I gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. (II Esdras 1:30)
“May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” (Ruth 2:12, NRSV)
As the former national adviser to the Church of England’s Committee for Minority-Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC), Dr. Elizabeth Henry is no stranger to leadership. Formerly a chief executive of Race on the Agenda (ROTA), she is renown for her keen examination of racial justice issues and a lifetime of work in executive positions. No matter where she serves, however, Henry has naturally gravitated toward mentorship.
Recalling a moment when she served as an executive director alongside 11 White women, Henry remembers what it felt like to be the only person of color. The structural racism she experienced was in being told by her vice president, “You are the best director we have, but you will never be promoted any further.”
Henry calmly responded, “Thank you.” The vice president was amazed at the response received. But when pressed, Henry let her know that she appreciated that she was finally being told the truth and then ended by saying. “Your problem is that you didn’t realize I already knew this.”
Elizabeth Henry’s story is not simply one of recognizing structural issue of race. She is well received as one who uses power from the margins to create and shelter greater possibility.
In this same position, there were 12 women functioning as directors. Each had personal assistants – all but one was Black. “The reason those directors never succeeded in getting rid of me is because I had each of those P.A.s. The directors freely talked in front of the P.A.s. All the plans they made to do things to me that would have me sacked never worked.”
She laughed and revealed that, the P.A.s. would tell her P.A. what was being planned. “It never worked out for them,” she said wryly.
But her tone changed and as she continued. “Let me tell you something about those Pas. Every one of them was a bright young woman. They were all mostly in their early 20s. I worked on every single one of them.”
And she did. Henry coached them, encouraged them, challenged them. “If I could tell you where those girls are now: Two are in top IT companies in the U.S. One is a top model. Three have their own businesses. Two are educators. I have always seen this.”
Thinking back to her own success as something which she did not create on her own, she said with passionate conviction, “We stand on shoulders! Whatever I am privileged to have and wherever I will get to in my life, it is not me alone. It never has been and never will be. As long as I live, I will look to each side to bring along other people whenever I can.”
Said Henry, “I do a huge amount of mentoring and coaching. I do this with men and women. I call it ‘walking alongside.’ I advise. I support. I mentor.”
Of the women she mentored, Henry mentioned one woman who is, as she said, a “top entertainer in the U.S.” When Henry met the woman, she actually hated herself due to her dark complexion.
Langston Hughes famously penned the poem, “I, Too, Am America.” He talked about being the darker brother within the fabric of the human family. One of those P.A.s Henry would mentor was a dark skinned sibling, forced to take her plate and eat under the table.
As the woman would later explain to others, “[Dr. Henry] would not let me give up. That’s why I am where I am today.”
Like Henry, Black women do have a response to racism. It might not be for us to fix the unjust systems of oppression that we did not create. It may not be to educate White friends and colleagues. But our responsibility is to look down and see where we are standing. If we are standing on the shoulders of others who sacrificed, who would not give up and refused to die – then we have a responsibility to someone other than ourselves.
Mentors are accessible, they bear witness to our gifts, they open doors for us, and they often provide shelter against that which assaults us – especially when those assaults come from within. It may be tempting to withhold support and give it, only to those in our own academic or religious institutions. But the reality is, by limiting the scope of our wisdom, by shortening our wing span to only enclose certain people under the protection of our wisdom, our reputation and clout, we leave many others in the cold. This, dear sisters, is exactly what racism does.
Says Henry, “I mentor people whether they are Baptist or Methodist – it doesn’t matter. The Church is about being inclusive and not exclusive.” If you look under your own wings and see little chicks who only look like you, your institution or your denomination, open your wings wider. There are others in the cold needing a shelter. Your mentorship provides them with the skills and security to one day soar.
Written By: Prof C L Nash