Grassroots Role Models

Much of my research focuses on people who make great sacrifices on behalf of others - usually their families and the community. They are often everyday people engaged in everyday forms of resistance who go ignored or dismissed in a society often impressed by individuals with power, fortune, and fame. Yet history, experiences, and research are replete with thick descriptions about grandparents, parents, fictive kin, and community servants who willingly and continually provide time, energy, and resources for the betterment of others. I contend that such persons are grassroots role models to be emulated.

Who should be a role model? To whom should we listen? Who should lead us? Consider the following four traits.

  1. Someone who knows you. It is important that someone who wishes to provide advice and leadership has taken the time to get to know you as well as your beliefs, concerns, challenges, and strengths. This helps them build empathy and sympathy and – it’s just plain logical. It is astounding how many individuals readily take advice from people who barely know them and have not taken the time to do so. This doesn’t mean that your role model needs to be cognizant of every detail about you, only that she should be invested in understanding key dimensions of your life. Someone who knows your past is best suited to help you chart your present and future.

  2. Someone who loves you. Why take potentially life-changing advice from someone without evidence that they really care about you? Yet many people do so daily. A role model should be someone who loves and cares for you unconditionally. No strings attached. No ulterior motives. Many faith traditions and cultures refer to this type of devotion as agape love. It means that this person is looking out for you - many times even more than they are looking out for themselves. This is considered the highest form of love. However, agape love doesn’t mean that your role model will always support you unconditionally (sometimes “no” is the best advice). It means that a person is committed to you and your well-being for the long haul.

  3. Someone who is willing to sacrifice for you. Talk is cheap and a poor role model can be costly. Why have a role model who tells you what to do, but is unwilling to do anything for you? This third expectation is an extension of agape love and means that a role model should be willing to give up certain things on your behalf. Although this type of person is charitable, they will not enable you or support you in poor decision-making. Moreover, a great role model shouldn’t necessarily be expected to give money and/or material possessions, but rather to make herself available for advice, ideas, strategies, and sometimes, just a listening ear.

  4. Someone who is willing to critique you. This is often the most difficult trait to exhibit for a mentor - and the most challenging for a mentee to accept. A great mentor is someone who is wise and thoughtful. Life has taught him about the dangers of false praise and mediocrity. He is willing and able to provide honest, candid, and critical feedback and advice. Being critical does not mean negative, but rather refers to the ability to be objective and insightful. I would question a role model who has difficulty advising you how to be better and do better. Also, a great mentor should be transparent about his own growth areas.

The above four characteristics have benefitted me; I hope they help you. People may sincerely want to be role models, but don’t have the wisdom and wherewithal to fully take on this mantle. Society seems to think that wealthy and/or powerful people automatically make good role mentors. I contend that the best role models are everyday people who exhibit the prudence that comes from: overcoming challenges through hard work; successfully navigating negative situations and social forces; realizing the benefits of kindness and hopefulness, even in the face of problems; leading by example; and, ultimately, understanding and living by the Golden Rule. It is crucial to be discerning about who you choose. Following an inappropriate role model can lead to disaster, but a great one will help educate, equip, and empower you for wisdom, peace, and success!

Redacted from the book, Subverting the Power of Prejudice (2006) by Sandra L. Barnes.

Sandra Barnes