As mentors, we are often matched with mentees who have different lived experiences than our own. By using empathy and youth-centered approaches to mentoring, we can build our allyship skills. To do this, we must first understand what it means to be an ally. It’s critical to think of allyship as something that is an ongoing process of learning and acting, and not a static identity to claim. Allyship means standing in solidarity with a group of people who are systemically disempowered. We typically think of this in reference to people of minority racial and ethnic groups, the LGBTQIA+ community, the disabled community, neurodivergent folks, and similar disenfranchised groups.
We all have different facets of our identities that make up the whole of who we are as individuals. Some of these identities are visible (race or ethnicity, some disabilities, occupations that require visible and recognizable uniforms, our ages, etc) and some are invisible (cannot be easily determined from visual cues). Some of our identities are tied to our familial roles (spouse, child, parent, sibling, etc) and some are tied to more personal identities we develop as we age (like gender or sexuality). Identities aren’t always binary (either/or) and thinking in that way can sometimes erase people who exist across different identities – for example someone can hold dual citizenship, or someone could identify as genderfluid (their gender identity varies over time). Just as you have lots of facets of your identity, so does your mentee, and these identities impact how you both move through life.
Even if you don’t know much about your mentee’s lived experience or fully understand how they identify, you can still be a great ally to them in very tangible ways. Remember your role as mentor is that of the trusted, nonjudgmental friend. Focusing on this role is the first step to position yourself to be a better ally. Here are more actionable ways to be an ally to your mentee:
- Respect your mentee’s lived experience. Listen and believe them wholeheartedly when they are sharing with you about what it’s like to walk in their shoes.
- Don’t treat the group you’re allying with as homogeneous.
- Remember that one person with a specific identity doesn’t speak for the whole group.
- Be aware of the space you are taking up. Allying with a group means standing beside, not in front of. When you can, amplify the voices of the community you’re allying with instead of speaking on behalf of people. For example, if your mentee is struggling with an issue where a youth/student perspective is maybe not being given the same consideration as an adult perspective, use your power as an adult to let your mentee’s perspective be heard directly from your mentee (if they are comfortable with this).
- Provide the types of support you’re asked for, not what you think would be most helpful.
- If you make a mistake, acknowledge it and move on. Being an ally is a constant process of learning and evolving. Mistakes are to be expected, and that’s ok!
By taking these actions, you will find that your connection with your mentee will deepen as they see you are interested in understanding their experiences and supporting them as they develop a stronger sense of self. When you continue to show up and show that dedication, you are demonstrating to your mentee that your mentoring relationship and their wellbeing are important to you. This can strengthen the match and make you both feel much more connected with each other. Just remember that being an ally is an ongoing process and we will all have much to learn about supporting those whose lived experiences differ from our own!