Sentimentally, it isn’t a big deal, but legally it is

Happy 21st birthday, @beYOUtifulBrian!

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I know you aren’t much for celebrating, but today I am grateful for your presence in my life. I’ll never forget the day we met, when you told me you liked my website and agreed to be my first youth advisor. Your twenty-first birthday really snuck up on me! I thought we had another year to prepare. I hope that despite all the competing demands on your time and headspace, you are excited about what lies ahead. I, for one, am looking forward to you moving into your new digs! We’ll hook you up with an account on the Camellia Network to supplement the ACS grant to cover moving and furnishing costs.

Wishing you only the best this coming year, which I know for you includes many days of dancing and filling the people around you with the spirit.

My #emergingleaders inspire me

Most people who work outside the field of child welfare tend to assume that my work is dispiriting. They hear the words “foster care” and immediately think “at-risk youth,” a loaded term that conjures only negative images. They imagine that I am out every day fighting the good fight, doing charitable work for the needy. The truth is I have the best job in all of New York City. I have the best job for a whole host of reasons: terrific colleagues, flexible work hours, and a varied work week that keeps me engaged, whether I am deep in research or out in meetings. But above all, I have the best job in NYC because I am surrounded by young people who are at a stage in life where they are all trying to figure out who they are, who they want to become, and where their place is in the world. It’s fascinating.

I work most closely with my emerging leaders—young people on a mission to revolutionize child welfare and other fields of human services. They are working to connect their values, strengths, and passions to embark on careers that will sustain them financially and emotionally while improving the lives of others. Watching them go through this process is inspiring. But what is most touching about my emerging leaders is they way they all throw themselves so fully into their transitions. Aristotle would surely approve of their zealous pursuit of the good life.

How many of us would and could be productive, for example, in precarious housing situations? Sure, some of us worked jobs while going to school, but how many of us also had to navigate complex bureaucracies whose stated missions seem to contradict our daily experience of them? 

My window into the lives of my emerging leaders and other young adults who have transitioned from foster care offers me a profound and daily reminder of the strength and the goodness of the human spirit. 

Fond farewells and transitions

This week has brought a mixed bag of emotions for me, much of it having to do with my holiday habit of taking stock of the people who have moved in and out of my life over the year. Below are two dear men whom I’ve been fortunate to meet on my journey building Minds On Fire. Both are leaving New York City very soon.

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This is Satyam, Minds On Fire’s first volunteer. We met at a Be Social Change happy hour in the spring, back when my elevator pitch was really really rough (currently it’s just rough), but he caught on immediately. Through the evening he shuttled back and forth around the room making connections. He approached me a couple of times more to introduce me to other folks he thought I would like to meet.

I didn’t know that back when we met he was only visiting NYC before heading out to SF to check out the social entrepreneurship scene there. Thankfully, he left his heart in NY and returned toward the end of the summer. We met up at another Be Social Change event, where again he took the time to connect people in the room.

Satyam thrives on connection, and I just love that about him. Yesterday when we met for tea to say our goodbyes, he informed me that he has a whole list of contacts to send me. Whenever he goes to a networking event, he said, he always has me in mind.

I caught him up on the work I was doing with my emerging leaders and mentioned how we were probably going to launch a fundraiser next year. Satyam immediately reached into his wallet and tried to slip me a $20 bill. I asked him to save it for when I need him to seed our online campaign.

Farewell, Satyam. I will miss our meetups and talks at the Alley (and I know Candice will, too). I hope that the next few months back home rejuvenate you in mind, body, and spirit. I’ll be pulling for your return to our beloved city. The #socent scene here won’t be the same without you.

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This lovely young man who rarely smiles for the camera is Otis Hampton, one of my favorite writers at Represent Magazine and a former mentee in AdoptMent. I met him a year and a half ago, when I was just starting out in this work and he was facing a particularly tremendous challenge. It’s been a real privilege witnessing him pull through that struggle by drawing on his inner strength and gathering together a network of supportive adults. Otis is heading upstate to begin a new chapter in his life. I really hope that he continues to write publicly because the world needs to hear his voice.

Yesterday was his last mentoring session, and they had to break the news to the other young people. Otis dropped me a lovely email right afterward reporting that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. They spent part of the time reading the (love) letters of evaluation that I write for each of my workshop participants, and he also got to give a speech talking about how he considers the people in AdoptMent—including my husband and me—as part of his family. Otis’s departure is breaking a lot of hearts, but we are also very glad to see him embark on this new beginning. He promises to tend to his gift of writing and to stay in touch. If he starts a blog, I’ll be letting you know.

Wishing you only the best, Otis. I adore both the lover and the fighter in you.

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.)

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?

