by Kendra Weddle
(with responses by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Melanie Springer Mock)
Dem Bones! Did you see the You Tube video of four female trombone players as they played an impromptu rendition of “Stars and Stripes”? Seeing the women play so creatively and superbly reminded me of how important role models are for enabling us to see possibility.
Like Letha, I played the trombone in my youth (unlike Letha, I was anything but professional). But I chose to play the trombone over the trumpet because I liked how it was unique both in its tone and in the long movable slide (which I may have at one time flung too far as it flew off the end and nearly hit a flutist in the front row, who also happened to be my sister). Well, after learning some of the basics I took rather quickly to my new Olds Trombone, carrying it on the bus back and forth to school so I could practice (and thereby irritate my sisters, perhaps a post for another time!). By the time I was in Jr. High, I was playing with the High School pep band going to football and basketball games and thinking I was pretty big stuff.
Being a role model
Soon I was gaining some attention as the girl who played the trombone and another girl, Kristi, a year younger, decided she would make it her instrument of choice as well. Later, when Kristi and I were in high school we took a duet called Dem Bones! to several music contests, always scoring big hits with our audiences and judges. And even though we were also fierce rivals competing for first and second chair most of the way through high school, playing our trombones together is one of my most cherished high school experiences.
And I’d like to think Kristi opted to play the trombone because she had seen me do it. At the very least by watching me she knew before she started that she, too, could play this instrument that usually belonged only to boys.
Having role models of my own and learning to mentor
Similarly, as I neared completion of my Ph.D. and started teaching as an adjunct, there were two role-models who were absolutely crucial to my developing sense of being a teacher. Just knowing they had made it inspired me, clearly conveying the possibility of making the transition from graduate student to professor. Both helped me to navigate my initial forays into the classroom with good hints about classroom dynamics especially important to a woman teaching what many deem to be a male subject—the Bible.
But it was more than that. These two women showed me how to mentor younger women, those coming after me. By reaching out to me, even in little things, like inviting me to conferences or introducing me to new books or technology, they laid the foundation for me and showed me how to do likewise for others following behind me. By their deliberate presence in my life, I saw women doing what I had envisioned for myself and I benefited beyond measure from their shared wisdom and knowledge.
Further, I have had women—wise, thoughtful, subversive women—who have encouraged me in other ways. They helped me trust my experience, to embrace my voice, to claim episodes of sexism for what they were. Women who refused to accept traditional categories of theology enabled me to examine my beliefs, to re-visit ideas I’d earlier decided to share with no one. Their willingness to challenge the church gave me courage to do so as well. Because of courageous women who reached out to me, I am more confident in my identity as feminist and as Christian.
As an exceptional editor and as a skilled leader within EEWC-Christian Feminism Today, Letha has been a remarkable mentor to me. Her kind words, her expert analysis, her inspirational writing encourage me to hone my skill, to consider where I can contribute, to seek to do more than I’ve done before. Letha’s mentoring work, not only toward me but toward countless others serves as an excellent example of the deliberate process needed to enable subsequent generations to embrace the EEWC vision.
It has been years since I invited anyone to church, an easy missional act. Since I usually don’t find much there that feeds my soul I have little reason to think another person might find it much different. But, I do think one way to embrace being a mentor is to introduce another person to the EEWC, a friendly and welcoming community, as you well know. Beyond inviting someone new to a Gathering, I can also buy a membership and give it to a young woman searching to locate her identity in a Christian community that takes the Gospel’s liberation for all people seriously. Numerous other possibilities exist as well.
So, thanks to Letha for providing us Dem Bones and for being a feminist woman who works tirelessly showing us that activism is quotidian action born out of deep conviction and sustained vision. May we embrace the paths of Letha and of other countless women who paved the way for us by being mentors to those who are only beginning to take their first steps.
Response from Letha: Why Role-Modeling and Mentoring Matter
In her opening paragraph above, Kendra is referring to my “Link of the Day “ last July 4 on this Christian Feminism Today website when I had linked to a performance of John Philip Sousa’s rousing “Stars and Stripes Forever” by Bones Apart, an all-female trombone quartet from the UK.
I had chosen that link for two reasons beyond its general interest in celebrating Independence Day in the United States. I wrote:
One [reason] is personal: I at one time had planned for (and studied toward) a career as a professional trombonist, as I have written elsewhere on this site in a biographical note on one of my 72-27 blog posts. So I have a special affinity for the trombone.
