Emerging Leader Jermaine finds his voice

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I met Jermaine in the fall of 2012, when I started doing my leadership and team building trainings with the NYFC Youth Advisory Board. He had always been the strong, silent type in a generally rambunctious group of young people. He spoke on rare occasions, never once raising his voice. This school year, he joined my Emerging Leaders group and we set two goals for him: (1) to gain a better grasp on his core values so he could link them to purposeful work; and (2) to speak up more. I’m very happy to report that within this semester he has really shown great progress in both.

Now one thing about Jermaine that I didn’t know until this school year is that he has very wide ranging interests. In YAB he is known as the finance/economics/math guy, so he’s always top pick for treasurer. But he’s actually remarkably creative, as well. I got a taste of some of his creativity over the YAB summer retreat, when he started to tell the beginnings of a gripping ghost story by the campfire. Since then I’ve learned he’s also a self-taught musician and a voracious reader. He is the type who will always pursue knowledge for the sake of bettering himself, regardless of whether or not he is a student.

Given his wide ranging interests, Jermaine was overwhelmed at the start of the semester with numerous business ideas. Part of the trouble was that although he knew money was not his primary motivation, he wasn’t quite sure what his core value was.  Continue reading

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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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.

#WorkOnPurpose with Emerging Leaders

About a week and a half ago I facilitated Work On Purpose’s Heart + Head = Hustle activity with my Emerging Leaders. It’s an exercise that helps them (1) define their passions, (2) identify their strengths, and then (3) put those two together in order to begin sketching out their dream job or calling.

The first step was to fill out tags that read “I’ve got a heart for ________.” Participants are supposed to mill around and introduce themselves and talk about their “heart.” Since we were a small group that already knew each other, we simply went around in a circle and stated our answers. Given the nature of Emerging Leaders, it was unsurprising that all our “hearts” clustered around the same themes:

  • children
  • disadvantaged youth
  • young people
  • helping people (two emerging leaders had this)
  • people

For the next part I read through a series of prompts that helped the emerging leaders define their “head” (we were supposed to start with the “heart,” but I accidentally skipped over a page, so we did this in reverse order). These included questions about the skills you would put on your resume, as well as the ones you would conventionally leave out. We approached the “heart” section in the same way: One particular prompt that I liked asked what sort of advice or help did friends usually approach you for.

The toughest part of the exercise for the emerging leaders seemed to be defining their “hustle.” They were supposed to combine responses from their “heart” section and their “head” section into novel ideas for work. E.g., if you really care about the health of the diabetics in your community and you happen to cook well, you might start a food service business for people suffering from diabetes.

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My favorite part of the exercise was having the emerging leaders work in small groups to talk about their hustle. Let me tell you, these young people are particularly skilled at active listening and giving each other sound feedback. They are so compassionate. I wish I could have eavesdropped and recorded all their conversations.

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Here they are in AlleyNYC’s cafe lounge, diligently filling out workshop evaluations. They were super pumped and motivated to unpack their hustles individually during office hours. Looking over copies of their work, I see that they could have benefitted from better direction brainstorming their hustles, because they all struggled to come up with very concrete ideas based on elements from their “heart” and “head.” Although the workshop encourages participants to imagine being able to work their dream job, I think young people really need to be exposed to the variety of interesting work that already exists in order for them to be able to unleash the full capacity of their imaginative powers and envision work that is tailor-made for them.

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Afterward Maurice and Jermaine hung around the Alley and we had a nice long conversation about history, education, foster care, economics, social justice—the works! We are so incredibly blessed to have such thoughtful young men coming up in the world with the burning desire to make their marks on New York City’s youth development and social entrepreneurship scenes.

Can we really tell everyone to “follow your dreams”?

For those of you who have been looking forward to Steph’s post (I know I have!) I wanted to reassure you that it’s in the hopper. It’s taking a bit longer because she has a lot to say, and I recommended that she break her piece into installments. I was tremendously happy, though, to read her draft because she’s been mulling over the very same issues that I wrote about in my last post on getting youth on the path to their dream jobs. Steph has a brilliant mind for program design, but she is also much more in the trenches than I am in terms of placing young people into internships. So while I have the luxury of pushing young people to follow their dreams, she needs to balance that message with the actual opportunities that are immediately available to her youth. And because Steph is a thoughtful, big-hearted person, the seeming gap between her humanistic conviction that we are all capable of fulfillment and the pragmatic demands and constraints of her work causes her great consternation.

