How do we find and earn a living on what we love? – Part 1

This question has occupied my mind for the whole of my professional life.  Most recently, I have worked as a program coordinator for New York City non-profits, and previously, I worked as a program advisor and workshop facilitator at the University of California at Berkeley.  I grapple with these questions daily:  “How do we really find work we love?” and “How do we earn a living offering this work?” For me, this  is a manifestation of a larger life question that is increasingly important to me: how do we live lives that we truly love, and teach our young adults to do the same?  In Ysette’s recent  article on working on dream jobs now, she shares the importance of taking tangible steps towards a passion.  While I agree with the significance of taking small steps towards a large goal, I wonder how we can lay out a complete map  for our young adults to understand the short and long term processes of pursuing passions and earning a living.

The population I serve are mostly young adults of color, ages 19-24, who span a range of educational and socio-economic backgrounds.  When I think of my own career aspirations, I pursued this work with an interest in supporting young adults in making conscious choices towards their dreams in both career and in life.  With this in mind, I have contemplated, from a service provider standpoint, what is my responsibility in offering programming and guidance to assist young adults in finding work they love? And, how do our young adults identify their dreams in career and life, and actively take steps to make this happen?

Embedded in these questions are the assumptions that one we can earn a living off of the dreams that they have, that our dreams are truly what we want, that our dreams are the roots of a fulfilling life, and that all we need is to have a dream, take the steps, and it will be realized.  I am questioning these assumptions, and considering the flaws that exist within them.  In order to assist you in understanding my own process, I invite you to contemplate the following themes and questions:

WORKPLACE CULTURES

1. What are the workplace cultures that we were taught, that we currently work in, and that we reinforce (consciously and unconsciously) to our young adults?  How does this impact the conversation around dream careers and lives?

DREAM LIFE COMPONENTS

2. What makes a “dream” life and is this something that is reserved for young adults with more privileged backgrounds (racially, economically, socially)?

3. What is an inspired and rational process of supporting the assessment of the multitude of areas one could consider when choosing a dream career and life?

4. What qualifies as a “dream” career and life?  Are there certain dreams that are more sustainable and/or more authentic than others?

FAMILY AND COMMUNITY INFLUENCE

5. What role does family play in our young adults pursuits of larger dreams?  In particular, if our young adults can or cannot lean emotionally and financially on family, will they be better or ill suited to choosing dream careers?

6. Who were/are our models for choosing a career, who are our young adults’ models, and who will we connect to our participants to support their pursuit of their dream lives?

7. Where do we find diverse voices of professionals to mentor our young adults through the process of choosing and crafting dream lives?

 REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS

8. When we support the exploration and pursuit of dream lives, how do we also teach responsibility and basic survival skills?  How can both reality and idealism exist in the exploration and implementation processes?

9. How do we speak to both the significance of our young people dreaming big, but also being grounded in reality of their actual skills, strengths, and abilities?

10. How do we factor in income and wealth into our decisions?  Specifically, when our young adults contemplate choosing dream careers, how do we support them in factoring in expected earning potential, prestige and societal perceptions?

11. What role does  labor market research and understanding larger societal structures play in assisting young adults in assessing pathways and probability of dream lives?

EDUCATION AND TRAINING

12. How does post-secondary education assist and harm the process of choosing dream careers?  In particular how do college curricula speak to, and not speak to, our young adults’ dreams?  How does post secondary education influence young adults financial health, specifically through the acquisition of student and private loan debt?

PRACTITIONER BIASES

13. How do we reflect on our own process of choosing careers as professionals?  How do our passions, mistakes, shortcomings and assumptions negatively, and positively, influence the outlook of our young adults?  How do our biases as service practitioners influence our young adults’ process?

It is my intention to further explore these themes over the next few months through this blog.  In the meantime and throughout this exploration process, I welcome your sharing and ideas.

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Steph  Head Shot

Over the past 10 years, Stephanie has cultivated roles as an advisor and coordinator in both NYC and the San Francisco Bay Area.  She has worked within non-profit and  university settings  in the fields of college success and career development. Stephanie has facilitated, developed and coordinated programming for first generation college students and young adults of color. She earned a BA in Sociology and a MA in Education both from the University of California at Berkeley.

