Editor’s Note: The John A. Hartford Foundation is collaborating with ASA to advance equity in aging by supporting ASA RISE, a 20-week social justice and leadership program for rising leaders of color in aging, and via the development and dissemination of equity-related, partnership-based thought leadership through ASA’s Generations platform. This blog post is part of that series.
“There’s no need to rush,” my new mentor said calmly as a gentle smile spread across her face. At the end of my first mentorship meeting with the esteemed Dr. Toni Miles, I had blasted her with back-to-back questions on next steps: “Should I send you a writing sample? When can I get started on the project we talked about?”
Her message was clear: Urgency had no place in the mentor-mentee relationship.
In the land of social work, where I come from, if you aren’t two steps ahead, you are behind. There is right now an imperative to anticipate and resolve social inequities facing older adults. As aging service providers, we routinely bear witness to the costs of discrimination against older adults and their families, including unsafe living conditions, social exclusion and a notable absence of older adult voices in their service plans.
Keeping in mind the critical mission to address these injustices, we hastily document and measure our efforts for funders, to validate them and keep the work going.
As racial justice activist Dr. Tema Okun wrote: “The irony is that this imposed sense of urgency serves to erase the actual urgency of tackling racial and social injustice.” Dr. Okun goes on to explain how this false sense of urgency often drives what can happen in our professional relationships:
- Discouraging inclusive and democratic processes without considering the long-term impact.
- Compromising potential partnerships by missing out on the concerns of socially marginalized people for immediate, short-term results.
- Reinforcing social hierarchies by turning to those in positions of power to make decisions.
The features of inequitable workplace relationships can be even more detrimental to mentors and mentees, whose relationships are inherently vulnerable as the collaboration exists to allow both parties to learn and grow.
My mentorship with Dr. Miles is even more multifaceted. We were matched through my fellowship with ASA RISE, a leadership program for Black, Indigenous, Professionals of Color in aging to address the underrepresentation in leadership positions of people of color. ASA RISE mentors like Dr. Miles not only serve as professional guiding lights, but also as beacons of hope, showing emerging leaders of color like me not only how to gain a seat at the table—but also how to acquire the skills to reinvent the table itself, for more inclusive decision-making.
Building the Capacity for an Inclusive Mentor-Mentee Relationship
In my eagerness to make the most of our relationship, I had inadvertently reinforced a traditional power dynamic between Dr. Miles, a highly regarded figure in the field of aging, and me, with my newly minted doctorate of social work, by deferring to her seniority in pursuit of the quickest results.
Professional obstacles I had experienced as a Black/biracial woman in predominantly white institutions led me to start off our relationship from a scarcity mindset, narrowing my lens to the time we lacked instead of anticipating the brighter possibilities of our budding relationship. This is not an uncommon experience, especially for people with identities that place them on the outskirts of mainstream society, which creates the impression that they are always operating from a deficit.
Dr. Miles said mentorship allows her to see into the future through the eyes of mentees just beginning professional journeys.
Through the wisdom of Dr. Miles’ compassionate response, she brought us back to the essence of the work, communicating a commitment to the process of change. She recalled story after story of overcoming roadblocks to her research. By seizing opportunities to engage the personal interests of stakeholders at the right time, she secured funding to conduct bereavement research across the state of Georgia, uncovering the needs of caregivers and others in pockets of the bereavement field where more attention was greatly needed. These were lessons from a sustained practice of distinguishing true urgency from moments that might benefit from a pause and introspection on possible paths to action.
It is from these lessons that Dr. Miles and I recommend the following to honor any mentorship time readers may have, and develop the capacity for an inclusive relationship:
- Spend time getting to know one another to establish the trust and emotional safety of a growth-fostering relationship. Before jumping into our respective work interests, I asked about Dr. Miles’ (The Artist Formerly Known as) Prince T-shirt she had worn at our first meeting. I was delighted to learn about her love of his music and the memorable “Diamonds and Pearls” concert she had attended in Chicago, long before Prince became a household name!
- Recognize your capacity for mutual growth. We often assume mentees are the main beneficiaries of a mentorship, but mentors often express feeling rewarded by the act of supporting younger professionals in their goals. Dr. Miles shared how mentorship allows her to see into the future through the eyes of mentees who are beginning their professional journeys in the aging field.
- Shift from a scarcity mindset to an attitude of abundance to overcome the limitations of obsessing over what you believe is lacking—whether it be time, resources or a personal readiness to dream bigger than you had been. By reflecting on Dr. Miles’ message of patience, I was able to quiet my fears and envision the possibilities (and joys!) of our new relationship.
- Remember that equitable processes and results take time. In the words of Dr. Okun, take notice when waves of urgency strike you to understand its nature and context. For example, you might ask yourself, Who is driving your mentorship, and why? Are you trying to move the relationship at a pace that feels unnatural to you or your mentor? What is setting this pace? (Is it the fear of not having enough time with your mentor to meet your goals?) What would it take to meet the underlying needs (whether it be inside or outside of the mentor-mentee relationship)?
For me, once I acknowledged my personal fears around beginning the mentor-mentee relationship, I was able to begin collaborating with Dr. Miles to create a blueprint for what this mentorship could be.
Mentorships built on a foundation of equity and inclusion have the power to make an enduring impact on both mentors and mentees, regardless of how long the relationship lasts. Approaching mentorship with patience and introspection can open doors to the world of wisdom within the mentor, and help one discover aspirations not yet realized.
Christine Holmes, DSW, MSW, is the founder of Hand in Hand Caregiver Counseling, a telehealth practice for long-distance, elder caregivers in Washington, DC. She is also an adjunct professor of decolonizing social work at Columbia School of Social Work. Toni P. Miles, MD, PhD, is a Fellow in both the Gerontological Society of America and the American Public Health Association, the Pope Eminent Scholar at the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, and a University of Georgia Professor Emeritus in Public Health in Athens, GA.
Photo caption: Toni Miles, ASA mentor (left), with Christine Holmes, ASA RISE alum and mentee (right), at ASA's On Aging conference in March 2023.
Photo credit: Courtesy Christine Holmes and Toni Miles.