When I was 14, I was lucky enough to have a theatre director who taught me to not only be a renaissance theatre man, but also a well-rounded person. One day he brought in a recording of a speech by a man named Harvey Milk. When he brought in that cassette tape, this teacher didn’t know he was planting a seed that would help shape my life, my family, and my career.
What he did know is that for many, hope is everything. That if he gave us hope, we might pass it along to others. And that with hope, we can overcome. That’s what mentors do every day.
When I was asked to appear in a video for National Mentoring Month, I was honored. Preparing for the shoot I found myself thinking through who my mentors were, and wondering what being a mentor means to me. Does a mentor need to be a public figure? Or are mentors our teachers, our community coaches, our moral north-stars, or our neighbors that help us navigate growing up?
The answer to this question is a mentor can be all the above. Mentors don’t need to be perfect, they need to be present. They help us uncover and pursue our passions and purpose. That’s what my theatre director did for me. And in doing so, he gave me the gift of hope.
By way of sharing that recording, a mentor of mine was relaying the words of someone who served as a role model for many. Harvey Milk’s words inspired me then and continue to live on, encouraging countless people every day to be courageous, bold, and kind. His never-ending commitment to strengthening humanity was fueled by his refusal to let hate beat out hope. And his desire for equality brought the most unlikely of people together, reminding us to see the best in each other, even when it seems impossible.
This notion of empathy is one of the most valuable things mentors can help young people adopt. Today, many rightfully feel that the world is going in the wrong direction, making it often feel like a very lonely place. But these times also unveil opportunities for great change. And while the prevailing narrative tells us that we are divided, the truth is that adults and young people are coming together across differences at overwhelming rates through mentoring. Adults are crossing racial, economic, and ethnic bridges to mentor young people outside of their families. This is the power of relationships at play.
Like all parents, my husband and I want our son to grow up in a world better than we did. Mentoring is one of the most powerful ways to help make that happen. Mentorship can be the greatest purveyor of hope. Not only do mentees find guidance and hope in those who serve as their mentors, but these same caring adults are often inspired by the optimism they find in the young eyes of the future. We can learn a great deal by looking at the world from a child’s perspective.
We’ve come a long way since Harvey was assassinated in 1978, but we still have mountains to climb. Change is happening every day, even if not at the pace we would like. The great news is that you can help be a part of the change, and you get to decide how big of a role you play in that effort each day.
As my theatre director did with all of his students, I encourage you to practice mastering many roles. Imagine if each person reading this chose to be a helper, an advocate, a champion, a thought leader, an innovator, or an ally. What if all you had to do to change the world for the better was to try to bring people hope by showing up, by being there, in real life? The truth is, being there is everything. Being there is the well from which hope springs.
You can be that well. You can be a mentor. You can be hope. Find out how you can be a mentor here.
Dustin Lance Black is an Oscar-winning writer. He recently partnered with MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership to call on adults to become mentors for youth in their communities.