Stories of Transformation and Revelation

It’s a bright, brisk January morning when I roll up to the gates of the Thornburg Foundation. I buzz in through a speaker to announce who I am and what I’m doing here at this elegant, imposing office at the edge of Santa Fe. Just so I don’t mess this up, I’ve got the email in hand with the name of the men I’m here to see, two people I have yet to meet.

“Um, hi, I’m here for Michael Weinberg and Riley Bordner,” I respond to the faceless voice in the black box by the gate. The intercom clicks off and the steel gate swings open.

Michael is an early childhood education policy officer at Thornburg. He’s a mentor through the Inspire Santa Fe program, and for several months this year, he’s been working with Riley, a high school senior who has wanted to learn about finance and economics. They are drafting a plan to advise the City of Santa Fe on a proposed tax. Each week, they meet in this palatial building, scheduling interviews with city officials from around the country.

My boot heels click on the long, stone stairwell that leads to giant glass doors at the front of the building, and though I’m wearing my best slacks, I feel under-dressed. A dapper young man approaches me at the front desk, but I really have no idea if this might be Mentor or Protégé. He’s Riley, he says as he shakes my hand. Riley tells me later that it’s partly the formality — including the nice suits — that he loves about coming to Thornburg each week.

Over the course of four months, I met with several mentorship pairs for a podcast project for the Academy for the Love of Learning. Out of the 50-some partnerships in this year’s Inspire Santa Fe program, I got a slice of time to profile just three of them.

The idea was to ask some pointed questions of the mentor pairs, and then act like a fly on the wall. I wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible, to let the adult mentor and the young protégé carry on as if I weren’t there. The trouble was, I wore big, black headphones covering my ears, and held a microphone inches from the protégés’ and mentors’ mouths. I interrupted, saying things like, “please don’t tap your feet or drum on the table.” I tried to smile and laugh along with their jokes — but just with my eyes — and make this feel as natural as possible.

But the truth is, there was nothing about this that felt natural to any of us.

I was asking them to do something hard: to break down, in just a few minutes and to someone they had never met, the complexity of a relationship that is unlike any other relationship in their lives. I wanted to hear about the joy and the struggles, the “aha!” moments and the times they may have wanted to quit. And if they could deliver it in concise soundbites, that would be excellent, thank you.

Isaac Hernandez, a high school junior, and Isabel Chavez, a senior, shared a mentorship this year. They met as a group with three attorneys from the Santa Fe Dreamer’s Project to explore immigration law. Their mentorship had barely begun before the federal administration changed, thrusting immigration policy and international relations into the spotlight. In days, immigration law changed from being simply an important and timely topic to one with urgent significance. Isaac and Isabel were learning material with immediate impact on their communities, and now both say they want to become immigration attorneys after college.

Isaiah Armijo, a senior in high school, has also discovered an abiding passion for the field he explored with his mentor, Mikey Baker. Unlike the other two mentorships, which were only a few months old at the time of our interviews, Isaiah and Mikey’s was in its third year. In that time, they had explored a range of musical styles on guitar, moving from Isaiah’s initial interest in heavy metal toward a lyrical study of jazz. I met them in Mikey’s home studio, where multiple guitars and music stands and soundboards and computers filled the space around a couch and a few chairs. That night was a music lesson, but it was also a performance with me and my microphones and Kira Jones, my co-producer, as the audience.

Try as I might, I was no fly on the wall. But in every interview, the young proteges and older mentors gave me a glimpse into their relationships, and then proceeded to surprise me with their stories of transformation and revelation. They told me how significant it felt to be doing work that had real-world impacts or to gain insight into the experience of someone from a different generation.

But the thing that emerged again and again was how powerfully motivating it is to be given the freedom to really explore a burning question that emerges from your own innate curiosity. Inspire Santa Fe is giving young people that opportunity, and we hope this podcast gives you a glimpse into that experience.