Guest post by by Caitlin Szymanski, Program Assistant, ISU Extension Local Foods Team
Over the last year, I have found one frustrating aspects of my campus-based position to be that I am not always able to provide local food practitioners around Iowa with the support that they need to be able to thrive in their positions. Although I can provide resources and connections to support their work like nobody’s business, because I am not a local food coordinator myself there are times I am left feeling like I am unable to give them the secret ingredient needed to help make things really click for an idea or solution to a challenge – the way that someone who has lived that challenge and has hindsight knowledge can.
During a learning circle that took place in the fall of 2015 with experienced and beginning local food coordinators around Iowa, as well as members of the Local Foods Program team, the need for peer and lived-experience support was openly confirmed. (You can read more about the learning circle and takeaways from this listening session here.) New local food coordinators, especially those who are the first in their newly created position, shared that they can often times feel frustrated, isolated and discouraged due to unclear expectations, differing priorities from stakeholders, and no one else in their office or region with a similar position to talk to about their concerns.
One possible solution to this specific challenge that was raised in the learning circle was the idea of having peer-to-peer mentorship opportunities matching experienced local food coordinators with less experienced ones. Recognizing that most local food coordinators are already over-worked and over-extended, our team set out to obtain funds to create a peer mentorship program that would compensate mentors and be mutually beneficial and fulfilling to both members of a mentorship pair.
In late fall of last year, we were grateful to receive a North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Professional Development Program (NC SARE PDP) grant that provided us with funds to pilot two years of a peer mentorship program, enrolling three mentee-mentor pairs per year.
This past winter our team held a public call for mentees to apply to the program. I was excited that we were able to support and match up all three applicants with local food coordinators who had experience and expertise in the specific areas the mentees identified – Jen Lamos (ISU Extension Wapello County) was matched with Jan Libbey (Healthy Harvest of North Iowa; Sarah Kielly (ISU Extension Buchanan County) with Jodie Huegerich (UNI Local Food Program), and Kellie Solberg (ISU Extension) Woodbury County with Teresa Wiemerslage (ISU Extension Allamakee County).
With the three-month mark of this year’s mentorship just passed, I reached out to the mentees to check in and see how their mentorship was feeling. I was thrilled, but not surprised, to hear that all three mentorships were going really well. Some of the sweet comments they shared included: “I didn’t realize how nice it would be to just have someone to check in with, bounce ideas off of, and help me create a plan for a new project,” and “It feels nice that both of us are supporting each other – we share ideas for feedback and are talking about possible projects to collaborate on together, which I love.” Although it can be hard to tell after just a few video calls what long-lasting benefits these relationships might bring, I am so grateful that the feedback I received from the mentees has already confirmed that this opportunity is providing much-needed interpersonal support.
I look forward to sharing the stories of the mentorship pairs as this year’s program continues. If you have any questions about this program or are interested in being considered for a mentee position next year, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.