This article is about mentoring for social justice. This kind of mentoring is not just about helping those who are younger or less fortunate get ahead. I am writing to challenge those of us who are older to take responsibility to help younger people get together. By get together I mean helping them become more effective participants in an inter-generational web of people working to rebuild our communities based on values of respect, inclusion, healing, equity, love, and social justice.

Are You Mentoring for Social Justice? PART 2

by Paul Kivel

Keep hope alive to avoid burn-out

Besides being passionate and immediate about social change, one of the reasons young people overwork and over extend themselves is a feeling of despair and desperation about the state of the world and the current reactionary period we’re in. Because of our isolation in the U.S., we can be very out of touch with the resistance struggles going on in the rest of the world, or even in other parts of our own communities on different issues. In addition, we may be working with extremely marginalized, violated, or exploited groups of people, experiencing vicarious trauma from those around us. To motivate others, to capture media attention, or to raise money we may have to constantly talk about how desperate the current situation is. All of these factors can fuel our despair.

Give younger people space to acknowledge their hopelessness and to explore the depth of these feelings. You should not try to cheer them up, but you can offer a perspective based on years or decades of activist experience; you can help younger adults understand that throughout the world there are stories of tremendous resistance, inspiration, and hope. People everywhere are organizing to overthrow systems of oppression and to build sustainable, healthy communities. Just looking south of the U.S. I am inspired by the Zapatistas and major resistance and rebuilding struggles in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Argentina. In the streets of South Africa, in rural Indian villages, and in factories in Southeast Asia people are organizing for change. I am also inspired by the many organizing efforts throughout the U.S.

Ask young people what keeps them going? What gives them hope? Share with them your own stories and your knowledge of struggles in other places that encourage you. Talk about the long-term nature of our struggles. Encourage them to take the time to step back from their current involvement to think about the vision they have for a better world.

My mentor has helped me grow and become stronger as a spiritual activist by asking thoughtful questions that push me to articulate the connections between my spiritual experience and my political principles, by listening to me share my personal experiences without judgment or assumptions, and by offering insight and wisdom from her own spiritual and political life journey.

Spiritual roots

One of the things that keeps many of us going is our spiritual5 beliefs and practices. This is a delicate topic to talk about given the private nature of many people’s beliefs and the negative feelings about spirituality prevalent in some progressive circles. Yet, for many of us, our spirituality inspires, informs, and guides our politics. It is foundational for keeping us centered, healthy, and connected in our work. For many younger adults this can be very confusing because they are trying to sort out their spiritual beliefs in a progressive culture which generally does not create space to talk about or affirm spirituality. But as a mentor, if they need or want it, you can offer support for strengthening the spiritual basis of their work which, in turn, will provide a stronger basis for their being able to sustain it.

Many years ago a group of us started a group we called the Marxist Spirituality Collective. We wanted to provide a space for people to feel safe expressing both their spiritual and their political selves. We wanted to create a process to sort out the contradictions we faced in doing political work from a spiritual base. Today, most of us still don’t have such a space to integrate those parts of ourselves publicly. We may not feel safe about being political in spiritual groups or bringing our spirituality into political settings.

If you are uneasy with or unclear about the spiritual basis of your own political work, then this aspect of mentoring will be challenging for you. I have found few progressives who do not have some spiritual base for their work, but that doesn’t mean it is easy, comfortable, or safe to talk about it publicly. First we must be clear with ourselves, and then we can begin to support others in integrating their beliefs with their political work.

Questions to ask yourself

Do you have a set of spiritual practices or beliefs?
If you do, how would you describe them?
Do you talk about them publicly? Why or why not? When, where, with whom, how?
Why might you feel awkward raising these issues with someone else?
How do your beliefs and practices inform and help sustain your political work?

I have found that the best way to bring up these issues with other folks is to ask questions such as:

What kinds of things do you do to center yourself in the midst of everyday life?
What activities help you feel connected to other people, to the natural world, to the earth, or to a greater force in the world?
Do you have any kind of spiritual practice?
What would help you be more disciplined in setting aside time for these activities?
How might doing so nurture and sustain you better?
What might be the consequences of being more public about your spiritual beliefs?