I look forward to sharing her writing with all of you and to engaging more deeply with her provocative thoughts on this question not only of how, but of whether or not (or to what extent) we should counsel all our young people to pursue the dreams because “the money will follow.” (I hope that this last sentence gets your heart beating and your neurons firing, because I would love for you to join in on the conversation.)

Explaining the concept of ‘fulfillment’ to youth: Work on your dream job right now

I met with one of my young people today to talk about a business idea he had and to design business cards. When the words “network marketing” came out of his mouth, however, I admit to having to restrain myself from reacting strongly. He said a lot of people had already advised him to be wary of scams and pyramid schemes, but he had friends and family members who were making a tidy amount of residual income through a certain program. I asked him what the root of his interest was, and he said that he wanted a fulfilling career. He didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk for forty years in a job he hated. Whenever this phrase comes up (and it often does) it’s really important to dig into what a person means by “desk job.” As a child I hadn’t the foggiest idea what my parents actually did in the office, and that honestly didn’t change much when I was a college student and still had a very limited notion of the range of work that people did in the world. Sure enough, what my youth had in mind were clerical jobs—”being someone’s secretary.” When I asked him where he got his ideas about work, he said it was mostly from movies and TV, where people push paper around in tiny cubicles. Who wouldn’t be despirited by such a vision of work life? 

We were having this conversation at AlleyNYC, so I took the opportunity to point out that everyone here pretty much has a “desk job,” but that most of us were working for ourselves. That gave him pause. I took the opportunity to return to the word “fulfillment” and asked him what exactly he meant by that. He said to him it meant not having to wake up and go to a job that he disliked. So I gave him a scenario: What would you do if money were not a concern? Continue reading

Another exciting guest blogger!

I am very excited for my next guest blogger, who promises to post her thoughts within the next couple of days on work development programs for young people. Steph Cowling is a very dear friend who goes about program design in a thoughtful manner. A strong moral compass guides her approach to youth work. What is especially striking about her work is her natural habit of reflexivity: No aspect of program design is taken as a given. She will push you to consider the why and the how. She will illuminate the systematic implications of your decisions and decipher the coded messages your actions convey. She is, in short, a treasure. I always walk away from what she calls our “heart- and brainstorms” enriched and inspired. So you, dear readers, are in for a treat!

Preserving the idealism of youth—and a new project

Been thinking again about that point in life when youthful idealism clashes with the harsh realities of the world. I’ve already written about Egan’s Invisible Circus and Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, but the most famous literary example of the disappointment of youth in the apathy and hypocrisy of adults is no doubt Holden Caulfield. As someone on the front lines of youth work, this period strikes me as particularly critical for a couple of reasons: On the one hand, my first impulse is to preserve as much of that idealism as possible so that it doesn’t lapse into cynicism or defeat. But on the other hand, it’s also important to ensure that our young people are conscious of the trade-offs involved in deciding if and to what extent they wish to play the game. What are the consequences of ignoring the rules? And, conversely, when does participating in the rat race come at the expense of the self?

I recently put this question to my friend Steph, who is so gifted with youth, and regularly faces these issues in a role where she has the dual responsibility of cultivating the individuality of her young people and getting them job-ready. I asked her how she handles the matter of professional appearance. She responded that she makes an effort to couch the conversation in non-judgmental terms, along the lines of: You go rock those tattoos, but understand that stereotyping could affect your success on the job market. It’s sad that we as humans (and not a one of us is exempt) make these kinds of snap judgments of people, and even sadder that we have to have frank conversations about this with our youth. But them’s the breaks. Steph describes this work as living in the gray when it comes to withholding judgment, but having to explain that sometimes situations must be regarded in black and white terms: If you show up to an interview wearing inappropriate clothing, you will not get the job.

I think it’s also important to give young people very concrete strategies for how to negotiate conventions without capitulating to them entirely. You might share stories of people who remove their piercings before going into an interview or make the decision to get tattoos in unexposed areas of their body. I remember reading a story in the paper about a high school teacher who doesn’t hide the fact that he has heavily tattooed shoulders and upper arms, but informs his students that this was deliberate on his part in order to maintain a professional appearance even in short-sleeved, buttoned-down shirts.

