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The Community Development Mentoring Program: Building inter-racial professional relationships and supporting the pipeline

October 29th, 2019 by Shirronda Almeida

 “The Mentoring program helped bring us to a deeper level I wish more people would have. It allowed me to be honest and candid in a way that I couldn’t have been with other white people. It was refreshing to hear (my mentor’s) thoughts and opinions. It helped me shape and look at things differently too.” Mentee

MACDC launched the Community Development Mentoring program in 2005 to address the retention and advancement of professionals of color in the field. Mentoring participants come from across the field: CDCs, intermediaries, banks, law firms, municipalities, universities, consultants, planning agencies, nonprofits and foundations - a true representation of the community development field. The program is administered by MACDC and CHAPA, the young professionals’ program, and it lives within the Mel King Institute’s the Alliance for Racial Equity.  The program runs for 9 months and will begin the next cycle’s application process in Spring 2020.

Initially engaging only mentees of color, a few years ago we shifted to include white mentees and added an overall racial equity lens to the cohort learning sessions. This was in part, to connect the program to the mission of the Alliance for Racial Equity, the coalition which houses the effort. The Alliance has individual and organizational members, including CHAPA, who co- administers the program. One of the key principles of the Alliance is that Leaders and others within the community development movement acknowledge the existence of race and racism in our organizations and communities and demonstrate the will and the commitment to address these issues.

As community development staff we need to understand the history of racism in the US, and in the communities we serve, and be able to articulate its impacts upon our work. The racial equity learning, networking, and professional relationship building create a space for dialogues on race and support the mentoring pair to learn, grow and challenge assumptions. The learning is reciprocal and includes building awareness of race on the intrapersonal, interpersonal, institutional and systemic levels and our roles on each level.  In our recent report evaluating the program impact, conducted by Diane Gordon, who interviewed several program alumni, we found the following outcomes:

  • The program is meeting the expectations for both mentees and mentors;
  • The program has had a direct and positive impact on participants;
  • The most impactful element was the match and one on one time; and
  • For interracial pairs the program had a profound impact on their relationship and their ability to have honest conversations about race

Feedback on the cross racial relationships revealed deepened connections:

“I came to understand why some people lacked confidence given everything that’s been thrown at her. Sharing of different perspectives was immensely valuable. Having someone you care about, you learn about those issues at a deep level - it changes things. I see expressions, manifestations of racism in different ways now.” Mentor

 “My relationship with my mentor is one of the most meaningful relationships I’ve been able to have with a white person.”  ~Mentee

We also found that the participating mentees increased their confidence, strengthened their leadership and project skills, and enhanced their professional networks as a result of the mentoring relationship. Mentees reported receiving support on their resumes, refining career goals, and learning about new career advancement opportunities. Some were able to apply for more senior positions in the field. We found that 28% of the 2017 mentee cohort were able to advance to a more senior position.

Mentors also found value in the relationship noting:

  • Expanded professional networks;
  • Awareness of the barriers for professionals of color and the challenge of addressing racial inequities; and
  • The rewarding experience of giving back and connecting with a young professional.

Clearly, all of us want (and need) to expand our professional networks across the traditional barriers of age, gender, race and ethnicity.  This program is making that possible for its participants.

A few of the challenges that were identified in the research include the declining numbers of CDC staff and mentees of color over the years.  As the program has grown to include white mentees, we have a larger cohort overall, yet we haven’t grown the percentage of professionals of color.  We need a more diverse group of mentors representing a wider spectrum of community development content areas.  This would create greater professional development alignment and cohesion of the mentoring pairs.

And finally, we need to increase our capacity to establish and maintain an Alumni network, with over 130 people having participated in the program, that is a tremendous network that could add value to the careers of other professionals finding their way in a community development career. After nearly 15 years of programming we have had several mentors serve two or three program cycles and one former mentee, who envisioned herself in the role of project manager, now mentoring in that very role!

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