we shown them what more looks like? Have we reinforced in them every waking moment that they can dream big and achieve their goals through education and hard work?
I don’t know. I just felt so impotent. Me and my smart mouth were no match against “easy”, against “quick” against “right now.” I love my cousin but it hurts my soul whenever I see potential squandered. Especially when someone is handing you an opportunity on a platter. I mean, if you’re not willing to accept and opportunity when someone is GIVING it to you, what happens if you actually one day have to work for it?

I keep looking back at what I could have done, what I could have said to change his path. But how do you convince a young man to finish college when he’s been raised in a world that tells him he should be happy just getting out of high school. My voice was lost among his friends and teachers and media who told him that good enough was enough. Those who told him that passing is passing, even its with a “D.”
Now don't get me wrong, in no way am I saying that if you aren't wildly successful, then you have failed-- the failure is in not even trying.

I love my cousin and it’s the people we love that we should be hardest on. Why do you think Im so hard on black folk? I just want us to get there and it just frustrates me when it seems the only thing standing in our way is ourselves. Sure, my cousin will be fine. But Im so sick of "fine," I want amazing.

Meanwhile, Im gonna figure out a game plan for his little brothers right now. Wish me luck. Maybe there's someone in your life you can start working on. Before its too late.

Peace people.