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Minority Mentoring: The True Value of a Hand Up

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By Tarice L.S. Gray, Special to the NNPA from thedefendersonline.com –

Long before terms like workplace diversity, affirmative action, and inclusion became American standards, Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson conspired to change their game of baseball.

Rickey, then the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, wanted two things for his team: a World Series Championship, and a racially-integrated ball club. In Jackie Robinson, Rickey found a man who was not only receptive to both ideas and also prepared to deal with those who didn’t want him in the game.

By the 1940s, no Black player had crossed Major League Baseball’s color line for nearly half a century – until Rickey, who embraced the philosophy of tough love, told Robinson he thought he was the man to do it. Rickey understood that on the diamond and in the public eye, Robinson would face extraordinary pressure; he would succeed or fail on the strength of his own ability. But Rickey was also determined to help him as much as possible — to prepare him to succeed by becoming his baseball mentor.

Like so many things about America’s mythic past time, the relationship of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson dramatically illustrated in the broadest possible terms the impact a mentor can have on an individual and the larger society. That remains especially true for people of color in all fields of endeavor today.

Appropriately, one of the organizations which has used the techniques of mentoring to great effect is the Jackie Robinson Foundation, founded by Robinson’s widow, Rachel, a year after his death in 1972. Since then it has extended the ladder of upward mobility to thousands of the best and brightest young people in minority communities by awarding them generous four-year scholarships to college. But there’s a catch: JRF requires all their students to participate in their mentoring program.

As Della Britton Baeza, president and chief executive of the foundation, puts it. “They can’t just take our money.”

What JRF scholars receive in addition to college financing is a cultural tutorial – a how-to guide, on not just surviving but thriving in the world of big business. The JRF staff calls the tutorial “life skills,” and it includes teaching the students such things as how to manage personal finances and how to eat at a four star restaurant. JRF even foots the bill for an evening at the opera.

It can all be considered carry over from Robinson’s historic moment of inclusion, Baeza said. Although it’s more common these days to see successful minorities in corporate America, those that continue to follow in already formed footsteps have to be prepared. “It’s a bigger challenge for [people of color] to be successful,” she remarked, “because, let’s be honest, we are not post- racial and [they] are facing a real hostile culture in some situations. So mentoring is absolutely vital.”

Despite their value, finding mentors still proves elusive to many who need them. A recent Harvard Business Review exploration of diversity in corporate America found that although big-business companies professed their commitment to seeking out and promoting top minority talent, many of those smart and capable employees of color often left their respective companies “frustrated.” Minority men and women who did excel had a “strong network” of mentors and sponsors that offered more than just instruction, they nurtured their careers. Their business journey was made successful by someone else lighting the way.

Karen Thompson understands the consequences of trying to get ahead without a mentor. Before joining NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund (LDF) as director of its, scholarship program, she was an associate at a respected law firm. Although she found success as an attorney, her road was tougher, she believes, because she did not have a mentor.

“It felt very lonely to me,” she said, “and I really felt like I taught myself how to be a good lawyer.” As she rose higher in the ranks, she saw less people like herself in the offices. Last year, Thompson moved to LDF as Director of its scholarship program and has made building the program’s mentoring component a major goal. Part of that effort involves the creation of something called an “ol’ boy, ol’ girl network” among the program’s alumni in order to ensure that they don’t have to navigate corporate waters alone. She said that commitment to mentoring needs to be ongoing, beyond undergraduate and graduate school into the workplace. The minority corporate veterans need continual guidance and feedback to help them reach their full potential.

Management Leadership for Tomorrow works to that end at the very top of the corporate structure. The mentoring-based organization, founded nearly a decade ago by John Rice, brother of Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, helps veteran workers reach the Corporate Suite, home of the top positions of Chief Executive Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer and the like.

According to MLT, African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans collectively comprise roughly 30 percent of the U.S. population. But, they make up only three percent of senior leaders in corporations, non-profits and entrepreneurial ventures. Patricia Price, Managing Director for Executive Programs for MLT, said that their initiatives are designed to halt the revolving-door dynamic that drains companies of Black, Latino and Native American talent because these mid-level career workers feel their careers have hit a plateau. They believe the mentoring programs, often thought necessary only for adolescents and undergraduate and graduate students, need to be re-fashioned for people trying to climb the corporate ladder. Price said MLT wants to make sure when they get to a place where they are “comfortable” they keep going. “Ultimately, we’re trying to raise the number of leaders, in the country.”

One of the mentoring tools Price said minorities need to have in the corporate world harkens back to Robinson-Rickey relationship: the ability to smoothly respond to your critics. Price said, “being able to listen actively and respond reflectively instead of reactively to negative feedback [is one of the things] that’s very important to leaders.” She added that minorities tend to struggle with that kind of criticism because many feel singled-out and alone. Price also said too many African Americans become “shy” when it comes to hiring African American staff when they’re promoted to head company units or divisions. MLT urges them to embrace “similarity bias” – the practice of hiring people from similar backgrounds, including similar racial backgrounds, because that, too, is part of the mentoring dynamic. That philosophy also drives up the value of a committed minority mentor, or someone who gets it.

As Della Britton Baeza, of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, said “it’s all about somebody taking you under their wing, pulling you by your coat tail, and tough love.”

Tarice L.S. Gray is a freelance writer and blogger with GrayCurrent.com.

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