Some people are very reluctant to talk about these issues and you should respect that. Others will be only too glad to have someone to explore this area of their life with–someone who will listen respectfully and non-judgmentally. Use your own judgment about how to proceed, paying close attention to the other person’s responses, as well as to your own level of comfort with talking about spirituality.

Even younger activists have all these expectations that if we want justice, then we should have justice everywhere we are – particularly our organizations and if we don’t then we have only ourselves to blame rather than the material conditions we live in. Helping younger activists develop a complex analysis is critical and helping younger generation leaders deal with these issues and not end up hating themselves for not being able to “transcend’ would be really helpful.

Affirm and celebrate their successes

Giving enthusiastic positive feedback is easy to do but is often neglected by mentors. Many younger adults are in work situations where they receive little positive feedback or encouragement. I think it is very important for mentors to give lots and lots of positive feedback. Being seen and recognized for what they do keeps people going. It allows them to take criticism and to support others. Try to make it a regular practice to notice the successes and achievements of the person you are talking with and tell them about it. If you meet with someone over time you are in a good position to see much more clearly than they the growth, skills, or maturity they are gaining.

You’ll develop your own style of giving positive feedback using phrases such as

I really appreciate
how much you have learned to ….
How you ….
Have you noticed how you are now able to….
Remember how daunting that … used to be for you.
It’s great that you were able to….
Congratulations, that’s quite an accomplishment.
I really see you becoming more mature in your decisions/choices/relationships/etc.
That was quite a challenge you handled successfully.
You are amazing in your ability to …

There are numerous ways to affirm another person. Unfortunately, many of us come from families, school and work experiences and relationships in which we did not receive a lot of affirmation. There is also a culture among progressives of doom and gloom and often an inability or unwillingness to celebrate victories. All of these factors may make us unused to affirming others or uncomfortable acknowledging success.

At first you may find it awkward to give genuine praise and affirmation. Keep at it. Learn to notice the positive. Don’t neglect this crucial part of being a mentor.

And while you are at it, tell others to do it to. Point out the accomplishments of the younger adults around you to your peers. When you introduce younger adults or talk about them in public acknowledgment their contributions. Praise their work and their ideas. Public appreciation brings attention to the vital impact that younger people have and helps build a culture of mutual caring and affirmation. By expressing appreciation you also become a role model for your peers, encouraging them to notice and acknowledge the contributions of younger people.

Help those being mentored figure out real tangible ways to love themselves while still recognizing mistakes, weaknesses and problems.

Giving critical feedback

Giving critical feedback to someone can sometimes be even more difficult than affirming their achievements. Yet when we notice dysfunctional or ineffective habits or behavior in a younger adult we are mentoring, we have to be able to give challenging feedback about what we see. This is never an easy task. Let them know that you are there as their ally ready to help them figure out difficult problems. I think it helps to frame feedback within the positive skills and experience that the person has. Then you can point out an area that you think needs some attention, reassuring them that we each have areas that we struggle with. You can start sentences with phrases such as

“I think you are doing really well in general. I have noticed, though, that one area that gives you problems is….” Or

“Overall you are handling a lot of difficult challenges which would be a difficult for anyone. One issue (setting personal limits, taking care of yourself, getting support, balancing fundraising and program work, supervising staff) seems to come up regularly in our discussions as a challenge for you. What gets hard and what things might make a difference here?” Or

“Even though your work situation is going well overall, let’s talk about how you handle….”

Listen carefully to the response you receive and decide if it is useful to continue talking about this issue. Sometimes it is too painful or embarrassing. Other times the person will be relieved that you mentioned it and all too glad to have some help sorting out alternatives.

Often critical feedback can be phrased as questions about alternatives. Examples would be, “I noticed that you spend most of your fundraising time writing grant proposals, how can you balance that against doing some major donor work?” or “You seem to have a tight group of people who are advising you on this project but I wonder if it would be worthwhile to get perspectives from a couple of people outside the network?”

Don’t be afraid to actually have concrete suggestions or answers to things. The asking of questions to help others think is key to mentoring, but also having real answer to questions when you have them can be helpful. It’s crucial to be complex about your delivery and general approach when giving answers…The thinking behind things is generally more important than the end response itself, if your goal is to help someone think for themselves and develop understanding.