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The ethics of program design in youth development

One of the higher compliments anyone can pay me for my work is something along the lines of “I would love to take that workshop myself!” or “My high school- / college-aged kid could use that program!” or better yet, “Everyone could use a program like that.” Technically, I design programs for so-called “at-risk” youth, but all that really means is being sensitive to certain needs and understanding the institutional context of their lives. What I am actually striving to create are programs with a much wider appeal—wider because in the end they aren’t aimed at “troubled youth,” but at our shared humanity.

As human beings we all unfold in our own time, and that process is never smooth or evenly-paced. Some of us encounter great challenges very early on. This may appear to “set us back,” but only if we succumb to the bad habit of measuring ourselves against others, or—more accurately—against some kind of social norm that demands we be self-sufficient and clearly on our way to some narrow, preconceived notion of success by our mid-twenties. Another view is to approach these challenges as tests. And if we have the tools and the space to reflect on those significant life experiences, we can use them as learning opportunities and even a source of strength.

Note that this is a very individualized and forgiving view of human development, and one that can resonate throughout a lifetime if we continue to sit with it. Within this framework, I am creating a support system for young people during the critical, early years of emerging adulthood, when many of them exit care with the scantest of resources. The outcomes I shoot for are nothing less than what many people wish for their own children: personal well-being and professional fulfillment. We want to give them the very best so they can be their very best. But how can this happen if we push them through programs that are designed according to preconceived and misguided notions of their capabilities?

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YAB Project Management Boot Camp

YAB bootcamp

   Credit: Lindsay Adamski

If you want an inside look on how I develop my material and roll out new workshops, here is a case study. Last Sunday several members of NYFC YAB, accompanied by Lindsay Adamski (a.k.a., ladamski), joined me at AlleyNYC for a four-hour project management bootcamp. (Yes, you read that right: four hours on a Sunday. It was their suggestion. They are intense, these folks.) The aim was to finish the work that we started at the retreat back in August on the YAB Project Management Manual, which like their constitution, is co-authored by YAB and me. My model for this was the OCFS Handbook for Youth in Foster Care, which incorporates the voices of young people in care in every chapter. I especially liked how the handbook defines terms using the words of youth in foster care.

YAB does a terrific job of referring to a printed copy of their constitution during their meetings, and the manual is definitely supposed to act as a guide for every step of the project management process: brainstorming, project selection, planning, execution, and ending (termination, completion, and administration). Each section has handy tools and tips for success. We’re also making it available in digital format, however, because the manual is intended as a living document that they can edit over the years by modifying, clarifying, and elaborating on the existing material (e.g., working out their own ground rules and processes for each of these stages). There are exercises sprinkled throughout, so it also served as a workbook at the retreat and at the Alley bootcamp.

Full disclosure: the first project management workshop was a little rough. In a strict sense I wasn’t disappointed, though, because as with any new workshop, I was prepared for some kinks. (It’s always tough to time new activities.) Furthermore, it was the last workshop on the final day of the retreat, the youth were kind of restless and burnt out from all the work and running around we’d already done, and the creepy cabin we used as a classroom (the “dead animal room”) was not conducive to thoughtful dialogue. I’d assumed that we would finish the chapter on brainstorming rather quickly, but it took us an hour to get through the material. Nothing was too trivial for debate, and in my effort to write down everyone’s opinions, we lagged behind schedule.

It was clear that I had to recalibrate my approach (in business parlance, “pivoting” after “failure”!) for the follow-up session. This was a team effort. Lindsay got feedback from YAB about what they thought could be improved for next time, and the two of us met to discuss some tactics. Here are the ideas we all came up with: Continue reading

How do you cultivate openness? (This is not a rhetorical question.)

For the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about openness—the malleable mindset—and how to cultivate it in young people. I come at this, it should be said, as an educator, and I’m finding that outside the institutional setting of a college classroom, it’s tough to sustain my go-to strategy of regularly raising questions and pushing my students toward intellectual discomfort. There are a couple young people on my radar who particularly concern me, whom I’d like to see broaden their horizons, but who have a habit of closing off discussions right when things start getting challenging. Because my work in youth development walks a fine line between the intellectual and the personal, I have to be particularly careful about not overstepping my bounds into clinical work. I firmly maintain, however, that the same set of critical thinking skills that help young people make sense of their world will also guide them in their journey inward, so they can make a place for themselves in that world.

