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Feel the Turn

An earlier version of this piece was published as part of Americans for the Arts’ “Broadening and Diversifying the Leadership Pipeline” blog salon for National Arts in Education Week 2018.

Mentor Perspective: Dennie Palmer Wolf

I have half a century of work in the arts field behind me: successes, publications, and big, noticed projects, right along with my full share of mistakes, disasters, and misjudgments. When I speak nowadays, I claim my white hair as a badge of office and call myself a “crone emeritus.” Frankly, it is the moment when the temptation is great to serve on committees or publish your collected essays about pressing issues that have long since changed. I started down that “remembrance road” and then thought, “For what?” Better to pass it on actively—why not mentor the next generation of leaders? I began to fantasize: I would take on three to four people in each of the upcoming five years to help them think about their work, careers, and place in the world. Maybe I would add a stipend so we could meet face-to-face.

The more I thought about it, the more that plan felt paternal or even colonial. How did I know that I had the kinds of expertise younger people really needed for the world they actually faced? Instead, I began working more squarely on hard issues like inequalities in opportunities to learn, the intersection of social justice and the arts, and diversity, inclusion, and equity in cultural institutions where I could meet a next generation of arts leaders drawn to these questions. I started going to different conferences—as a listener, not a speaker. I practiced the fine art of holding my tongue and learning.

This work put me shoulder-to-shoulder with younger colleagues whose work, cultural identities, and outlooks are different from my own. As a result, I now work closely on live projects with individuals whose skills, knowledge, perspectives, experience, and tools are very different from my own. (One of them is Sanuja Goonetilleke, who shares her thoughts below.) That experience is leaving no detail untouched: how carefully do I pronounce their last names, how do I acknowledge their cultural expertise without reducing their expertise to their origins, how do I ask them to teach me the tools they know and I don’t? And, if I am honest, the experience goes much deeper: how do I learn from how unsettled and inexperienced (or even outmoded) I sometimes feel? Do I bury what I don’t know or ask to learn? Do I gloss over my mistakes or speak about them openly? Do I talk out loud about the intersection of research and values and admit that consulting can shape how you see and interpret data?

These days I am aware of how rarely we acknowledge the emotions involved in mentoring. When people write and talk about what it takes to be a good mentor, they rarely mention the mixture of delight and uncertainty I feel; the excitement and cold water of humility that are a part of turning over your life’s work. There is even less discussion about the social and emotional skills of being a good mentee—how generous, how patient, and how curious you have to be about extracting what’s worthwhile from work done in older times, with different tools, with other assumptions.

The world is coming around to acknowledge how powerfully emotions shape and inform all that we do as humans. So if we think that mentoring is a powerful strategy for strengthening and diversifying the arts and culture in the contemporary US—it is long since time to talk, think, and teach about the feelings and mutual understandings both young and old need to make this so.

Mentee Perspective: Sanuja Goonetilleke

I am lucky to have had multiple mentors in my life. Each is a double reminder: first, I am not alone and second, I have a responsibility to the world to pass the torch on. This is not only the torch of mentorship, it is also the torch of doing the work that my mentors have done and continue to do. It is more than knowledge; it encompasses showing up (with a smile), making an effort, pushing oneself to do one’s best, and keeping faith with what gradually becomes our shared work.

All the mentors I am fortunate to call “mine”—although they belong to myriad young and new professionals within and outside of the arts—have passed on three traits: perseverance, flexibility, and humility. The perseverance is about continuing to be open to the possibilities of engaging in and enhancing our work in and understanding of the arts; it invites flexibility and humility in.

Let me share an example: Dennie and I traveled to New York for a project only a few months after we began working together. When asked to contribute my own observations, I was puzzled: “What can I possibly contribute?” But the humility and flexibility of the request said, “We don’t know everything. Help us discover and understand.” What I realized is that being new was, by definition, a contribution.

In retrospect, I sense that what was most important was that I was asked to have observations. Being pushed is one of the best invitations that can happen to a new employee or a younger researcher. It certainly urged me to ask what I can do—and how to do justice to the work. It also taught me that by doing justice to the work you have what may be the most powerful way of expressing gratitude and acknowledging the worth of the shared work.

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