Toby Simon

Why is mentorship important and how do you enact it in the world?

We can all probably benefit from having mentors in our lives. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a trusted relationship or meaningful commitment with another person?

I recently retired after a thirty-five year career in higher education. I can count on only one hand, the mentors in my life but as I think back to the experience I had with these people, I realize now, even more, how vital they were in my professional and personal development.

Sol Gordon was my first mentor. He was a faculty member at Syracuse University in the department of Sociology. He was also a sex expert in the 60s when no one else was. He wrote books that got banned due to the subject matter but it didn’t stop him. He took risks–good ones– because he wasn’t afraid of risk taking. He had the best sense of humor that I’ve ever seen. He was generous, funny and really smart. One example of his wit was when he taught us that there are 4 classifications in the psych literature that best describe people: rich, kind, boring and mean. He loved to be irreverent but never was nasty! He also taught us (and recent studies 50 yrs later confirm this) that in the grand scheme of intimate relationships– his top 10 list– sex was not the number one most important thing. It made the top 10 but it was actually number 7. Sharing of household tasks was higher on the top ten list than sex. The anecdote Sol used to demonstrate this was the story about his wife Judith, who asked him to help with the laundry. He said he was too busy with his career of being a professor, a sociologist, and a writer. And that he didn’t have time for helping with the household tasks. Sol told us that Judith said “How would you like a divorce?” “It took me 2 minutes to rearrange my schedule” Sol told us.

Sol was a pioneer and a youth advocate before the term even existed. Studying with Sol was an experience like none other. With great delight and passion, he followed my career. And he was a mentor to hundreds of other sexuality educators. I still use his humor and story telling in the human sexuality class I teach. I think about him often, he lived to 85 and left a tremendous legacy.

Had it not been for Sol Gordon, I would not have believed in the importance of mentorship. He taught me that not all risk taking is a bad thing. He encouraged me to push on the issues I felt were deeply important in the sexuality education of adolescents. From him I learned about humor–especially when talking about sex– as a teaching tool. He followed my career for a while and was very proud of all of his mentees. I had other mentors along the way and thoroughly enjoyed the interactions. I’m not sure I thought of myself as a mentor but since retirement in early July, I have heard from so many former students who used that word when they described our relationship. Perhaps that’s the best part of being a mentor: you don’t necessarily realize you are being one at the moment. It’s not always a formal arrangement.

My last position was at Bryant University. I spent 11 years as the director of the Gertrude Hochberg Women’s Center. It was a wonderful place to work and starting a new center was a dream job. But I also have come to value and cherish the mentees I had at Bryant. I was the “elder” in the Student Affairs division at Bryant and there were many young professionals who I not only worked with, but who ended up considering me an important mentor in their lives. I am still in constant contact with them and our trusted relationship as well as my commitment to their careers will not waiver.

It’s probably quite obvious but worth mentioning: I think mentorship is extremely important for young women and girls. Sadly in 2014 we are still living in a country that doesn’t pay women the same as men, where sexual harassment continues to be a problem in the work place, and the concept of “leaning in” is still not a reality for many young women. As a result, young women need to find mentors in other women who have already made the journey and perhaps have even figured out how to lean in.

I can’t really comment on how to enact mentoring in the world, but I can talk about the work I do in Haiti. I am a board member of the YWCA Haiti. The board consists of truly amazing Haitian women who have careers in law, business and medicine but who are devoted to making Haiti a better place and have chosen to do so by starting a YWCA. These women are relatively empowered since they are all college and grad school educated and hold important jobs in the community. They understand the importance of working with young girls in Haiti, to activate them and help them see that they can have a say in their futures. The board has older high school and college girls work with the younger girls all summer in a mentoring project. There are paid positions at this YWCA called “mentors” who work full time with girls and women. Throughout the year, the mentors at the YWCA work with 9-13 year old girls teaching them about gender based violence, self esteem, financial literacy, human rights and the environment. The YWCA Haiti’s slogan is “Se ave’m chanjman ap komanse” which means “change starts with me.” There is also a leadership academy that the YWCA hosts all year for women aged 18-30 who come every Saturday for 10 weeks and learn from other women. Close to 50% of the households in Haiti are run by women so when they suffer from the effects of poverty, their children do as well. There is lots of work to be done in Haiti to improve the status of women. It’s not an easy place for women yet the mentoring programs at the YWCA Haiti are a small step and provide a glimmer of hope of what can be done.

Toby Simon recently retired from her role as the director of the Gertrude Hochberg Women’s Center at Bryant University. Serving as the first director, Simon’s responsibilities included providing leadership for programs addressing women’s concerns, collaborating with faculty and staff, and working on retention of women students. Specific responsibilities included advocacy on sexual assault and sexual harassment, women’s health, campus climate and women in business. She received a Bachelor of Arts Degree at Syracuse University and a Master’s Degree in Education at Tufts University. Simon has taught Human Sexuality courses at several colleges and universities and is the author of numerous articles and books on sexual assault, sexuality, and the connection between alcohol and sexual behavior. For the past twenty years she has been working in Haiti, most recently at the YWCA Haiti, as a board member and trainer.

photo by Agapao Productions