Investing in Mentorship Connects Feminist Scholars Across Generations

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Investing in Mentorship Connects Feminist Scholars Across Generations

An Interview with Leah Middlebrook, daughter of former Clayman Institute director, Diane Middlebrook

by Erika Gallegos Contreras on Wednesday, August 30, 2017 - 10:11am

Central to the Clayman Institute’s mission is offering opportunities to Stanford University students to help cultivate the next generation of feminist leaders. Available to high school, undergraduate, and graduate students, in addition to postgraduates and faculty, our fellowships and internships work to elevate the critical value of intergenerational mentorship in both the growth of these future leaders and the building of feminist alliances across generations.

Our Summer Internship Program, for example, is just one of our programs with these goals in mind. The program’s mission is to support students in their efforts to conduct research on issues concerning underserved populations, including low-income communities and women of color.

This summer, the Institute welcomed six bright young students. High school interns were selected from Bay Area public schools: Andrea Halsted, from Mountain View High School (’18); Gaurav Sandhu, from Santa Clara High School (’18); and Maya Jones, from Menlo Atherton High School (’19). The Susan Heck undergraduate interns, named in honor of one of the Clayman Institute’s founders who had a special passion for mentoring undergraduate students through academic researchinternships, each carry diverse, interdisciplinary interests: Mirna El-khalily (’20) is considering a trio of majors, including Economics, Sociology, and Education; Nya Hughes (’18) is majoring in African and African-American Studies; and Rachelle Pabalan (’18) is majoring in English and Creative Writing, with a minor in Education.

In the spirit of the Institute’s value on intergenerational mentoring, each high school intern is paired with an undergraduate intern to receive professional and personal mentorship. From conversations about the college experience to gender research, these young students get to share their experiences as feminists and this year, as all being young women of color. 

The undergraduate interns also introduce the high school interns to academic research via their respective research projects that they present to the Clayman Institute community at the end of their internship. All interns have the opportunity to learn from conversations with or presentations by our fellows, researchers, and staff members.

Thanks to the generous support of key donors like Leah Middlebrook, The Goodnow Fund, and The Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, the Internship Program has recently blossomed and expanded its offerings to both high school and undergraduate students, including professional development workshops, mentoring and collaborations on research projects, and weekly seminars with many expert speakers on feminism and gender in culture and society. 

For Leah Middlebrook, a professor of Comparative Literature and Romance Languages, as well as the Director of Pedagogy for Comparative Literature, at the University of Oregon, investing in the Clayman Institute’s program offerings to students carries special significance. She is the daughter of the late Diane Middlebrook, a professor of English at Stanford University and former director of the Clayman Institute.

“It feels like I grew up there, in a funny kind of way,” Middlebrook said of her connection to the Clayman Institute. Her affection to the Institute was born with her mother’s work when she was just a child. “My mother was an intuitive and excellent mentor, and that included getting me excited about the fact that she had to work all the time,” she said. “There were a number of things that were cool about my childhood, but one of the things was when my mother would say, ‘We have to go to CROW,’ because the Institute started as the Center for Research on Women.”  

She named Marilyn Yalom, Myra Strober, Jackie Barnett, Barbara Babcock, and Estelle Freeman as just a few of the women that made her childhood memorable at CROW, now the Clayman Institute. “I don’t think I knew at the time that one of the things that was so great about CROW was that it was all women. I don’t think I processed that, but I do believe it was an important part of the energy.”

After her mother died in 2007, Middlebrook wanted to memorialize her in a meaningful way that not only captured her mother’s dedication to her students and to gender research but to the type of mentorship that her mother fostered throughout her life. “To support the Clayman Institute was absolutely what I wanted to do,” Middlebrook said. “My mother in both conscious and unconscious ways worked to bring out the best in women, and throughout my life I have met so many people who were just completely transformed by meeting and working with her.”

“I know that the successes I achieved in my own career have a lot to do with having grown up around my mom, who really knew how to connect, inspire, and also back off for a while and just see what happens,” Middlebrook continued.

 The gift she has given, with the aim of promoting feminist mentorship, is not only named for her mother, but also for her grandmother, Helen Downey Wood. Middlebrook explained, “Everyone on my mother’s side of the family is invested in education and in helping women thrive. My grandmother did not have the opportunity to go to college, and the reasons she didn’t have the opportunity to go to college have a lot to do with what it meant to get pregnant in the 1930s. That ended her career, and maybe she could have gone back, but it was just a different time. I want to acknowledge how central my grandmother was to my mother’s and my thriving.”

Mentorship is a lifelong relationship inside and outside the classroom, on and off campus, that can steer people towards the kind of choices that can lead to greater opportunities, intellectual enlightenment, and social compassion. As evident in Leah Middlebrook’s own story, we at the Clayman Institute believe in the power of mentorship to transform lives and relationships with one another.