Excerpt from White Crane Issue #40
Keep It Quiet
Secret Mentorship for new
Generations Of Queer Men And Women
By Chris Bartlett
Many spiritual traditions point to the value of a gift freely and anonymously given. Jewish tradition states that all charity and philanthropy (tzedaka) ought to be contributed anonymously, with the goal that the recipient not be aware of who gave the gift. The strength of such an anonymous gift is that it can have a positive impact on the recipient, neither bringing about shame nor reinforcing existing power dynamics. I argue here that a gift of mentorship can likewise be given secretly—fueled by a powerful intention, and strengthened, paradoxically, by the lack of formal or named structure. In short, please mentor someone—but don’t tell him or her that you are doing it!
How would it feel if you knew that a number of men and women had been secretly watching your back; both gently guiding your path with an invisible hand, and offering words of support in moments of both success and failure. They had actually been doing this for you for over ten years, without formalizing the relationship or pointing out the many gifts of coaching and leadership development that they had offered. You had often noticed their involvement in your life: the shared lively debates about politics, tips on how to manage a difficult situation or person, or advice on the best disco music for inspiring a crowd. It was they who (without telling you) had advocated that you receive the scholarship or the position of leadership. It was they who (without your knowledge) sent friends your way: new, inspiring friends who came along at just the right moment. They (unbeknownst to you) observed your growth and watched your development. It was they who told you that you were more than up to the many challenges that confronted you in living a good life.
I was lucky to have such an intentional and powerful gay adult in my life in Eric Rofes, who had been my friend and colleague for fifteen years when he died in June, 2006. Eric played an influential and unobtrusive role in my development as a leader. What I didn’t know until quite late in our relationship is that he had an intention to have this role towards me (and to quite a few others).
I had been thrilled and honored when Eric sent me the draft of one of his books to review, or invited me to sit on a panel with him, or introduced me to another gay writer or activist whom he admired. He gave me gentle feedback about my own efforts: “Your talk grabbed the audience;” “You could have given a few more examples;” “You need to include more ideas from women and people of color.” When I went through some very challenging months in 2000, Eric wrote me an encouraging note but didn’t offer any intrusive or unsolicited advice. If I had attempted (as some did) to formalize my relationship with Eric in some way, he would have said, “I don’t like the concept of the mentor. Too hierarchical. I learn as much from you as you do from me.” ======
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Chris Bartlett is an HIV educator living in Philadelphia. He is continuing the Gay Men’s Leadership Academy, a project he and Eric Rofes began with White Crane Institute this year. For more information about the Academies, visit www.whitecranejournal.com/academy.html He is also the lead consultant for Philadelphia’s LGBT Community Assessment. His last article was in White Crane #69. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org