There is an African proverb that says “it takes a village to raise a child”. The proverb recognises the importance of community when it comes to parenting and acknowledges the shared responsibility in ensuring a child grows up in a safe and happy environment.
The proverb has always resonated with me and speaks a fundamental truth that can provide a useful starting point for considering the vital role that community can play in breaking down barriers, and more specifically the communal effort often required for social mobility and career progression.
I have often considered some of the reasons why minority groups experience disadvantage and are often underrepresented in positions of power. Whilst there is a plethora of research into why this is, I have found that the positive impact of community can be a useful method of deconstructing or mitigating any systemic disadvantage.
A key way community can help raise aspirations and increase diversity in leadership roles is through providing more opportunities for mentoring relationships to be formed and for existing relationships to be strengthened. For many, a mentor is integral to reaching goals and character development.
From a personal perspective, community has played a pivotal role in where I am today and this is largely a result of the strong mentoring relationships I have formed.
For example, a pivotal moment that solidified my career path and my desire to enter the legal profession occurred when I was in Year 9 and a solicitor from a local high-street law firm, called Mary, came into my secondary school to speak about her job and what it meant to be a lawyer. Prior to this I had been interested in law as an abstract concept however, it was at this point that I experienced a mind-set shift and I began taking practical steps to achieve my goal of becoming a lawyer. After the talk, I remember chasing Mary to her car and she gave me her business card and after weeks of corresponding with her secretary, aged 14, I managed to secure my first ever legal work experience placement over the summer.
Through Mary, I gained an unparalleled insight into the legal world, I had legal terminology explained to me, read case files, went to court, sat in on client meetings and was given a first crack at drafting documents. After this experience, I was able to secure further opportunities at other law firms and a mini pupillage at chambers. From aged 14, unknown to me at the time, I was already building up my CV and developing my commercial awareness.
As I have grown and my career has progressed, my mentoring relationships look slightly different, but the role mentors play is just as important as when I was first starting out. Right now, a relationship I value greatly is the support I receive from my partner mentor at work. It has been really useful in navigating entering the professional legal world. My partner mentor is someone that provides a useful sounding board, cares about my development and I know always has my back. My partner mentor has also helped to demystify the idea of a “partner” and it has stopped being an elusive thing and something I can actually aspire to.
I have found that the key to great mentorship is the bond of trust and mutual respect that is formed. Often this is easier to establish through casual mentoring, however, even more formal mentoring relationships can feel more organic where individuals are paired together and investment is poured into that relationship.
I contribute to my community in turn by sending the “elevator” back down and mentoring other people coming up. Whether this is through volunteering to be a mentor on various schemes or just allocating a couple of hours every week to respond to LinkedIn messages or connecting people I meet with others in my network, this is an invaluable way community can raise aspirations.
We all have a part to play in creating a community where people can thrive. Therefore, it is important to remember as you move forward, to take a look back and open the door for as many people as you can.
Dammy Sokale is a trainee solicitor at Herbert Smith Freehills. Her post was first published in Herbert Smith Freehills’ “Publications from a Community” a collection of thoughts and expressions from internal and external black contributors to mark this year’s Black History Month.