Continue reading

Every woman should travel/live abroad alone

[For Autumn, on her current adventure] I’m in the middle of Jennifer Egan’s debut novel, The Invisible Circus, which is about an 18 year-old girl who takes off for Europe to search for the place her sister died. The account of her coming of age has gotten me reminiscing about my travels alone. I’ve already written about how finishing my dissertation and changing careers were two of the most significant rites of passage I’ve ever undergone. Prior to graduate school, however, traveling by myself and living abroad (not in the Philippines or the US) ranked highly on my list of transformative experiences. This is a story in four parts.

The US

To my mother’s great credit, she started instilling in me very early on the notion that I should go forth into the world intrepidly. Having seen how a sheltered childhood caused my sister to fear unfamiliar places and abhor being on her own, Mom took care to show me that traveling alone was nothing to be afraid of. Continue reading

The 12 traits of “flourishers”

This is one of the many gems from sociologist Corey Keyes‘s keynote at the 6th Conference on Emerging Adulthood. He was explaining the concept of flourishers: those individuals who report that “every day” or “almost every day” they experience happiness, but less so for emotional reasons (feeling happy) than from psychological and social ones (positive functioning). He listed out the twelve traits that are much more pronounced in flourishers than the rest of the population, and I’m eager to share them with you:

Flourishers…

  • don’t procrastinate
  • have a high degree of self-control 
  • feel highly capable
  • are deliberate (They know what they want out of life.)
  • have a high disposition to apologize (At this point I start raising my eyebrows because I’m five for five.)
  • have a malleable mindset about their own intelligence (They know that they don’t know everything and are open to being wrong.)
  • have higher levels of curiosity (They like to explore and expose themselves to new and challenging situations.)
  • they have an OCEAN personality
    • open (Again, they’re intellectually curious and open to novelty.)
    • conscientious (Again, they are disciplined and planful.)
    • extroverted (This is where I start docking points.) (Also, why do psychologists spell it with an ‘A’?)
    • agreeable (They’re compassionate and cooperative.)
    • not neurotic (Go ahead and dock some more points here.)
  • have an initiative for personal growth (They want to grow and they have a plan for how to go about it.)
  • learn from adversity
  • are motivated by mastery of the process rather than the outcome (They aren’t motivated by money; they’re all about the journey.)
  • feel loved and cared for

Keyes delineates these traits because he is committed to promoting a concept of mental health that is more solid and robust than our current understanding of it as the “absence of mental illness.” He suggests that we design our interventions with an eye to cultivating these traits in our young people. If we truly want to set them up for a life beyond subsistence or even “settling” (this is Keyes’s term for the complacency of the merely “happy”), then we must go above and beyond independent living and job skills and aim for the personal and professional fulfillment of our youth.

For this reason I especially like the last trait. One of the many things I admire about The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is the fact that they codify love in their theory of change and mission. We don’t talk about love with our young people nearly as much as we should.

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.

Two views on whether 30 is the new 21

Today on the Brian Lehrer Show developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett stopped by to talk about the phenomenon of emerging adulthood. Arnett is the real deal: His research has fueled the study of emerging adulthood and he also tirelessly advocates for a sympathetic regard for millennials and for the expansion of institutional resources to support them during their transition to full adulthood.

His interview with guest host Mike Pesca brings up a lot of good points about the particularities of this life stage, including how we cannot hang every aspect of emerging adulthood on brain development, but must also consider life circumstances of young adults today. The spot also shines a light on the particular experiences of twenty-somethings from poor or immigrant families, where young adult children often shoulder more responsibilities than their peers.

[audio http://www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3/audio.wnyc.org/bl/bl073113fpod.mp3 ]

Compare that to the TED talk given by clinical psychologist Meg Jay, who argues that 30 is not the new 20. While Arnett seeks to understand the motivation and reasons behind a phenomenon he believes is unfairly billed as an “extended adolescence,” Jay’s objective is to get her twenty-something clients on a positive path by urging them to follow four pieces of advice that she hopes will ameliorate her clients’ experience of quarter-life crisis.

  1. Build up your identity capital.
  2. Use your twenties for serious career exploration.
  3. Use those weak ties to make new connections.
  4. Pick your partners and family intentionally.

I actually think that the two views are not diametrically opposed. Both Arnett and Jay recognize that emerging adults need special support and guidance on their way toward committed adult lives and identities.

Finding what you look for

[For Candice] Have you been making your way through the articles in Emerging Adulthood? There is one particular article (I won’t publicly say which, but you can probably pick it out) whose authors seem to set up their experiment just so by identifying what to them are the most salient variables related to the behaviors of emerging adults, and then lo and behold, their surveys confirm their hypothesis. Do social scientists shy away from surprise in research?