The other reason I chose[that] ink was to show that we are slowly breaking away from gender stereotypes in musical instrument choice, although such stereotyping has certainly not entirely disappeared. Studies have shown that traditionally some instruments have been considered feminine (flute, violin, clarinet) and others masculine (trumpet, trombone, drums). Even though signs of a movement toward a more gender-neutral approach to musical instrument choice have been occurring, gender stereotypes often prevail to a considerable degree—especially among younger children , their parents, and some teachers. Here is a link about the top ten instruments that girls and women tend to chose and another about the top ten instruments that boys and men tend to chose. Last, here’s a link about more of the research on the topic.
So I was thrilled to read that Kendra was a sister-trombonist and that she has been a role model for others, like Kristi, in showing young women they don’t have to conform to traditional gender expectations in musical instruments, career choices, or anything else. And I know Kendra continues to be a role model and mentor to her university students today in many different ways, as does Melanie. So I’ve been doing some thinking about mentoring.
Role-modeling as an unconscious or passive form of mentoring
Role-modeling is a kind of unconscious or passive mentoring, although we don’t usually think of it that way. Just by setting an example of being a certain kind of person (courageous, confident, considerate) or doing something something someone else wants to emulate (such as Kristi’s choosing a trombone since Kendra had paved the way ), we can become a kind of mentor—even if we’re not aware of it.
Every once in a while I am contacted by individuals who tell me they were affected in some way by my example, or a warm, nonjudgmental attitude I had shown toward them, or something I said, or a book I had recommended, 40 or 50 —and in one case, almost 60— years ago that had a great impact on their lives, even though they were only children or teens at the time I knew them. One person emailed me through my website not long ago and began by saying something like this: “I’m so glad to find you and to know you are still alive!” and then told me he had always wanted to thank me for a kind and accepting attitude shown toward him the one time I had met him when he was just a child almost half a century ago. In almost all such cases, I had not even the remotest idea that someone had been considering me a role model or guide in any way. And my first thought is to feel both honored and humbled in realizing that such little things I had said or done had mattered so much to someone long ago. But my second or simultaneous thought is to realize what a tremendous responsibility we have to make sure that we live our lives and practice our faith every day in a God-honoring way, taking great care not to let such people down.
But usually when we think of mentoring, we think of the active, conscious kind—the kind Kendra and Melanie are doing right now with their students (in addition, of course, to being admirable role models demonstrating both Christian feminism and a love of learning).
It’s the kind of mentoring I try to do as well—although mine is not in a college setting but more likely to occur through phone conversations, letters or email, and in in-person meetings where possible. In simplest terms, such mentoring means actively guiding and working with young people (or sometimes older ones, too) to help them recognize and live up to their full potential. This is especially important for young girls and women who have often been blocked from being all they were meant to be. As Kendra’s piece set me thinking, I came up with four things I’ve learned through my own role as a mentor.
1. Mentoring requires wisdom, understanding, sensitivity, and genuine caring. It means seeing something in someone that maybe she or he is not at all aware of—a gift, a talent, a spark of some quality you can see can be developed into something truly outstanding. It means understanding the person’s self-doubt (especially if she or he has been discouraged from believing in their potential) and being sensitive in seeing just the kind of encouragement that is needed for building confidence, but never false flattery. It means caring enough to inspire and demand hard work, not allowing the mentee to settle for mediocrity but to keep working to achieve higher goals than ever dreamed, just as when a coach helps a promising athlete to train.
2. Mentoring requires a generous spirit. Being a mentor can sometimes mean a huge investment of time and energy. It means taking time to listen attentively to the person one is mentoring. It often requires time and energy even when one is not actually with the person being mentored—time spent searching for books for the person to read or other materials that might be useful in nurturing and strengthening whatever talent is being developed. It means expending energy in thinking about (and perhaps praying for) the person and figuring out the best ways to help the person become self-directed. It means giving freely of oneself to focus on specific areas in which the person being mentored may need more work.
3. Mentoring means applying the Golden Rule—treating others as you would want to be treated. Some people do not believe in mentoring others. They say, “I paid my dues; they can pay theirs. I learned the hard way and no one helped me. Why should I help them? They’ll just compete with me anyway.” A person who has an inner “mentoring spirit” sincerely wants to help ease the path for others and provide any guidance that could help. In my own case, I feel drawn to mentoring in the Golden-Rule sense because it’s what I’ve often wished someone would have done for me at certain times in my life. I realize that although I’ve had a number of wonderful mentors, beginning in my high school years (mostly in music) and later in college (encouraging my writing and scholarship), they have all been males. I never had a female mentor (partly because of the period of time in which I grew up), and so I want to be such a mentor to younger women today.
