When I started my journalism career in the mid-2000s, I had mentors abandon me. During a career crisis, journalist friends ghosted me. Some were busy. Others gossiped about me. The message became clear: If I was going to succeed in journalism, I’d have to do it by myself.
I sustained that philosophy throughout the next 15 years, working at major publications as a freelancer, staff writer and, ultimately, an editor. As a journalist of color in predominantly white newsrooms, I often felt like an outcast, but I always sucked it up and tried to forge a path based on merit, without the help of others.
At least until 2019, when I was about to get laid off from my dream entertainment editing role at Bustle. That’s when I realized I didn’t — and shouldn’t — go through it alone. I turned to my allies, mentors and a therapist to get me through the eventual layoff.
And I’m not the only person of color who had this realization in their career. Health-care executive Errol Pierre wrote the book “The Way Up: Climbing the Corporate Mountain as a Professional of Color” based on the philosophy that because BIPOC professionals are often the minority in many workspaces, they should have a “personal board of directors” to help advise on their careers.
The idea is based on the concept of a corporate board of directors, a group of people who serve as a CEO’s boss and set the course of a company. Journalists from underserved communities especially need to lean on each other in a majority white, elite-educated industry.
“Why do companies have board directors? They need unbiased people who are sitting at the table that are giving unvarnished feedback as to what the company needs to do to be successful,” said Pierre, who believes this approach can work across all industries, especially journalism. “You have to have the same thing for yourself.”
Pierre suggests having mentors, allies, champions and therapists on a personal board – components myself and other journalists have seen as crucial in our careers. Here’s how you can start building.
Looking for the right mentor might seem intimidating and awkward, but freelance journalist jarrett hill found many mentors throughout his over 20-year career in radio, TV, print/digital, podcasting and teaching at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism. Some were his editors; others were people who made an impression on him at meetings.
“My mentors have been people that haven’t always necessarily come in as a mentor,” hill said. “They’ve come in as a person who had something to say, or offering some advice. And then I had to follow up. I’ve been active about approaching people and asking them questions, and that’s been really, really helpful for me.”
Pierre agreed that following up and asking questions are key in finding a mentor. But it starts with sending an email to the person, asking for a 15-minute virtual coffee chat.
If the person responds yes, Pierre suggests starting slowly and asking about the mentor’s upbringing and how they achieved success. From there, you set another meeting in a month and work your way up to a strong mentor-mentee relationship.
“It should happen very organically,” Pierre said. “It was painless, and you’ve just begun the process of seeing if they’re going to be a great person for your relationship. And then in 30 days, you set the agenda.”
For journalists of color, finding an ally who looks like them can be a challenge in newsrooms. A Pew Research Center study published in April found that most major beats — like entertainment, politics and business — were dominated by white journalists, while there were only single-digit percentages of journalists of color.
Even so, Olivia Truffaut-Wong, a full-time editor at a major women’s magazine and one of my best allies in journalism, actively keeps her eyes open for women and journalists of color who she can count as allies. We met as entertainment editors at Bustle and bonded over being half-Asian, laughing that together, we made our team’s “one full Asian.”
“I’m wondering, ‘Are you someone that I can connect with? Like, what’s your level?’” she said. “Because everyone has a different relationship to their ethnicity and identity and also the work. I’m not trying to force my kind of self onto anyone, but I’m not afraid to talk to people and find out.”
Allies aren’t just other people of color, because not everyone who is the same race or ethnicity will necessarily make the perfect ally. The allied relationship is often intuitive and proven through action. Truffaut-Wong counts several white former colleagues and editors among her allies after finding they had similar views and values.
Outside newsrooms, diversity organizations like the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the National Association of Black Journalists and the Native American Journalists Association can help you find allies at their national conventions. That was hill’s experience with NABJ. In 2016, he broke the story via Twitter that Melania Trump’s Republican National Convention speech plagiarized one by Michelle Obama. Because of that, NABJ invited him to the organization’s national convention, and since then he’s been active in NABJ and is now the Los Angeles chapter’s president.
“It was a really, really amazing experience for me to be in a room with so many other journalists who are also Black, that are journalists and producers and writers and creatives,” he said. “And it’s been one of the most transformative things for me.”
Even if you can’t make it to the conventions, Pierre said, private online spaces, like the Journalists of Color Slack, are just as helpful.
“It’s a safe space where you know that you’re not the only person of color,” Pierre said. “I find those rooms are asking, ‘Is it just me?’ And you realize, ‘Oh, no, it’s not just me.’ That’s where you can test your language and where you can find ideas and nuances.”
Even after being equipped with allies, journalists of color should have a specific type of ally who is a senior leader willing to lift them up, called champions. When Truffaut-Wong and I worked together at Bustle, we had a champion – then-Executive Editor Jada Gomez. She invited us to a pitch meeting for Asian American-Pacific Islander Heritage Month filled with senior editors — and we were the only Asian junior editors in the room.
As a result of that meeting, Truffaut-Wong and I pitched separate stories, which were approved and then featured in the 2019 AAPI Month issue. It meant a lot to me to be part of that meeting, and Truffaut-Wong felt the same way.
“She invited us even though we weren’t technically, officially supposed to be invited,” Truffaut-Wong recalled. “I had just been loud about it in meetings and got invited, which I noted. Other people since have done that for me, and I have continued to think about how I can do that for other people.”
Pierre believes having champions is a crucial part of a journalist of color’s support system — and finding them isn’t as challenging as it may seem.
“Champions are people who are in a position of influence that are in the rooms you can’t get into that speak on your behalf,” Pierre said. “You’re interviewing those people every day. People are always watching, even the emails you send. I always write emails, assuming they get forwarded to the CEO.”
After experiencing depression in college, Truffaut-Wong found having a therapist was helpful at the start of her career. In 2013, during her senior year at Barnard, she had the chance to cover the “Olympus Has Fallen” junket and screening for the Columbia Spectator, but she was anxious about networking at the event.
Her therapist encouraged her to reach out and make connections — advice that yielded positive results.
“I was talking to my therapist, and I had no idea what I was going to be doing after college,” Truffaut-Wong said. “My therapist said, ‘Well, maybe let’s just try to talk to one person at the screening.’ So, I sat next to this man and I talked to him. He ended up giving me my first job.”
Therapy isn’t just helpful at the beginning of your career. Pierre recommends that journalists of color should see a therapist throughout — especially as they get promotions.
“It’s lonely at the top, and that’s why a therapist is important as part of your personal board of directors,” Pierre said. “Because it will be scary — there is no one around that looks like you. You will be intimidated, but you’re making the road better for the next person. So the next person who comes up will have an easier path.”