Mentorship: It's a 2-Way Street

Mentorship can be transformational for personal and professional growth and development, but the magic that happens through the relationship between mentor and mentee is hard to define.

When envisioning a mentoring relationship, we often picture an elder passing down sage advice and solutions to a more novice soul eager to absorb these “truths” and apply them as they grow. However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t probe a little deeper; this imagery fails to recognize that, when at its best and most impactful, mentorship moves beyond a one-sided, transactional relationship and becomes an essential component of growth and development for all. This has certainly been true for participants in the Community Food Systems Mentorship Program, a national initiative led by the Wallace Center at Winrock International that builds mentoring relationships among food systems leaders across the US.

Derived from the Greek mythological character, Mentor, in Homer’s poetic epic, The Odyssey, the word “mentor” has been adopted into the English language to mean ‘someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge,’ and has become synonymous to a ‘trusted counselor or guide.’ However, in a recent interview with the Wallace Center, Malik Yakini, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and a mentor in the Wallace Center’s program, challenges this common definition. Yakini proposes instead that the concept of Jegna, originating in the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia), more accurately captures the essence of these relationships. While a Jegna can be defined as a person who deserves respect and honor and whose work it is to synthesize wisdom from life long experience and formulate this into a legacy for future generations.” (Source- there is also an understanding inherent in the meaning that as one person receives knowledge from a Jegna, there is also a responsibility for the receiver to serve as a Jegna to pass knowledge on to others.

                “While it is extremely important that we have systematic ways of passing down the knowledge and cultural memory and life experiences of people who are more experienced to those who are perhaps less experienced [, we need] to be careful not to create a hierarchy when we talk about mentorship,” Yakini cautions.   “What I have found is that everybody is bringing something to the table. I can’t possibly see the world in the way that a 20-year old sees the world, because they have been shaped by different forces. That is not to say the way I see the world is better than the way a 20-year-old sees the world, it’s different.” (Listen to the full interview here.)

It is this mutually beneficial type of “mentorship” and “Jegnaship” that participants in the Wallace Center’s Food Systems Leadership Network’s Mentorship Program experience. By pairing Food Systems Leadership Network (FSLN) members with proven and seasoned leaders as thought partners to work through problems and serve as a sounding board for their ideas, individuals are supported as they navigate the complex challenges inherent in leading social change and community development initiatives.

Participants in the Wallace Center’s program have spanned the full range of organizations working on food systems from small nonprofits organizing stakeholders in one county to national and international organizations. Mentorship works for such a diverse set of organizations because it’s the connection between two people that matters. For mentees, the value is in having a regularly scheduled time with an objective, experienced peer who can help process experiences, provide perspective on their work, and guide them in developing their changemaking strategy.

Different from technical assistance, where an outside expert informs a client on how something should be done, the Community Food Systems Mentorship Program challenges mentees to discover their own solutions. As they get to know their mentees and ask the right questions, mentors draw on the mentee’s experiences, resources, and creativity to think critically, develop solutions, and envision the future. As one mentee explains, “My mentor asked thought-provoking questions that helped me discover my values, beliefs, and priorities without ever pushing ideas on me. This program has been incredibly instrumental in helping me shift to the next stage of my career.”

Nonprofit staff working on food systems change have a wealth of knowledge, but due to the constraints of their day to day work, are often not provided an opportunity to be inquisitive, learn new skills, explore new approaches, and reflect on and synthesize their lived experience. Miles Gordon, an FSLN Mentor, has observed this dynamic in the food systems leaders he’s worked with.  “When fully immersed in their own work and work environments - that more often than not do not provide reflective space and professional development opportunities - there are limited opportunities to do this self-work. Once opened to it through the mentorship, I have witnessed new levels of self-confidence and the development of clearer visions of who they are in this work, their current place in the movement and their organizations, and where they want to go next with their visions and needs.”

Having someone they admire - who is familiar with the complex nature of food systems - recognize their work, validate their experience, and encourage them to make time for self-care and reflection gives mentees the boost they need to take the next step in their leadership journey. Through this process, mentors are challenged to reflect upon, summarize, and communicate their experience, provide professional support to someone outside of a supervisory role, and practice their listening skills. Perhaps even more importantly, though, mentors are offered new perspectives, unique and complex challenges, and a renewed sense of confidence in the good food movement. Several Community Food Systems mentors have reflected on this reciprocal nature of mentorship:

“Being an FSLN Mentor has reaffirmed my belief in the individual strength, intelligence, and passion of community food systems leaders throughout the country. However, those attributes can get stalled and dulled without a consistent space for self-reflection, confidential support, and personal growth that the mentorship aptly provides.” -Miles Gordon


“I have grown tremendously as a result of serving as a "mentor" through the Community Food Systems Mentoring program. The reality is that my interactions with "mentees" have been a two-way street. As I share experiences and advice, it helps me to sum up and solidify my own learnings.” -Malik Yakini


Relationships of mutual reflection and knowledge sharing have deep roots in cultures around the world, highlighting their timeless value. While the idea of mentorship and/or Jegnaship may be hard to define, it is not hard to see its benefits. The value is in the changes mentees make to their daily practice and the increased confidence mentors and mentees feel in their own capacity as a food systems leader.

The Community Food Systems Mentorship Program is one of the few formal pathways for community-based practitioners to connect with profoundly accomplished food systems leaders in a mentoring relationship. In 2019, the Mentorship Program expanded to include nine, nationally-renowned food movement leaders that bring with them a wide range of expertise and experience. Learn more about the program here:

The Spring 2019 Mentors are:

  • A-dae Romero-Briones, JD, LLM (Cochiti/Kiowa), Director of Programs – Native Food and Agriculture Initiative, First Nations Development Institute
  • Amy Kincaid, Vice President for Programs, Business Alliance for Local Living Economies
  • Angel Mendez, Interim Director, Red Tomato
  • Anupama Joshi, Executive Director, Blue Sky Funders Forum
  • Karen A. Spiller, Principal, KAS Consulting
  • Neelam Sharma, Executive Director, Community Services Unlimited Inc.
  • Malik Yakini, Co-founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network
  • Miles Gordon, Founder, the Gardens Project, and Principal, Kitchen Table Consulting
  • Paula Daniels, Co-Founder, Center for Good Food Purchasing

The Mentorship Program is a core service available to members of the FSLN, a national community of practice that strengthens the leadership, management and organizational effectiveness of nonprofit, community-based organizations using food systems as a platform for social change in their communities.

To become a member of the Food Systems Leadership Network or learn more, contact or visit


The Wallace Center develops partnerships, pilots new ideas, and advances solutions to strengthen communities through resilient farming and food systems. Learn more at:

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