Provide practical support when you can

Besides general time to reflect on their life and situation, younger adults sometimes need support with very practical issues. They may need help negotiating salaries and working conditions with the organization they work for. They may need help setting limits on demands for their time or energy. They may need specific information about legal issues, financial issues, or organizational issues they face. If you have the information they are looking for, share it. If you don’t, you can help them identify what kind of information they need and you may be able to connect them to individuals or organizations which can provide it. Your responsibility is not to know everything but to help them figure out how to find and use the resources that are available.

Many of us end up in leadership positions but don’t get much training in effective supervision or staff development. It’s really great if older, seasoned activists can put in the time to help us work through a particular problem or challenge. Practical ideas of what we might try in a given situation are especially helpful (of course only if such advice is solicited).

Pay attention to transitions

Often young people step into new levels of leadership and don’t bring all the skills, knowledge, information, or training they need. This is a particularly important time for older adults to be there as resources for them. Try and notice when these transitions happen and reach out to offer support. Sometimes people in transitions will need help with specific skills like organizing a press conference, calling donors, supervising staff, or creating a budget. Ask them about what skills or training they have, which they need, and where they might get them. Emphasize that they are facing new challenges and of course they deserve to have the training they need to do their work well. Sometimes their need is broader and they need support from someone who faces the same kinds of challenges they do at the moment. Perhaps you can connect them to someone in a similar situation. You may even be able to help them pull together a support group.

At one point in our area a couple of us realized that there were a lot of younger adults who were working with teens and were indicating that they felt isolated and unable to learn from each other’s experiences. We were able to find a little bit of money to pay one of them to organize a younger adult support network that met every couple of months for a while. This enabled them to find each other (we helped them identify younger adults in the community who might be interested) and to create a supportive network. The relationships built through those gatherings continue to be a nexus of friendship, support, and activism 4-5 years later.

Mentors have played an important role in my life, particularly as I have surpassed the education level (high school) of my parents and moved 250 miles away to college and eventually thousands of miles from home seeking to learn more about the world.

Younger adults from marginal groups

Many of the younger adults you mentor will probably be part of non-dominant groups in our society. Young people of color, young women, young lgbtqq folks, young Jews, young people from low-income background or those with poor educational backgrounds or who have disabilities face serious and unique challenges in taking on leadership. I think a mentor has two responsibilities in this case.

The first responsibility is to help the young person understand and respond to the various kinds of discrimination, exclusion, isolation, lack of acknowledgment, and invisibility they may face in organizational and social contexts where they are part of a less-powerful minority. For example, I may ask a young person of color how racism is affecting them at work, or a young Jew how anti-Semitism manifests in their organization, or a young person from a low-income background how classism is manifest in their co-workers. I usually ask this more as a question such as “Do you think racism might be a factor in the challenges you face?” I always assume that these issues are there. If the person I’m talking with doesn’t immediately acknowledge them, they may well come back to our next meeting and say something like “Last time we met you mentioned anti-Semitism. Although I couldn’t think of anything at the time, since then I’ve been noticing some things that I’d like to talk about.”

The second responsibility of a mentor in this situation is to provide a referral or link with another mentor. If you do not share the particular form of marginalization with the person you are talking with, can you help them connect with someone who does, someone who might have greater insight and experience in dealing with the issues of sexism, racism, disability, etc. that they face. I am not suggesting that you cannot be a good mentor for this person but a part of your mentoring should include helping younger adults find the full range of mentoring experience and role models they need.

It can be really useful for a mentor to talk about how they deal with their own privileges in this society and try to be open about their own process dealing with it and working on it. Again, modeling a self-loving approach is really important, not just in what you say, but in how you are.

Younger adults from privileged groups

Many of the same young adults you mentor will also be part of privileged groups. Just being a resident of the U.S. makes most of us privileged, not to mention the various forms of gender, race, class, ability, and educational privilege many people have. Helping younger adults identify and hold responsibly the various kinds of social privilege they have is another challenge for a mentor. You can only help others deal with privilege if you have done your own personal work on these issues.

