The importance of ‘looking like me,’ shared experience in mentoring

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     (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-221277355/stock-photo-african-american-girl-laughing.html'>Little girl</a> image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    (Little girl image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    It is very important for young people of color to have someone positive in their lives, outside of their parents, to help mold them in a way that their caregivers are sometimes not able to do. Given today’s social climate and the underrepresentation of positive minority figures in the media, the significance of having a mentor who looks like or has a similar background to a mentee, is enormous.

    I am a native of southern New Jersey, by way of West Indian parents. As a child, I don’t think I realized the importance of having a mentor or anyone to look up to. I am the second-eldest in my family and was the eldest in my household, so I am accustomed to being “that” person, to whom everyone turns for advice. As I got older and pursued career choices that solidified me being that person, it just seemed natural to find myself in situations that called for me to mentor young people in some form or another.

    Despite not being aware of the necessity of a mentor, I was well aware of the things that made me different from my peers — thanks to teasing and bullying — such as my grades, complexion, hair, ethnicity, height, and whatever else differentiated me from others. These experiences definitely set the tone for how I saw myself as a young woman and the relationships, both personal and interpersonal, that I fostered. What I was not aware of is that I was not alone. There are many children like me, as well as those who have had struggles very different from mine, growing up.

    As a behavioral health therapist, I have come in contact with many families and young people in Philadelphia who are in need of someone to talk to and, more importantly, someone to listen. I have found that often in some families of color, issues just aren’t discussed, from the trivial things to big family secrets. For instance, if the family is struggling economically, as is often the case in inner-city families, the parent or caregiver may be able to muster up only enough energy to provide the basic necessities. Sometimes they cannot be present for everything the child is experiencing.

    Parents and caregivers no doubt care for their children, but sometimes they are too close to the situation at hand to give an objective point of view. Possibly the child does not confide in the caregiver for fear of backlash, so problems are never brought up. Whatever is going on with the child may not warrant therapy, but it may just require an outside perspective from someone the child can trust and speak to freely.

    In my experience, I see that having a mentor who is a mature person doing positive things in the community can have a strong impact on young people. However, having a person who is closer in age, who reaches back to spend time with a younger person, has a much stronger impact. To put it frankly, having a mentor who has survived and is thriving as an adult, doing the things that some inner-city youth only attribute to white people (because that is what they see) is amazing.

    Sharing a background can help bridge gaps and promote healing for both mentor and mentee. For young people, it is a benefit to have someone who “gets” them. Mentors also benefit, because now they can be the person they may have wished they had had growing up.

    In joining the My Sister’s Keeper Collective, I hope to uplift and empower young women of color. Similarly, helping another young person defy odds, exceed limits, and counter stereotypes that come with being a minority in America, is the ultimate gift.

    Cierra Farquharson is an outpatient therapist volunteering as a mentor at My Sister’s Keeper Collective in West Philadelphia. Find her art and hand-crafted jewelry at In My Bubble Arts.

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