This post was written by EFS community member JP Arroyo Ornelas, MD, PhD.

In our scientific community, the increased awareness and focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) represents a great step forward. However, a specific discussion of how to promote DEI efforts in a mentor-mentee relationship can be difficult. As in any relationship, there are stages to the development of a mentor-mentee bond. How we approach the initial steps has ramifications on the evolution and eventual success, or failure, of the relationship. In my experience, making sure that a few things are clear from the outset is critical to the success of the mentor-mentee connection.

First and foremost, both the mentor and the mentee must be open with each other about their intentions and goals. The relationship will only work when both parties have been clear about the goal. It doesn’t really make sense to go on a trip if one person thinks they’re going to the beach and the other thinks they’re going skiing; likewise, if a mentor and mentee have different goals for the relationship, they’ll have a hard time working together.

Let’s assume that both mentor and mentee have agreed on their vision of the future. The next step is an openness to forgive. Let me explain. We’re human, we will make mistakes. It is difficult enough to relate to another human who is very similar to us (think family), let alone try to establish a connection with someone that has a different education, cultural background, socioeconomic status, etc. My point is, mistakes will be made, feelings will be hurt, and misunderstandings will happen. From the very beginning mentor and mentee must be open and willing to forgive the other and use every misstep as a stepping stone to improve the relationship. We live in a society that allows everything but forgives nothing. Attempts to establish a connection in a setting where any mistake is deemed unacceptable will fail.

For forgiveness to work, both the mentor and the mentee have to agree to bring their best attitude to the table and not assume ill intent from the outset. A mentor-mentee relationship has a much higher likelihood of success when goals are agreed upon and both are open to forgiveness.

With that context in place, I want to share what I call the crosswalk model for mentor-mentee DEI interactions. The point of a crosswalk is fairly simple: Get from one side of the road to another. However, not all crosswalks are the same. A crosswalk in Mexico City (where I’m from) is very different than a crosswalk in a small town in Tennessee, which in turn is different from one in Manhattan. Not all crosswalks have the same foot traffic, or number of cars going through. Some crosswalks have stop signs or stop lights, while others don’t even have lines painted on them! The goal remains the same, but the approach varies. Some people might automatically assume the cars will stop and just start walking. Some people wait until all cars have passed and then cross. Others, having never encountered a crosswalk, will try to tunnel underneath it. The role of the mentor in the mentor-mentee relationship is to get the mentee across the road. Both mentor and mentee want to cross, but if the mentor is used to just walking into traffic and having the cars stop while the mentee is only familiar with digging a tunnel, trouble will ensue.

“Why is my mentor throwing me into oncoming traffic?!”

“Why is my mentee digging a hole when I asked them to cross the street??”

Once mentor and mentee establish common goals and agree to forgive, the conversation can shift to:

“Why are we walking into oncoming traffic?”

“Oh, we aren’t. See? The cars stop.”

Or:

“Why are you digging a hole?”

“Oh, it’s not a hole, it’s a tunnel to get across.”

We all have our own way of navigating crosswalks. A successful mentor and mentee will get to the other side together in lock-step, regardless of the approach. But we first need to agree to cross together and then discuss how we’re going to do it, together.

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