The aspect of this question that is less pragmatic, however, unsettles me significantly more because I haven’t found an easy formula for preventing frustration and disappointment—which children in foster care are intimately familiar with—from turning into a crippling sense of distrust and disillusionment. It really is nothing short of miraculous when young people age out of care with the generosity of spirit to better the society that has repeatedly betrayed them and improve the life outcomes of their younger peers. It speaks to their resiliency and heart and I believe we have a moral duty to do whatever we can to set them up for success. Their success—if we see ourselves as having a vested interest in true social change—is just as much ours.

I am fortunate to know a group of such youth. They call themselves Emerging Leaders and we’ve started meeting regularly at AlleyNYC. (I’ve been tweeting about them recently.) What I am trying to do is embrace these young people—most of whom have recently aged out of care—for a bit longer by giving them the space to share ideas for social impact, exchange business and professional resources, and build the skills and knowledge necessary to realize their dreams of running their own nonprofits and social enterprises. I know some of you have been waiting for a full report on this project, and I promise it’s forthcoming.

“Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?”

[For YAB] Today I remembered a conversation with YAB while I was doing diversity research for NYU and stumbled across a journal article titled “Are Emily and Greg more Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” During the YAB retreat the members went off on many, many tangents, but there was one in particular that I let run for a little longer than I usually permit because it was one of those interludes that was funny and incisive and tragic all at the same time.

During the “What Do You Bring to the Table?” exercise everyone had been saying and spelling out each other’s names, which eventually led to someone making a joke that if you were named “Quadasha Brown” you would never be able to get a job. At the time everyone was giggling like crazy, but the moment registers in my memory as bittersweet. For what does it say about our society when our young people already know in their bones what two researchers need to do fieldwork on to verify?

The best part of work

[For Dale—again—whom I miss something fierce] So today is a bit unusual (though I wish more days were like this) because I’m spending a good portion of it with a bunch of young adults. I have five people coming in (and one person Skyping in over his lunch break) all at the same time. This is the first of what I hope will be a regular series of meetings for this group, which I am bringing together because I noticed that so many youth in/recently out of foster care have expressed a desire to start their own non-profit/business to help other children and families. I figure, if I’ll be providing support, information, and resources to one person, I may as well do this for all. Plus, they’ll have the added benefit of peer support.

Eventually I want this group to be self-organizing, but I hope they will agree to a little foundation-building led by me at the start. One of the topics that I’d like to address is the concept of leadership, and how statements like “I want to be a leader” or “I want to be a business-owner” are virtually meaningless if you don’t have a substantial idea propelling you toward a larger vision. In this vein, the group would really benefit from some of the exercises in the Work On Purpose curriculum.

I’m eager to hear their thoughts, though, on what they would like to gain from our meetings and from each other. One person expressed the desire to talk to professionals about different options for advanced degrees—MSW, MPA, MBA, JD—and some of the benefits and career trajectories of each one. I already have a couple of guest speakers lined up for this.

After this meeting I have three one-on-ones scheduled, and they will all be very different. I asked one person to come in to work on broadening his perception of his skills and strengths. We’re going to do an activity where we unpack a certain experience in his life that he mentioned very off-handedly to me, but which struck me as an indication of a massive store of adaptive resources. I plan to send him off with the assignment to think of two other things about himself that point to skills outside the usual ones he’s constantly praised for.

My second meeting is going to be focused on life-planning, which entails understanding the trade-offs of different options and learning how to de-risk each path. Finally, another person requested a meeting to design some business cards for himself. He’s going to arrive with a list of adjectives that he thinks captures what he wants to express about himself both professionally and socially, so we can then choose design elements that communicate that persona. But first we’re going to take a look at his newly-downloaded calendar and figure out a system for getting organized that makes sense to him.

So pumped for today! TGIF.

Nahjee stretches her wings

It would take a long paragraph to list out all the awards and honors that Nahjee has won, but I won’t go into any of it here because I’m convinced that the foundation of a positive self concept is not built on the external validation you get from jumping through other people’s hoops, but the feeling of self respect you earn by working toward challenges you set for yourself.

Nahjee has accomplished a lot these past few days! Aside from sending off an email on a delicate topic and having a difficult conversation with someone, she also took it on her very own initiative to sign up for a networking event. To practice, she told me. And, ever the clever one, she made sure it was an event outside of the child welfare space. (Basically, she’s going to try out her networking skills on a bunch of randos that she’ll “never have to see again,” so that if she “messes up” it won’t impact her career.) Lady, you crack me up.

But seriously: my how you’ve grown.

When the enormity of your dreams begin to overwhelm you, just remember: you are a giant. And you’re so very very dear to me.