Currently, I’m plodding along, hoping that one of our sporadic conversations might awaken something inside them. As a teacher, I’m consistently having to make peace with the fact that I can never know which seeds will eventually bear fruit and when. But I’d really like to go about this more effectively, so please, if you have any wisdom to share on opening young minds, do let me know.

Lisette Nieves talks multi-contextualism and college persistence

[For Candice and Nahjee] I wish you ladies could have joined me for Lisette’s talk, “Multi-contextualism and the Consumption of Higher Education,” because I know both of you would have really enjoyed it. Giving you a digest below. We can dig into all this more deeply when we see each other next, because I would love to hear your reactions.

Lisette made a very credible case for the dishearteningly low college graduation rates of the latino student population being a result of certain cultural pressures rather than a lack of academic preparedness. In other words, it’s not that latino students aren’t capable of hacking college-level courses; it’s the fact that within the latino community young people take on very adult roles within their families, and this sense of obligation—and very real responsibility—often gets in the way of attending to the competing demands of college life. If we understand young latinos’ desire for parental closeness and their role in contributing to the family income, then all of a sudden the phenomenon of high-achieving latino students dropping out of selective colleges in order to attend the community college close to home makes sense.

What enables Lisette to arrive at these insights is by considering the problem of college persistence through the lens of multi-contextualism.  Continue reading

Wooing another guest blogger

Someone else just accepted my invitation to guest post on this blog! Among other things, he is a beloved manager and insightful mentor and I’m hoping that he can write something about the qualities that he looks for in his proteges, and perhaps a little bit about how he works with them.

From what I can tell, he establishes working relationships that achieve the intellectual intimacy of the best teacher-student relationships: If he figures out how you think, and if you can communicate to him what you value in a work environment and where you want to steer your career, he will do whatever he can to ensure you do meaningful work that will put you on a solid path.

Keeping my fingers crossed that this blogger will find the time to contribute here.

The Hidden Power of Character

I first heard about Paul Tough’s book “How Children Succeed” on this podcast. I distinctly remember listening to the interview about this book while on a long bus ride and scribbling Paul Tough on a piece of paper to remember for later. It was another book that made me feel energized and excited about the potential in this work.

One point that struck me was when he described how character traits, such as grit, social intelligence, and self-control, can function as a type of safety net for students who don’t have much support from their family or their community. For students who are growing up in chaotic homes and the challenges associated with living in poverty, they have had to develop character traits that help them succeed and that they can fall back on when times are difficult.

Young people in foster care who make it to college are part of a small group. When you look at how many continue on to earn their degree, the number gets even smaller. There is obviously something that these students develop that has allowed them to go through the traumatic experience that is foster care and continue to strive to reach their goals.

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What Do You Bring to the Table?

The neurotic lesson planner in me always arrives to classes or workshops with a surplus of material because as a young teacher one of my biggest nightmares was to run out of things to do and—heaven forfend—have to wing it in the classroom. I went into the YAB retreat hoping to get through three team building activities. All of them were brand new, so I was a little nervous about inaugurating them and seeing how they would come together in practice. In the end we had to cut the 15-minute communication skills activity I’d planned and run a bit into the post-workshop hour. But Amy, Lindsay, and I were all expecting this retreat to be as much a learning experience for us as it would be for YAB, and we ended up being extremely pleased with the results of the team building activities.

We kicked the weekend off with “What Do You Bring to the Table,” a workshop idea I adapted from Mariam MacGregor’s Teambuilding with Teens. I designed this activity as a way for everyone to focus on their fellow YAB members’ strengths and also to learn why they are valued by their peers. Here is how we went about it:  Continue reading

Anatomy of a workshop activity

I’d planned on blogging about what I gleaned from yesterday’s annual New Yorkers for Children Vocational Conference for Youth in Foster Care, but today a couple different folks have asked me about my approach to engaging youth in the classroom, so I thought it would be helpful to write instead about how I came up with my rites of passage activity.

Good teachers come in all stripes, and my particular talent is being able to make complex ideas accessible to young people, and to do so with a modest measure of creativity. In my rites of passage workshop I use an anthropological lens to understand coming of age ceremonies and tribal rites of passage. Now I myself did not study anthropology until I got to college, but I’ve seen that is entirely within reach for high-school aged students to make use of its tools. [Warning: Very long post, so I highlight the takeaway at the very end.] Continue reading