I had a birthday recently, a reminder (as if I needed it) that the ranks of those younger than me are growing, and the numbers ahead of me are dwindling. And perusing the paper on that special day, I read that composting human bodies is now legal in Washington state, the ultimate in recycling. It made me think about life and how to make the most of every stage, every year, even the end. I am not ready for composting, nor do I think I will ever be ready to join the teeming activity of a compost heap if it looks anything like mine.
All this makes me think about my responsibility to those aspiring facilitators and mediators, who are behind me in line, wanting a career like mine. I am still working as a facilitator and mediator because I can still do it and I love it, but in so doing I am taking work away from some younger aspiring mediator. We hear about a crisis in some universities where long-lived professors refuse to give up teaching, and lower level associates, ready to move upward, are stuck waiting in line for the opening that never comes. I do not want to be that old fogey unwilling to step aside, but I want to practice at least a little as long as I can. Here is my solution: I mentor.
Breaking into the environmental conflict resolution business, my professional home, is not easy. Those hoping for a career have difficult choices. Graduate school may give you an advantage in the
job market, but it is expensive and delays diving into the work itself. The competition for positions in conflict resolution firms is fierce, and entry levels may be filled by interns willing to work for little. Hanging out your shingle takes incredible courage, and probably a small bank roll. And no matter how you choose to tackle the professional establishment, you will need connections. I am proud to have become a “connection,” someone on the inside who may be able to help boost a dedicated newcomer into the field.
For decades I have been mentoring those behind me in line. We find each other in a variety of ways, sensing that we share a love of the chaotic, an appreciation for the gray areas, a desire to help people communicate, find common ground and maybe even peace. In this increasingly hostile and tone deaf environment, finding a like-minded soul fills me with excitement.
She may be the agency’s logistic person who sets up the public meeting, then watches the evening unfold, participants full of passion, anger, hope and fear. She may come up to me after it’s all over and say, “How do you do that, deal with angry people like that? I wish I could do that.” Aha, I think, she may be my next mentee. We chat, have coffee and if there is spark there, she may ask her boss for an afternoon off to work with me on facilitation skills and then assist me at the next meeting.
Or, he may have come out of college with a degree in anthropology and a special interest in cultural conflict. We meet for coffee (yes, I have a lot of coffees), and with encouragement he hones mediation skills as a volunteer in the schools working with parents, staff and students to resolve conflicts. It is frustrating work, but he is drawn to it and wants a career where he can help mediate multi-cultural conflicts in the natural resource arena. We talk about options and he decides to go for a PhD in conflict resolution from a prestigious eastern school. I follow his academic journey, cheering from the sidelines. Now, many years later he heads a conflict resolution center for the Army Corps of Engineers, working with tribes and other communities impacted by Corps plans or projects.
Or, two young women, recently hired by a major conflict resolution firm, read my book, Common Ground on Hostile Turf, and email me. Would I be able to have a conference call with them to talk about a thorny issue they are dealing with? They would love to “bounce things off me.” I am a very happy “bouncer off-er” and we have several calls and one in person meeting over the course of two years. One of them is beginning to write about her experiences facilitating and I am honored to read them and reflect with her about what she wants to say.
And now, there is Jasmin. She is from Los Angeles, first in her family to go to college, with an undergraduate degree from Berkeley. She used the internet to find environmental mediators working in cross-cultural settings. She started calling cold, and when she got to me, things warmed up! We have never met, but for the past year we have worked through her struggles about next steps. She is eager to get to work, but understands that graduate school may help her get the position she wants. In the meantime, she interviewed for a few jobs that might have been stepping stones, but were not really on her path. And then the ideal spot came along with Americorps. In July she will begin in Alaska, organizing outreach and conferences as an environmental health coordinator for tribal communities. She will be designing and facilitating processes to enable communities to collaborate and take a more active role in promoting their health. I am so proud of her and can’t wait to hear the news from Alaska.
These days I am probably spending as much time mentoring as I am working, and what fun it is. I am building that line of young people behind me, giving advice, helping them make connections, and promoting their careers. In my blog, I am careful to stay away from politics, but I can’t help but suggest that aging candidates of any party running for office might consider how best to use the expertise they have gathered over years of service. Why not take that wealth of knowledge, connections and experience and throw it behind a younger candidate? I know it’s hard to give up center stage, but pick your favorite rising star. Nurture the next generation and be a hero.
[August 22 update: Last night I had dinner with one my mentees from long ago, Tahnee Robertson, who has her own very successful firm in Arizona, Southwest Decision Resources. She brought with her one of her mentees, Abby Fullem, so we had three generations of mentoring at one table….which makes me a grand-mentor, and Abby is now my “grand-mentee.” I couldn’t be prouder!]