Several years ago I arranged for two of my female web and interactive students to video interview a woman scientist at Caltech. I asked the administrators there if they could line up a couple of their resident scientists who were both women and people of color. It took me some time to realize, after they arranged for a single interview and no more, that they apparently only had one woman of color scientist on their campus.
When Janelle and Cary interviewed her we were all fascinated to learn how many human obstacles she had overcome to end up a scientist at Caltech. Although she had wanted to be a scientist her entire life, many in her family, teachers and school counselors had all discouraged her. Not because she did not have the aptitude or stamina for such an achievement, but because she was female and black. I am not saying, either, that these people were out and out racists in their advice. It is, rather, part of that subtle racism (and sexism) that so pervades our nation to this day. These people all believed that her chances of becoming a scientist, because she was a woman and black, were so scant that she should not even attempt to scale that wall.
Sad, huh? Well, fortunately she ignored all of them. And fortunately she had one male scientist early in life who served as a role model to her. And fortunately as research even shows, sometimes a person succeeds simply because of ONE encounter with a role model. Sometimes all it takes is a one time encounter example, or one word from a role model! There has been much written about this, and I do not plan to delve into the subject of role models and mentors any more deeply right now, but since I was thinking about it, I thought I should share a mentoring story.
Last Sunday night my friend Ric Ickard added a lead guitar to my Tiger’s Tiny Sparrow Song for Light 2 – an interactive book series I am writing / creating. Beautiful! Not many guitarists can lay down music so amazing after only one run through. And this is not some simple 1-4-5 song: it explores some very nice jazz voicings, and is in two separate time signatures.
I had fun engineering the session. I am relatively new to the software he uses in his studio, Digital Performer, and I had never engineered a guitar session for him before. One of the most incredible things that my friend and mentor Richard has given me in this lifetime is to enhance my self confidence. He does it with a “throwing me in the deep end” approach. Every time he has taught me something, he goes over it once and just assumes I will be able to do it. The funny thing is, I have always been able to, in great part because of his belief in me.
That is another very important aspect of role modeling and mentoring: having the person who is mentoring you truly believe in you. It is something that is often sorely missing for women and people of color: that one person who does what you want to do and tells you that you can, too.