Questions to ask yourself

What kinds of social, political, and economic privilege do you enjoy in your life?
Are you clear about how they operate?
Which ones haven’t you looked at carefully?
What kinds of things do you do to use your privilege for the advantage of the community?
What is your next step in dealing with issues of your own privilege?

Because younger adults are struggling to be effective and successful in their work, and because many of them have defined themselves by identities of oppression, it can be difficult for them to acknowledge, much less understand, how privilege operates to their advantage. People often rank their own oppression as much more severe than other issues because for them it is a survival issue and on other issues they live in a culture of normality and power. For example, as a Jewish person I am very sensitive to anti-Jewish oppression but much less aware of the respect, access, and personal effectiveness I benefit from as an able-bodied person. Any system in which we are not personally targeted for exploitation and violence will seem less important to us even though it is not less devastating to those who are targeted by it.

You can help younger adults notice the privilege they enjoy and how it might limit the effectiveness of the work that they do. Since privilege works systematically, operating through the policies and practices of institutions and organizations, it is important to help them move past feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment and towards holding their privilege responsibly, sharing the time, money, connections, resources, or other opportunities they have access to.

Whenever appropriate, ask questions about how white, male, economic, heterosexual, or other forms of privilege are operating in their lives. At the same time, you can share your own understanding of how they operate in your life to create safety for exploring these issues together.

Mentoring is by no means a one way “I’m helping you” street. I live in a world where “Your Struggle IS My Struggle” and this theme, I believe, belongs to all of us. If we intend on building true community, it must be done with love, open communication and mutuality with all the textures and complexities of such a beautiful relationship.


Many of the models we have for mentoring come from work or educational contexts and involve a one-way relationship. One person, usually older, has experience, expertise, or information to pass to the other. But usually learning and growth that is empowering develops out of relationships based on mutual respect and common concern.

Mentoring for social justice should be a two-way relationship. Building an intergenerational community involves creating bonds that are mutual, respectful, and reciprocal. We are each learning and growing, having skills and experience in one area and lacking them in others. We need each other’s support.

Don’t put yourself (or let yourself be put) on a pedestal. Don’t always assume that you have the most experience or insight into an issue. You have much to learn from those you mentor. Younger adults have access to resources, ideas, feedback, and experiences from different times and contexts than you do. Ask for their advice and suggestions, accept their encouragement and appreciation, and acknowledge what you value from them.

While working on this article I asked for feedback from several younger adults that I meet with. I not only received encouragement about the article and appreciation for being invited into the project, but also lots of specific and very helpful ideas and criticism. Nothing breaks down the formality and artificial distinctions between a mentor and another person better than working together on common projects whether they are yours, theirs, or community ones.

The people who have and do mentor me are amazing folks. I’ve noticed that I sometimes hold them to unfairly high standards, which can lead me to feel disappointed when they make understandable mistakes or set boundaries that challenge me. Thank you for your patience, it has helped me cultivate more for myself and other people, and see you as the full person that you are.

Boundary issues

Mentoring relationships can take many different forms and involve varying degrees of relationship. Some can be social as well as mentor focused. However it is the absolute responsibility of the mentor to maintain emotional and sexual boundaries at all times. Being older, more experienced, attentive and understanding to a younger person can be misused as an excuse for emotional and sexual exploitation, particularly (but not only) if the mentor is male and the younger adult is female. It is not appropriate for this relationship to involve any kind of sexual activity. Nor do I think it appropriate for the younger adult to take care of the emotional needs of the mentor. Mentors should get their emotional needs met elsewhere so that the person being mentored does not have to balance their needs against the needs of the mentor. Although mentoring creates a mutual relationship, the primary goal is to support the younger adult being mentored. There can be reciprocity in the relationship, mutual sharing, and informal social activities. But as the mentor, you are responsible for maintaining the non-exploitive nature of the relationship, even if the other person wants more intimacy than is appropriate.

It may also happen that a younger adult is being or has been sexually harassed or abused and looks to you for a “safe” intimate relationship. Proceeding on this basis would not be healthy for either of you. It would be more helpful to discontinue the relationship than participate in one built on abuse of power past or present. If you feel that this may be or has become a problem you should step back from the relationship and talk with a peer who has experience in this area.

