One of the (very few) things I share in common with Oprah Winfrey is that we were both mentored by our 4th grade teachers. Mine was Mrs. Kellogg, who worked extra hard to bring me out of my shy-kid shell, encouraged me to write, and made efforts to build my self-confidence. She had a profound impact on me in just a few months.
Over the years, other people, including college and grad school advisors, mentored me as I explored academic and career options. Without a doubt, my most important mentor in nutrition has been my husband Mark Messina. He’s the person who really taught me how to interpret studies and weigh the scientific evidence. My attempt to be balanced in how I present nutrition information —even when it calls the prevailing vegan dogma into question—is largely due to his influence on me. (So, if you find this to be an annoying thing about me, you can blame him :)
Reed Mangels of the Vegetarian Resource Group was an important professional mentor to me in my early days as a vegan dietitian, too. I was kind of in awe of her vast knowledge of vegetarian nutrition, but I quickly learned that she was generous with that knowledge as well as kind and encouraging. (That pretty much sums up my definition of a good mentor: knowledgeable, generous, kind, encouraging.)
Jack Norris considers me to have been one of his mentors, and that makes me proud since he has also become a trusted colleague—someone to whom I turn for advice on interpreting and presenting nutrition information. Given how much I rely on him now, I guess I must have been a pretty good mentor! Lately, I’ve been mentoring a dietetic student through the Vegetarian Nutrition dietetic practice group, and that’s been a wonderful experience, too.
There is a growing recognition among vegan activists, I think, that new vegans often need mentors. Going vegan is so much more than figuring out what you’re going to have for dinner tonight or finding good recipes (which couldn’t be easier these days). It’s about deciding how you’ll handle your parents’ big anniversary party, where to find comfortable non-leather shoes, what to do about your kid’s class trip to a petting zoo, or what to say when the neighbor brings a gift of non-vegan brownies. Living vegan in an omnivore world is way easier when you have support.
Mentoring new vegans can be a simple matter of striking up a facebook or twitter relationship to help a newbie (or to ask for help if you’re the newbie). But, in academia and especially in the business world, mentorships are planned and structured because they are so highly regarded as important. It’s encouraging to see how many vegan organizations, including local ones, are doing the same by offering vegan mentoring programs.
Some of these programs ask prospective vegans to take a 30 day pledge or challenge, with the promise of support, coaching and mentorship. That’s an approach that works well for some, although for many others, a more gradual transition to veganism might be more realistic. Different approaches work for different people, so mentors should be open to that. The key really is to give support to new vegans or aspiring vegans, meeting them wherever they are and helping them to learn, troubleshoot, and move forward.
If you’re looking for some structured opportunities—as either a mentor or mentee—these are some organizations that offer vegan mentoring programs. I know there are plenty more out there, so if you know of other good ones, please share them in the comments below.