A seat at the table: Mentorships create opportunity for Black, racialized students to succeed

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By Prapti Bamaniya 

When journalist Deanne Gage had to get her picture taken for her magazine’s photoshoot in the mid-‘90s, the make-up artist only had light shades of foundation and no idea how to style Black hair. Gage—wearing a pink suit which complemented her skin tone—didn’t let the woman touch her hair but still got her makeup done.

“The makeup was very ridiculous,” said Gage. “I was young, I didn’t have the [ability] to articulate that it doesn’t look right, so I just let the picture be taken.” 

She said she wished there was someone around to guide her through the industry. “It would have just been helpful to have somebody who looks like me show me the ropes.”

Having had to pave their own path without examples of others like them in leadership roles, Black and racialized professionals in their respective fields say finding good mentorship is a starting point for increasing diverse representation in the workplace. 

Now, they’re giving back by mentoring young professionals of colour to increase representation in their fields and diminish their struggles.

Gage, a Ryerson alum and now editor of Forum Magazine, will be a mentor at the National Magazine Awards’ BIPOC Mentorship Program. The program is designed to provide tools for early and mid-career Canadian publishing professionals who are currently underrepresented in the field. She said she wants to mentor other Black journalists because she knows what it feels like to not see other Black colleagues in the room.

“I’ve never actually really been a [formal] mentee myself or a mentor, but it’s certainly something that I could have used in my career,” said Gage. 

In many industries, like journalism, people of colour are underrepresented in their workplaces. About nine in 10 newsrooms have no Latin, Middle Eastern or mixed-race journalists on staff and about eight in 10 newsrooms have no Black or Indigenous journalists on staff, according to a 2021 survey by the Canadian Association of Journalists.

When she graduated from Ryerson’s journalism program in the late-’90s, Gage was one of the few Black journalism students in her class. She said she often questioned her choice to become a journalist because there weren’t many people who looked like her in the jobs she wanted. 

“It would have just been helpful to have somebody who looks like me show me the ropes”

She added that it was difficult to find a mentor outside of her work or through specific programming, but luckily was able to look up to a Black publisher at one of her previous jobs.

Her publisher taught her how to interact with readers, communicate effectively over email and conduct herself in meetings with people who were higher up in the corporate ladder, all of which are skills she brings to her role as an editor. 

Today, because of that guidance, she said she values talking to people on the phone and in-person as opposed to by email and texting. 

A 2021 study by researchers at the University of Missouri found that women of colour were most likely to report experiencing difficulties in finding a mentor that shared the same identity within their university and had to look outside of the institution for resources to find the right match.

Finding the right mentor was also found to be particularly difficult for women of colour who have multiple underrepresented identities and lack the support to determine who would be a good mentor for them, according to the same study.

Ryerson journalism lecturer and alumna, Sandra Martin is also mentoring with the National Magazine Awards’ BIPOC Mentorship Program and is currently head of newsroom development at The Globe and Mail.

“If you see somebody who looks like you who’s achieved success in an industry that you aspire to, it’s encouraging,” said Martin. “They can share with you some of their high points and low points, it helps you navigate the industry that you’re choosing for yourself.”

When Martin looks around the (virtual) table at most of her meetings in her current job, she said she noticed that she is the only person of colour, so she understands not only how difficult it can be to find a mentor, but also how important it is to be a mentor. 

Martin’s current job focuses on building the best possible newsroom at The Globe and Mail. “I focus on [getting] the newsroom to reflect the population of Toronto…and it’s getting better, and I think programs like this will help.”

When she was first applying for magazine jobs after graduating from the journalism program in 1992, Martin also found that it was very rare to find women in editorial positions. “That’s changed a lot. But I think that’s because women have seen other women start to rise up the ranks.” She said she’s noticed successful women providing mentorship and hopes to see the same with other underrepresented communities.  

“If you see somebody who looks like you who’s achieved success in an industry that you aspire to, it’s encouraging”

For marginalized students pursuing professions that are predominantly white, having a mentor that looks like them can help navigate feelings of isolation and allow for opportunities to connect with others like themselves pursuing the same career.

Mary Achebe, a 2021 biochemistry and neuroscience graduate from the University of Toronto, said she noticed this issue as a student and has since created Racialized Students in Healthcare, a mentorship and networking program specifically for racialized students pursuing careers in healthcare.

The program hosts a weekly lecture series led by Black and Indigenous health care practitioners working in the field and offers networking opportunities through various workshops. 

She said the mentorship portion of the program runs for six months so that students have an opportunity to become familiar with their mentor and have research and community engagement opportunities that are otherwise unavailable.

Ryerson university’s tri-mentoring program also offers peer-to-peer, group and career mentorship opportunities for students from equity-seeking groups to support them in their career goals.

According to a study by the European Molecular Biology Organization, BIPOC mentorship opportunities can lessen imposter syndrome, which affects women and minorities disproportionately. These mentorships also create a more inclusive and comfortable environment to learn without microaggressions, the study said. 

“You just want to see something change, and you have to make that change yourself,” said Achebe. “This program creates more employment opportunities…and it would make recruitment a lot easier for Black students in particular, because it can be difficult.”

Racialized Students in Healthcare also provides monthly workshops hosted by Indigenous women on the Indigenous experience in health care and plans on expanding the program to include more participation of Black and racialized students from different universities.

“The amount of power in actually seeing somebody who looks just like you working in business has the capability to make an actual difference in a career,” said Gage.

With files from Serena Lopez

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