One way to keep boundaries clear is to think about where and when you meet with someone. Is it a formal space such as an office, a neutral space such as a coffee shop or park, or a personal space such as a home? If you meet at night is it at a cultural or political event or at a bar? How do you choose where and when to meet? What are the messages and implications for you and for the other person?

There may be occasions where the person you are mentoring needs assistance in dealing with someone who is harassing them. You can help them sort out their alternatives in handling a situation of abuse and getting the support they need. Conversely, you may be mentor to someone who is acting inappropriately with younger staff or colleagues. If, for example, a 35-year-old you are mentoring begins or talks about an intimate relationship with a new 24-year-old staff person you may need to challenge the appropriateness of their actions.

There are non-sexual boundary issues to consider as well. What are appropriate limits on the amount of time, energy, or attention you would give to a person you mentor? When can they call and when are you not available? Would you loan them money if they needed some? If so, how much?

These kinds of boundary issues are complex. You will have to talk with others and use your best judgment about what you say or don’t say, advise or don’t advise, provide or don’t provide. But being aware that these issues can and do come up may allow you to notice the covert signs that a boundary has been crossed and needs to be dealt with.

A final issue that touches on boundaries is credit for joint work, work on joint projects, or credit for ideas. There is never enough credit, public acknowledgment, recognition, and honoring of people’s contributions in progressive circles. Sometimes we will find in ourselves or encounter in others a scarcity mentality about public recognition. We may become angry or jealous of someone who claims or uses material we consider ours, even though we initially shared it with them. At other times there may be competition over who developed an idea and who can claim credit for it. Obviously this can become an issue between peers and co-workers as well. But in the context of mentoring it is important that you be clear about ideas, exercises, or other materials that you have developed and want to retain control over, and those that are in the public domain and available to everyone. It is also important that the resources that you use or develop that contain contributions from people you mentor are fully acknowledged and your use of them mutually agreed on.

Boundaries are fluid and negotiable, but they need to be maintained. If you think that appropriate boundaries are being crossed, sometimes you can check in with the person you are mentoring. More often, however, I have found it useful to check in with someone else who is not involved in the relationship and to ask them about what they think is appropriate behavior in this situation. When we are mentoring someone we like a lot as a person it can be hard for us to see where they or we are overstepping good boundaries in the relationship. It often helps to have an opinion from a more objective person.

All of us have a responsibility to collectively help raise up our community. Doing so thoughtfully with respect to differences in power such as age, race-ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, legal-immigration status, language, etc. is part of what it means to effective support one another. Extending one’s support to a mentee must be done with an eye on why you are doing what you are doing, as well as what is actually supportive to the mentee (as opposed to what you think the mentee needs).

It is difficult to measure your impact

You may never know the results of some of your mentoring. In this way, being a mentor is like being a teacher. Only a few students ever come back and tell you what a difference you made in their lives. You probably affect many more than you realize. However, I’ve found that many younger adults are appreciative of my time and support and they let me know it in various ways. If you are unsure you can always ask them if your time with them is useful.

I also think it is important not to claim a person as someone you mentor. Let the other person acknowledge it if they want to, if they see it that way. I know younger adults who felt disrespected because someone claimed to be their mentor and I know people who claim to be mentoring people who are not really doing so. You should be receiving satisfaction from your relationships with younger adults and you should be checking to see that you are actually supporting them in ways they want. But don’t get caught up in claiming them in conversation with others. I think that mentoring is a personal and confidential relationship unless the person being mentored wants to acknowledge it publicly.

Finally, confidentiality is also crucial to maintain for your conversations with young people. Everything that a person you are mentoring says to you should be completely confidential. In order for them to be able to be vulnerable and to talk about the challenges in their work and non-work lives they need to be able to trust you not to pass on thoughts and feelings they share with you. I don’t think there should be any exceptions to this unless you have explicit permission from them to share particular information with specific people. Mentoring is about their life and they, not you, get to decide what is public and what is not.

On the other hand, we need to develop more of an explicit culture of mentoring so if there are people who have mentored you, let them know you appreciate them and let others know what they provided you.

As a young adult, the support of a more experienced person who affirms my legitimacy as an activist and values my contributions makes such a huge positive difference in my energy level and desire to continue the work.