4. Mentoring brings rewards through colleagueship. If we’re highly interested in something and excited and passionate about it (whether it’s music, theology, writing, visual art, dance, computer technology, science, sports, or anything else), it can often feel lonely if we don’t have others who share our passion. Oftentimes, finding younger people who share a similar excitement and eagerness to learn more about the field that excites us can feed our own hungry spirit as mentors. Then it becomes mutually rewarding to both the mentor and mentee as a spirit of colleagueship develops, and the two bring out the best in each other. Or as Proverbs 27:17 says, “Just as iron sharpens iron, friends sharpen the minds of each other” (Contemporary English Version). I think that’s what the three of us are doing for each other on this blog.
Those are just some of my random thoughts prompted by reading Kendra’s opening essay. Maybe someday we can develop them further.
Response from Melanie: The “I Built This Myself” Narrative Doesn’t Ring True
It seemed especially fortuitous that Kendra’s initial post about mentors hit my in-box this week. I’ve been thinking a lot about the mentors in my life lately, ever since the Republican National Convention, held mid-August in Tampa. The persistent narrative at the RNC, that every success story was written solely by its author, struck me as patently untrue, its “I Built This” coda a smug rejection of the power mentors play in our lives.
Claiming individual achievement seems to me a repudiation of those who have taken the time and effort to shape me, showing the generosity of spirit, wisdom, understanding, and sensitivity about which Letha writes. I know, I know. The “I Built This” narrative intends to critique government handouts and moochers who live on the dole; and to be honest, I’ve been thankful for the handouts I’ve received, too, including government subsidized student loans and reduced cost school lunches I ate as a kid, because the church my dad led couldn’t see fit to pay him an honest wage.
Relationships of collaboration
But the RNC narrative compels me to assert, again and again, that whatever success I have in my life, I did not build myself. There have been many, many folks who contributed to who I have become. And they have worked hard, each in their own ways, to help write my story, a true collaboration of the type Letha alludes to in the last part of her post. Like any good collaboration, though, a strong mentoring relationship must emerge organically, built through a bottom-up rather than a top-down structure. In other words, a strong mentoring relationship relies on the same qualities that define a good relationship, one defined not by hierarchy but by equity.
Top-down, artificially imposed mentorship programs— not the answer
A few years ago, at the institution where I teach, a mid-level administrator tried to develop a mentorship program for women on campus, believing the dearth of women in leadership reflected a need for mentors who could help nurture women’s abilities. At the program’s kick-off event, the (male) president and (male) provost spoke words of encouragement to those inclined to find a mentor, an irony of sorts that reflected a lack of women in higher administration here, while also conveying the sense that maybe women didn’t have much to offer each other after all. The irony was not lost on me, at least, sitting at a table decorated with flower arrangements and chocolate snacks. Because, of course, every woman loves flowers and chocolate, right?
The mentorship program never picked up much steam, and no one’s mentioned it in the last year or so. In part, it failed because the vision of its organizers wasn’t entirely clear, as the flowery, chocolaty, male-dominated inaugural event showed. Maybe the organizers realized a system to raise up women as leaders in an evangelical institution must contend with deeply-entrenched beliefs about the roles women should, and should not, have; and that a mentorship program would not erase some of the systematic sexism that keeps women in their place.
But the mentorship program also fell flat, I think, because true mentorship cannot be so artificially imposed, and the best mentor relationships cannot be forced through an institutional matching of one powerful person with another perceived as weaker.
Mentors in my life—working together as friends and equals
Like Letha and Kendra, I’ve been blessed by a number of mentors: people who stepped into my life at just the right time, giving me strength and courage for a journey; or redirecting my path away from treacherous footing and onto safer ground; or encouraging me to understand myself in a way I hadn’t before. These people—teachers mostly, but also coaches, friends, youth ministers—became mentors not because someone told them they “must” mentor me, but because, through thought and action, they were active participants in my life and its pursuits. And, despite having official positions of power over me, they always related to me as equals, working together in one enterprise or another.
(As I’m writing this, I do remember one instance when I was forced to have a mentor. In high school, my church matched me with an older woman to serve as a mentor: she was a journalist, I wanted to be a journalist, everyone figured we’d be a perfect fit, and that she could teach me all I need to know about writing. What resulted was a number of very quiet meetings over A & W root beer, both of us probably secretly checking our watches, waiting for our mentoring moment to end.)
Kendra and Letha provide excellent advice for how we can foster and nurture mentoring relationships, paying homage as well to those women who helped us at the beginnings of our own journeys, and who have shaped the people we’ve become, helping us write our metaphoric stories—and sometimes, our literal stories, too! When we think of these mentors, I would bet we imagine them also as friends: fellow seekers on the road, writing their own stories alongside our own, being shaped by our influences as well. So that the narrative “I built this myself” will never ring true, not for us, nor for those who mentored us along the way.