On Mentorship and Passing Notes

January 18, 2022

By Maya Smith

Pledge to Take Action

If you ask Darell Hammond if he’s my mentor, I’m not sure he’d say yes, but I hope so. I should send him this blog, just to double-check. Or better yet, I can pass him another note.

My first note to Darell, founder of Kaboom (https://kaboom.org), was passed in the most awkward of circumstances. We were in the largest ballroom this hotel in Atlanta had to offer – probably 15 or 16 years ago – for the Independent Sector conference. People sat in every seat and lined the standing room walls to listen to Darell talk about his journey founding Kaboom, creating safe and beautiful spaces for children to play in communities across the country. He talked about play as an investment in our civic lives, in our economic vitality, in our educational success and though I was closer to playing on playgrounds myself than my having my own children, I was tremendously moved by his vision and how he’d been able to put it to work in the world. He began to share his own story and the investments that had been made in him that allowed him to stand on that stage in front of this packed audience and share his work. I dreamt of a speech this big, of capturing people’s attention in this way with my words, and of leaving such a transformational impact on the world. I leaned in further, towards his words, from the back of my room seat. 

He talked about the importance of mentorship in his own career and he asked those of us who hadn’t yet found a mentor – defined very informally that day, as someone who wants to bet on and support your success – that we find one. Today. Now. I took his words literally and I ripped a piece of lined paper from the legal pad on the table in front of me with the conference logo and dates atop it and write him a note. I told him my name, my organization and I asked him to be my mentor and include two boxes (very limiting choices) and asked him to check yes or no. I’d been in the same room with Darell a number of times, I thought maybe he knew who I was but if not, this was a good way for him to figure it out. When he sat down, I walked past what felt like a million tables, to his upfront, tapped him on the shoulder and gave him this note. I was too embarrassed to stand there as he read it but long story a little bit shorter, he checked the yes box.

 Darell is one of half a dozen people to whom I attribute my career success. Cindy Gibson, Paul Schmitz, Adria Goodson, and Alberto Ibarguen are also on that list – hi, y’all. I’m only being 5% dramatic when I say that, because when I think back at the rooms I’ve been in, the invitations that I’ve gotten, the introductions that I’ve been trusted with, and the meetings that I’ve sat down to, I am struck by the generosity, kindness, and confidence from these people. From them, I’ve watched leadership in practice and I’d be honored to share what they’ve taught me, often scribbled on conference letterhead while I watched them make magic.

From Cindy Gibson, I learned that when you know something, read something, learn something helpful or interesting, you should share it with as many people as you can. I’ve been on her masterfully curated list-serv for almost half of my life, and I know so many leaders that keep the grant opportunities to themselves, don’t share the job descriptions for fear of losing their team, or hoard data and information, keeping it from partners in the same field. Cindy is a conduit for information that is of service to the world, and she’s the reason I send so, so many emails to our team at Born This Way Foundation.

  • From Paul Schmitz, I learned to push people forward. In my case, he did it quite literally to the front of a rope line where I met Michelle Obama for the first time. We were at a ServiceNation event, and he was close to the Obama’s, they had worked together for many years at Public Allies, and he asked me if I had met Mrs. Obama yet. I turned to him with my mouth incredulously gaping open. He pulled my hand and took me to the front of the line. Everyone against that velvet rope already knew the First Lady, the people behind them had come with them, to watch them say hello again. Not Paul, Paul took his relationship, shouted “Michelle” and when she turned warmly towards him, he shoved me in front of them both and yelled an introduction over the noise. He stepped back, in that instance and many times since, so others could step forward.
  • From Adria Goodson, I learned how to speak kindly to myself and balance humility with pride. She chose me for a life-altering fellowship opportunity, one during which I sat in circles listening to The Elders retell civil rights history and dissected movement building theory with Marshall Ganz, and she coached me through the self-doubt, normalized the imposter syndrome, and flagged for me each time I undermined myself, through words or actions. It began as a joke, people would congratulate me on the fellowship, and I’d tell them that they chose the wrong Maya. Adria helped me, as she does for so, so many others at the Ford Foundation Global Fellowship program, take up space in the world and realize the incredible gift that we give when we get to decide how we show up to that space.
  • From Alberto Ibarguen, I realized that behind each impressive leader and posturing conversation is a person with a story and that it’s through those stories that lasting connections are made. Alberto went to my high school, a handful of years apart (you’re welcome, Alberto), but we were both proud graduates of Columbia High School. This didn’t make him any less intimidating when I sat down to meet him for the first time in Detroit. He managed millions and millions of dollars, a network of powerful grantees and he changed the world every hour, on the hour. I had rehearsed my pitch to him for hours, memorizing KPI’s and data sets. He listened to me patiently while I fumbled through my first big pitch and then he asked if I wanted to eat some breakfast. Disarmingly, he asked me why I had started to do this work and what change I believed I could accomplish in the world. I forgot the pitch and I told him why I woke up every morning, how I wanted to (and knew I would) change the world, and when he got up to leave the breakfast, he told me to lead with that…to bring myself to the meeting first.

I don’t know if any of the folks I write about here will remember these conversations or invitations, but I do. I think about that every day, in every conversation I have, invitation I accept or decline, and decision I make. I may not remember any of them tomorrow but someone else will. I think that’s my definition of mentorship, now that I’ve written it. I hope I’ve made these folks proud, they’ve changed my life in immeasurable ways.

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