Modest proposals

I’ve found that the surest way to paralysis at the beginning of a project is to get caught up with concerns of assessment and scalability. This isn’t to say that we can conduct programs willy-nilly. Rather, I think a case can be made for tabling those issues in favor of designing innovative programs that seek to address the immediate concerns of a specific population. Let me explain. 

In demographic terms, I work with youth who have been involved in the NYC foster care system, but I think of my customers (the youth I serve ) in more precise terms: They have proper names and particular histories, and they each face a unique set of challenges in their lives. Additionally, my clients (the entities I work for) have their own missions, which I must take into consideration. Though I am not privy to all the details of my customers’ lives, the program coordinators that I work with supply me with enough specifics to tailor my material to their youth. This includes information relating to areas of interest, behavioral challenges, and cognitive abilities, but also such mundane things as logistical constraints.

Such granularity is a strength, and I manage to achieve it only because I’ve temporarily shelved the goal of coming up with a single, generic program that would target “youth in foster care” or even “youth in foster care in NYC” in the abstract. My repeated attempts at designing such a program have left me uncomfortable and dissatisfied, and I think it’s mainly because it’s been very difficult for me to plan programs for a faceless mass. Sure, you can make sweeping generalizations about the youth in foster care, but even in NYC, we are talking about a population with diverse needs, depending on their permanency plan and living situation, first and foremost.

Notably, when I taught at the university level, I never ran into this problem. I can’t say that the particular details of my students’ lives ever entered into my lesson planning in any significant way. I worked from a general course agenda and tailored it only minorly to fit the strengths and interests of the students My work now seems radically different in that sense. So much more seems to hang in the balance, and the need to move from the particular to the general strikes me, at this stage, to be critical. I haven’t given up on the idea of building a scalable model with measurable outcomes, but the path before me is quite different from what I thought it would be.

Right now I am knee-deep in research on mentoring programs, and I notice there is (quite rightly) a demand for programs of measurable impact whose models can be brought to scale. My immediate concern, however, is to build an effective and sustainable mentoring program for four youth leaders. So long as we are aware of best practices and common pitfalls, whether or not the plan I recommend can be brought to scale is immaterial.


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