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Mentorship Programs, Saviorism & Paternalism

I often hear mentorship / leadership programs as a solve for existing inequities in the industries I am part of. More women chefs & restauranteurs mentoring new cooks; more mentorship programs for writers of color; more nonprofit executives mentoring smaller nonprofit founders. We are sold the idea that mentorship / leadership programs is a silver bullet to combat the racism, sexism, exploitation, lack of access, etc. that exist in its respective industries — but is it?

Call me jaded, but I have been part of several mentorship / leadership programs & none of them addressed — much less challenged — the power structures in place. Instead, I was funneled into the same toxic, misogynistic & underpaid reality WOC suffer in everyday (but with the fancy title of “mentee”) and matched with mentors who benefitted from all the same inequities that undermined my ability to thrive in the industry.

This is not to say that mentees never see positive outcomes (and this is not a commentary about personal mentor/mentee relationships). But once mentorship moves from an individual relationship to a formal institution / organizational program, its success can no longer just be evaluated by its ability to help a few token mentees from marginalized communities. Too many prominent programs — led by a homogenous, affluent board — are more preoccupied with making themselves look good or having the most famous mentors, instead of being accountable to radically changing the industry for their mentees' benefit. It is yet another example of how white saviorism pretends to do good, when in reality it directs funding, resources, and representation AWAY from grassroots programs built by the communities they service.

If mentorship / leadership programs aim to reimagine — instead of replicate — the oppressive systems that the food (or any) industry is built on, they need to also change the framework they themselves operate on. Here are 5 major questions I pose for those involved in such programs to evaluate if their framework is fundamentally in service of offering mentees increased agency & building a better industry for them to work in.


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