“What in the hell is a white woman doing here? Why would she even apply to this school? What is she going to teach us?”
“I don’t know how to explain our relationship. We’re friends and colleagues, but you’re also still my mentor.”
When Johnnetta McSwain, my mentee, spoke those words at different times in our relationship they brought home the realization that relationships are a process and not just a product unto themselves. Relationships are ever-evolving, reciprocal and circular. They are most positive and fruitful when a person is able to be introspective, to reach within herself before reaching outward. Only then can she give to and receive from others. If a relationship is based on mutual respect and honesty, what she receives from the other often inspires further self-reflection, growth, and in turn, giving. A healthy, natural cycle of support is established which helps each person be her best self.
This book is about relationships, particularly the mentoring relationship as seen through the lens of my relationship with my mentee, a woman who herself teaches and inspires me. My relationship with Johnnetta McSwain began with uncertainty. We both were outside our individual comfort zones, each representing unfamiliar territory to the other. It was my initial role as her professor and she as my student in a graduate social work program which placed us in contact on a weekly basis. Johnnetta’s innate intelligence, openness, assertiveness and desire to learn made her a teacher’s dream student, in spite of her weak academic skills. She hailed from a world wrought with physical and sexual abuse, prostitution, drug dealing and poverty. Johnnetta was in her late thirties, African American, southern, Christian, and a child of the streets. I was in my sixties, white, northern, Jewish, and a child of a middle class value system. Our backgrounds were distinct, to say the least. Yet, I came to realize that these identifiers are not the true basis for relationships of depth. They simply represent the circumstances and demographics that usually place us in close proximity to others “like” us. People truly connect at a much deeper level when they resonate with one another, when they are at similar emotional places in their life’s journey and have similar needs, although these might be expressed in very unique ways.
Whenever I consult, create, or facilitate workshops on mentoring, relationships, or defining and achieving dreams, the number one question asked of me is: “How do I find a mentor?” Other questions related to the qualities of a good mentor and relationship issues quickly follow. I wondered why, with so many programs and books on mentoring available, people still are puzzled. I believe this is because most mentoring work is focused on a formal relationship with a definite hierarchal structure, one in which the mentor imparts wisdom and the mentee absorbs it. The focus is on learning the ropes of the profession or industry, almost as if the mentor is a tutor. If the match is good, it works. However, the desire for a mentor who helps you discover the unique qualities within yourself, who helps you name and realize your dream and supports you through your own ever-changing journey, is usually quite different. For a relationship such as that to happen effectively, the give and take must be reciprocal. This does not imply a rigid 50-50 structure, but rather a natural and circular flow in which each person learns from and teaches the other. This type of human interaction works to the benefit of each and both and is an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
This book is about such a process. As a professor, consultant, and facilitator I have worked extensively on issues of relationships and diversity. My talent is finding the talent within others. Essentially, Reaching In, Reaching Out is about the heart of relationships. While the mentoring relationship is our focus, through our work together Johnnetta and I have learned much about what I consider universal components of all healthy relationships, whether with romantic partners, professional colleagues, family or friends. These key elements are boundaries, respect, care and reciprocity.
The reader will come away with an understanding of essential nuggets of wisdom that will inform their relationship journeys. Valuable lessons I have learned with my experience as a mentor, including:
• A healthy relationship with oneself is imperative to forming healthy relationships. The more you value yourself, the more you value others.
• Relationships are not stagnant. They either evolve or dissolve.
• Permeable, ever-adjusting boundaries are essential to all healthy relationships, including one’s relationship with self.
• The only relationship we truly go looking for is the relationship with self, and we find our self in others.
I have written this book to share these ideas with you, grounded in the awareness that we understand very little until we get out of our heads and into our guts. That’s when we have our “aha!” moments that make all the difference. I have structured this book to that end: after learning where Johnnetta and I both came from and how we found each other in the first two chapters, you will find conversational interviews between Johnnetta and me in which we frankly talk about how our relationship evolved. I believe that wisdom is passed on in conversations, and it is my hope that the book’s format allows readers to be present in Johnnetta’s living room as we discuss the many facets of relationships and come to new realizations, thus encouraging they experience their own “aha!” moments alongside ours. The concluding chapter shares where we now are at in our individual and collective journeys, and also answers some frequently asked questions I hear in my work as a mentor, professor, trainer, and consultant. I wish you well as you discover the beauty of interdependence on your own path of personal and professional growth.