I thought I’d got off at the wrong floor at first: the buzz of conversation was loud, even from the lift lobby. I was priding myself at having arrived early for the Mentoring event, thinking I’d have time to catch up with a few friends and the Foundation team before making my way home from London. But as I entered the room was full. Buzzing.
When I started working with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, things were simple: to create opportunities for women in the developing world to be matched with mentors who, together, would learn and share skills and expertise. Things were simple because, although the plans were grand, there were only thirty women in the first intake.
Easy: no need for microphones and online communities. You could ring them all in an afternoon if it came to it. So how did we get to here? A room so crowded I could barely grab a canapé in the scrum?
Oh, and friendship.
Ok, lots of things. Which may be one reason why it was so crowded.
Because although the Foundation’s Mentees often work alone, may even feel isolated or have had bad experiences before, it turns out that they’re not. From the first thirty, the Foundation will soon have over nine hundred relationships running, in around fifty countries. Which means one thing: they’re going to need a bigger room.
But it wasn’t all champagne and sausage rolls: as a man, I feel out of place in that crowded room. Welcomed, but strangely like I’m trespassing sometimes. Because in some ways i represent the forty nine odd percent of the population who bring the assumption that they have the control, that they hold the power, who make us need to talk about ‘equal‘ rights rather than just all of our rights.
I was talking to a Jordanian friend yesterday about the conflict in the Middle East. I had to say to him “I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you some stupid questions, and I’m afraid I may say something you disagree with by mistake. I may even offend you“. Why? Because I’m largely ignorant about it. It’s not my everyday reality. It’s not my world. He expressed his concerns too, explaining how he rarely talked about his religion and convictions because it sometimes led to conflict. But we talked, and I learnt a bit. I started to understand his views. It’s a funny thing, but when people talk, barriers fall down.
It’s like that when I’m mentoring: we start the relationship ignorant, bringing our history, preconceptions and hopes with us, separated by barriers of culture and experience (and, in my case, gender), but as we talk, the barriers fall away until, without realising it, we are building a shared experience, transcending the barriers and forging a relationship based on trust, rooted in a community spread around the world.
Which is why I believe in the work the Foundation does, why I’m so terribly proud to be one small part of it, why I’m so frustrated that I can’t do even more sometimes (and why I hope you’ll join in this journey too).
The preconceptions I bring into that room are in my head: it’s not about being a man or being a woman, it’s not about being first world or developing world. It’s about being willing to invest your time, the one thing that’s yours to spend and yours alone, and finding that you can buy with it something more important than champagne and new shoes. You can build trust and you can effect change. Which is how the world becomes more fair, which is how we become equal.