Catalysts for Radical Growth: Celebrating Mentorship for Mental Health Awareness Month 2024

Catalysts for Radical Growth: Celebrating Mentorship for Mental Health Awareness Month 2024


By Brandy Ingram

Brandy Ingram is a member of Pongo’s Marketing Committee.

The longer I live, the more deeply I learn that love—whether we call it friendship or family or romance—is the work of mirroring and magnifying each other's light.”

James Baldwin, "Nothing Personal" (1964)

Fun fact: James Baldwin was a mentor (and surrogate brother) to Maya Angelou. He pushed her to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by telling her she couldn’t do it. At times, mentors must act in mysterious ways. But mentors do more than push you to achieve a specific goal; they help expand your sense of self.

All humans—young people especially—need positive, healthy relationships, and mentoring has been shown to strengthen development, health, and overall success. Mentors are like surrogate parents, except they can present different viewpoints beyond the family system. As a result, the mentee is able to develop an identity beyond familial expectations and “shoulds,” which can so often keep people trapped in unhealthy or self-sabotaging patterns. For young people already in “the system,”—for a variety of reasons that are too often not their fault—having an empathic, encouraging adult figure can make all the difference.

In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care. You must care. You don't have to know how many square miles are in Idaho, you don't need to know what is the chemical makeup of chemistry, or of blood or water. Know what you know and care about the person, care about what you know and care about the person you're sharing with.

Maya Angelou

And the coolest part about this kind of relationship? Mentors grow alongside their mentees. Take Mark Johnson, for instance, a writer and Pongo poetry mentor who has been working with adolescents at the Clark Children and Family Justice Center for over a decade. “When I decided to mentor, I didn’t realize how much it would work on me,” he shares. “Watching them be honest with themselves—including honest with themselves about their conflicting feelings of wanting to push against and pull towards the people around them… seeing that has been interesting to me because it’s made me look back at a lot of times and things I went through at that age.

Mark Johnson, Pongo poetry mentor at the Clark Children & Family Justice Center


For Mark, working with adolescents in an artistic-therapeutic capacity has opened the door for deeper reflection, inviting growth in beautiful, unexpected ways. A self-described “nervous talker,” working with mentees has taught him the value of allowing others space and time. “In mentoring, I’ve learned how important it is to not jump to fill silence—to give just enough input to move things along,” he notes. “Listening very carefully to what comes out after that silence has been revelatory for me in terms of how to be a mentor.”

The shared presence of the creative act is, according to Mark, another beautiful facet of the mentor-mentee relationship. “Pretty much any day you sit down with somebody to write, you can get to at least a few lines that could be written by no one else but the person sitting across from you,” he attests. Witnessing another person engage in the act of creating something from the heart, of their unique circumstances, provides a sense of therapeutic communion for both parties. If only everyone could pump the brakes on hustle culture, and pause to see, validate, and value others—especially their children—in this way.

But being a mentor is not all roses. Mark admits that he has heard some harsh tales and truths as youths struggle to heal their spirits and own their pasts. Upon hearing a particularly tough story, he recalls asking himself: “Where does redemption lie in that? How can I withhold judgment?” This is part of what pushes the mentee to grow: the call to acceptance, profound empathy, and expansion of the self to be of greater service to others. By stepping up to this task, Mark and mentors like him have changed more lives than they know.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou

Mentors are selfless and compassionate; they shine light on pieces of yourself you can’t always see; they bear witness to your hardships and doubts; they plant mental seeds to cultivate acceptance, agency, and confidence; they show you how to proceed with grace, and validate you when you don’t feel so graceful; they are catalysts for radical self-growth.

For Mental Health Awareness month, we at Pongo invite you to consider reflecting on writing on of the prompts below. If you’re so inclined, share your writing on social media and tag Pongo to be reposted!

  • Who is the active listener in your life?
  • Who is someone who sees you through a non-judgmental lens?
  • Who had the biggest impact on you as a child?
  • Who is a mentor in your present life?
  • What’s a lesson you’ve carried with you as a result of this person?
  • What qualities, words, feelings, and colors come to mind when you think of them?
  • Write a letter to your mentor—thank them, share how you’ve grown, or recall and enjoy a past moment together.
  • Write a letter to yourself from your mentor, acknowledging how you’ve progressed and what they might say to help push you through any present or future challenges.

About Brandy

Brandyce (Brandy) Ingram is an educator, jazz-lover, and writer in Seattle. Her poems have been published by Wild Roof Journal, Willowdown Books, Beyond Queer Words, and others. Additionally, her creative nonfiction essays have appeared in The Bangalore Review, Sand Hills Literary Magazine, and The Austin Chronicle. She’s currently crafting a work of historical fiction regarding early 20th-century “lunatic” asylums.

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