The need for mentorship as a woman of colour

As a single mother, PhD student, and woman of colour, Rachel Zellars says her ability to to succeed and be happy is closely tied to the mentorship she has received — mentorship that she believes women of colour owe to one another.

Rachel Zellars writes a tribute to three people who have helped her survive the world as a woman of colour

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I immigrated to this city 11 years ago and put my law career on hold, naively, to support my partner's dreams. When he fell ill, I became — like so many other women from somewhere else — suddenly tethered to a home, a partner and children that I needed to support.

My life has been made possible through lifelong mentorships with folks who have allowed me to walk in their pathways of experience and know-how. I have been, equally, loved and guided in this world.

As a close friend recently reminded me, "We are our own best resource," and our survival in this city depends on the unconditional love, kindness and guidance we give to one another.

I began my PhD at McGill as a gift to myself and what I believed was my best opportunity to thrive in this place — to live as a single mother of three small children, parent with the integrity I imagined, move beyond poverty and to hold a deep joy in the work I performed. 
Rachel Zellars says her ability to thrive in university as a new immigrant and single mother to three children was thanks to the mentorship she received. (Ali Slattery)

'My survival is tied to those who have already done the work'

It was a tremendously difficult time when I began. My successes and my ability to navigate academia sanely and clearly, have hinged upon the guidance of the women who have held me in that space. 

Lena Palacios, who began at McGill two years ahead of me, spoke candidly in the first few moments of our first meeting about the things, and people, I needed to avoid at the university. 

Under her protection, she taught me a lesson I carry forward now: We must, as women of colour in this city, help each other survive. We simply owe it to one another. 

My advisor, Charmaine Nelson, has also done the same.

We must, as women of colour in this city, help each other survive. We simply owe it to one another.

She is a brilliant, truthful "cartographer" of McGill for me, a hands-on advisor who also makes time for me outside of the university. 

Once, I was writing a chapter for her book, and we were in the final editing stages facing a tight deadline. I would send her a draft at 2 a.m.; she would send it back by 2:30 a.m. with comments and brilliant footnotes. We bantered like this for two weeks or so, often at obscene hours. 

She taught me so much about rigor and love in those few weeks of editing, and she reminded me of the necessity to do what you love.

That survival — the highest kind — is deeply tied to joy. Academia costs too much for Black women, and love — of our labor, our scholarship, our research — is one means of survival within the university. 

Over dinner, over drinks, Charmaine has taught me how the university system works over the last four years. She has made my PhD experience both wholly navigable and joyful. 

Recently, my oldest mentor died. Ibrahim was a man who saw perfection in me at 19, a time when I thought the violence of my past made me less of a human being — less loveable, survivable and grievable — than those who grew up in different kinds of homes. 

He taught me my most important life lesson to date: That all of the broken and splintered bits inside me, make me an infinitely whole human being. This lesson has saved my life more than once.

At 41, I awake each day with the understanding that my survival is tied to those who have already "done the work," so that the spaces I move through have been pruned into spaces that are — by blood, by labor, by past suffering — now more livable. 
"All of the broken and splintered bits inside me, make me an infinitely whole human being." Rachel Zellars says this this lesson from her oldest mentor Ibrahim (right) has saved her life more than once. (Submitted by Rachel Zellars)

Rachel Zellars is a mother, attorney and PhD candidate at McGill, where she researches Black Canadian history and teaches courses focused on critical race theory and Black women's activism in North America. She is a co-founder of the Third Eye Collective, the first organization in Montreal to support Black women who have experienced gendered violence.