How Mentorship Drives Black Success

From Khari Brown, Spark the Journey CEO and President:

Black History Month is a time to celebrate Black luminaries. It’s also a reminder that many of the most notable Black figures of history owe much of their success to their mentors. Throughout the years, mentors both well-known and long forgotten have helped pave the way for Black excellence.

In some cases, it’s simple to look back and pinpoint the moment when the right mentor appeared at the right time and empowered someone to be extraordinary. This is what happened for famed writer, poet, and activist, Maya Angelou. A family friend took her under her wing when eight-year-old Angelou stopped speaking after experiencing a series of traumatic events. The friend, Bertha Flowers, encouraged Angelou’s love of books which would later influence her career. Angelou credited Flowers with helping her to literally find her voice again.

Angelou went on to become a mentor herself, most notably serving as a friend and advisor to Oprah Winfrey for over thirty years. She is an incredible example of someone with limitless potential who found her strength through mentorship.

Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician of Hidden Figures fame, is another example. Brilliant as a child, and always fond of math, Johnson enrolled in college with plans to become a teacher because that was one of the only professions available to her at the time. But a math professor persuaded her to follow her passion and train as a research mathematician. With that training, she went on to play an integral role in the development of human space flight.

Martin Luther King Jr. rose to prominence through the steady influence of mentors throughout his life. He benefited from the guidance of countless mentors, among them Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College, whom he called his “spiritual mentor” and “intellectual father.” He met Mays as a student at Morehouse and relied on him for counsel until his assassination in 1968.

King, Angelou, and Johnson all grew up in the Jim Crow era, their lives severely affected by systemic racism. Decades later, the echoes of white supremacist ideologies plague our country. Racist housing policies have made it such that Black people are far more likely to live in low-income communities and attend under-resourced schools than white people. Racist educational and hiring practices mean they’re less likely to graduate from college or secure full-time employment. The barriers to opportunity go on and on.

This reality makes mentorship more important than ever. At Spark the Journey, I have the privilege of working with a team that provides mentorship and a community of support to young adults from low-income communities in DC . I have seen firsthand how mentorship enables young Black people to chart their own paths to success. The students we’ve mentored have become educators, healthcare professionals, nonprofit leaders, entrepreneurs, and so much more, serving their communities in countless ways. Mentorship can’t reverse years of racist policies, but it can and does help young Black people develop the skills they need to succeed in a world where the deck is stacked against them.

Looking at the past, it’s clear what Black people can achieve when given even the smallest opportunity to fulfill their potential. We have expanded civil rights, broadened the world’s knowledge, and pushed the boundaries of human imagination. We have overcome oppressive barriers and achieved excellence with the empowering guidance of our mentors.

It’s vital that we continue that tradition of developing the Black leaders of tomorrow. The good news is, anyone can become a mentor, just as anyone can benefit from one. You’re not limited by your age, race, gender, or accomplishments, because great mentors don’t expect their mentees to follow in their footsteps. Great mentors understand that everyone is on their own unique path. We all just need to lean on trusted resources from time to time.

I challenge you to honor Black history every day of the year – and not only in February. You can do your part by volunteering to mentor within your community. When the next generation of Black leaders is empowered to reach new heights, the whole world will benefit.