Advocate for younger adults

Our support for younger adult leaders should continue beyond our one-to-one relationship with them. You may be in an organizational position as a manager, board member, advisor, or community representative where you can influence decisions which affect younger adults. Advocate for adequate salaries and benefits, necessary training, effective supervision, and visible appreciation for their contributions.

Whenever you’re in a meeting, or event, or discussion in which the interests of younger adults are at stake and yet young people are absent (as is often the case) you can be asking why there is no younger representation. You can push for the inclusion of not just one or two as tokens, but of enough young people for serious participation. You can also speak up for their interests so that they are taken into account when decisions are made.

Talk with older adults about how to support younger leaders. Make it an organizational priority. Build it into the programming. And, whenever necessary, interrupt your peers when they are ignoring, disparaging, exploiting, or dismissing the leadership of younger adults.

Younger adults can be mentors too

There is good reason to start people in the practice of mentoring from early on as a form of community service and community building. It strengthens the fabric of our community and enhances our lives. We live in an interconnected web of mutuality to paraphrase M.L. King Jr. Sixth graders can mentor first graders, high school students can mentor middle schoolers, young adults can mentor teens, and older adults can mentor younger ones. There is no age that is too early to start and no age too old. We all need support, advice, and connection. We can all pass on what we know to those younger. Encourage the younger adults you mentor to think about who they can support and encourage. Help them see that they have valuable skills and experience that others can benefit from. For some of us, mentoring is only something we come to as we become older. But there is no good reason why it shouldn’t be built into all stages of our lives.

We all have a lot to learn and if we’re not passing on our lessons we are losing parts of our collective struggle.

The struggle for social justice is ongoing and long-term. We need each other across generations. Together we can build a strong, intergenerational culture of mutual support, struggle, and appreciation. Younger adults are as eager to participate in that as we older folks are. It is time to step forward.

Questions to ask yourself

What is your next step in being a more powerful mentor to younger adults?
What is something specific you are going to do to make it happen?

I’d like to end this article with a few lines from “Ella’s Song” by Bernice Johnson Reagon written to celebrate the important mentoring work that Ella Baker did for young people in the Civil Rights Movement.6

We who believe in freedom cannot rest,
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons,
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons,

That which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people,
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me,…

The older I get, the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young who dare to run against the storm,
Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me,
I need to be one in the number, as we stand against tyranny…”


Block, Peter. The answer to how is yes: acting on what matters. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2002.

Flaherty, James. Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others. Oxford: Betterworth-Heinemann, 1999.

Horwitz, Claudia. The Spiritual Activist: Practices to Transform Your Life, Your Work, and Your World. New York: Penguin Compass, 2002.

Please send comments, feedback, resources, and suggestions for distribution to pkivel at Further resources are available on my website at

1© 2004 Paul Kivel, all rights reserved. Please distribute widely (but not commercially) with credit. My thanks and appreciation to the many people who read and commented on drafts of this article or who were supportive of this project. They include Allie Allbee, Julia Caplan, Chris Crass, Linda Ely, Lea Endres, Miriam Grant, Julie Iny, Beth Kivel, Rachel Lanzerotti, Abby Levine, Heather Logghe, Ariel Luckey, Micki Luckey, Ryan Luckey, SAM Luckey, Laura McNeill, Nell Myhand, Genevieve Negron-Gonzales, Sean Potts, Devon Rath, Amanda Salzman, Zak Sinclair, Josh Warren-White, Akaya Windwood, and Shirley Yee.

2 From the Tao Te Ching translated by Stephen Mitchell, #s 10 and 9 respectively. (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

3 All the quotes in italics are from younger activists who I asked to write brief statements to our generation addressing our role as mentors.

4 I don’t believe that you should only mentor those who share the same identities as you. I think I can be a useful mentor to many different people who need the things that I have to offer. (Nor does the person mentored necessarily need to be younger. An older person might be just encountering an area that you have experience in.)

5 I am using the word spiritual very broadly to include the ways in which we ordinarily feel connected to a reality greater than ourselves-other people, the earth, the natural world, a transcendent spiritual force-whether or not these feelings are expressed through a formal religion.

6 Ella’s Song ©Sweet Honey in the Rock

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