Case in point

Well, I promised to follow up my last post with some good news, and I know that at least one of my readers will be disappointed that she won’t get to read about the sense of optimism I feel in the air just yet. Instead, I’m gonna hang out on my soapbox for a little while longer because I’m still working through my irritation.

Last night’s Teens in Foster Care panel was very odd. I think the organizers felt like everyone in the room was on the same page regarding permanency for youth in care 14 and older (roughly 3600 of New York City’s 12,000 children in the system). Funny thing though: I don’t think the panel realized how deeply their message conflicted with one of their guest speaker’s most important points. …And then things got even worse.

Let’s do this good/bad/ugly style.

THE GOOD

Cris Beam. CRIS BEAM. I’d seen her give a reading to a group of young writers back in December, so I’d already heard the whole spiel of how a teenaged daughter entered her life with the suddenness of an unplanned pregnancy. Tonight, however, Beam came with a stronger agenda and she prefaced her reading by dropping some data.

Here’s some straight from NYC ACS: Between the ages of 14 and 15 only 17% of young people in foster care wish to exit the system as an independent adult. By the time they reach 17, however, the percentage of youth who wish to age out to independent living rises to 94%. That means that by 17, only 6% of young people in foster care want to be adopted.

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Hazards of the job

Recently I’d been thinking a lot about how this work uplifts me. On Twitter I had some wonderful conversations with advocates in the special ed and autism community about the public misperception that the populations we work with are depressing. “I could never do the work you do” is often coded language for “I could never work with those people.” It’s offensive, especially considering the fact that what’s dispiriting and draining about this work has virtually nothing to do with the people we serve.

You know what does get me down? On one level it’s the larger institutional, economic, and social structures that present significant challenges to our young people. If I dwell on them too much, it makes me lose my sense of humor. Some days I wake up wanting to punch somebody. I wish I could say that my advocacy springs from a generous Dalai Lama-esque capacity to love all my fellow human beings, but I’m not there yet. The truth is, my sense of purpose and outrage is very personally rooted. I’ll say this much: many of the stories I hear about children in foster care resonate with me.

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Getting through the holidays as a grownup

1. Cull the holiday card list. 

When it comes to letter writing, I am devoutly old fashioned. I don’t send out professional photos of my family or type up mass letters informing you of my vacations and accomplishments for the year. If I send you a holiday greeting, it means I set pen to paper and write out a personalized message to let you know that I am grateful your presence in my life. I go the extra mile by hand addressing the envelope rather than printing out address labels.

I sincerely don’t expect any reciprocity because these letters come from the heart. The whole ritual of shopping for cards, writing my greetings, addressing the envelopes, and dropping them in the mail makes me feel really good, which is a reward in itself. I also know that my obsession with hand written letters is my very own thing mania, and the priorities and demands in my life will be different from yours.

To be honest, a few years ago I suddenly stopped sending out holiday greetings. I hated the feeling of obligation that went with the tradition. But this year I realized that no one was actually holding a gun to my head and forcing me to maintain such a huge mailing list. Because this practice is meaningful to me, I owe it to myself to make it sustainable. I did this by culling it down to include only my oldest and closest friends, family members for whom I have a real fondness, and new friends I’m very glad to have met this past year. This made it easy to write personalized, authentic greetings to everyone.

Those who didn’t make it to my list, by the way, got phone calls. (I’m really serious about letter writing being a significant gesture to me.)

2. Make plans that don’t make you feel like a prisoner.

‘Tis the season for giving and forgiving, not for suffering and guilt. Break bread with the people who make you feel warm inside. Stay only as long as you are enjoying the company. Remember, you are a grownup.

3. Care for yourself. Care for yourself. Care for yourself. 

This season required a lot of early morning meditation, winter runs in the park, and naps. Also, hugs. Lots and lots of hugs. (Is it January yet?)

#AdoptMent youth take personal stock

I’ve been reticent to blog about my work with the AdoptMent group because they’re a younger set and I’m more protective of their privacy. This is a transitional year, not just within the program, but also in the lives of each of these young people. In my first session with them this school year, we returned to the tasks of adolescent development, but instead of focusing broadly on the topic of identity, this time we talked about personal values and relationships, especially how to strike a healthy balance between independence and connectedness.

Last spring I used Zits comics to get the conversation started. We returned to two strips that dealt specifically with identity exploration, and was really pleased that they all retained the biggest lesson from last spring’s identity self-portrait activity, namely that at this early stage in life staying true to yourself is overrated, and identity crises are actually a healthy part of psychological development.

From that group review, everyone paired off with their mentors to discuss comic strips treating the developmental tasks related to autonomy, relationships, and values. The mentors had handouts that indicated the tasks displayed in each strip, but the mentees first had to work on inferring the topic from the material. The second step in the exercise was to reflect on how they were progressing in each of those tasks. I got to eavesdrop on a lot of wonderful stories about how these young people set up challenges for themselves (e.g., earning the money and planning transportation for a solo trip to New Jersey), and noted how their relationships to their parents were in transition

The final part of the workshop had everyone select one particular developmental task that posed a significant challenge to him or her. Continue reading

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.

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.

It’s National Adoption Month: Here’s to my other dad

It’s a happy coincidence that National Adoption Month should begin on my adoptive father’s birthday. I’d been following the conversation on adoption and loss on Twitter and it caused me to reflect on this very special relationship that has spanned decades of my life.

My Daddy Gary entered my world when I was seven and legally adopted me around the time I was nine. I remember my mom attempting to explain why this was happening, but I didn’t comprehend then—and am still trying to piece together now—the reasoning behind the decision. Yet what was plain to me even as a child was my father’s obvious agitation at the course of things. I remember sitting in the passenger’s seat of his car, seeing his hand clutch the stick shift, and noting an unusual graveness about him. —I will always be your dad.

The memories of my adoption are not pretty: I recall a dark courthouse, a self-important judge (“Say ‘yes, sir!‘”), and my dad, at a distance, looking uncharacteristically crestfallen. I walked out of that building with a new surname I was reluctant to use, not out of any dislike for my stepfather—I was already deeply attached to him—but the frightening sensation of being separated from the clan and severed from the thickness of family history. (My Daddy Gary also bears the name of the stepfather who adopted him, but rather than appreciating this poetic symmetry, it felt doubly estranging.) And then there was the insupportable weight of betrayal: The image of my happy-go-lucky father so visibly crushed would haunt me for years.  Continue reading

Helping Nahjee learn to cook

The best part of work is figuring out how I am able to serve the individual needs of my young people. Today Nahjee asked me for some cooking tips (e.g., the different ways of thickening soup) and sources for good recipes (not from any packaged food website). She’s talked about being pescatarian and how she prefers simple food such as pizza and fries to fancy meals, but this afternoon I learned that her favorite cuisines are Indian and Thai. She also loves thick soups, bean chilis, and lentils. She would like to be able to make a soup that has lots of veggies in it, such as corn, carrots, and broccoli. Nahjee also likes spice. I figured that finding a mulligatawny recipe might be a good place to start, since it would satisfy many of her cravings.

The plan is to take a Friday afternoon to head to Curry Hill, enjoy a veggie lunch buffet at Chennai Garden or maybe a mujadara sandwich from Kalustyan’s (I like mine specially topped with pickles or spicy olives and their awesome hot sauce), and then go shopping for some basic spices and a variety of pulses for her pantry.

Looking up different mulligatawny recipes reminded me of a cookbook that my sister helped me start. During one of the many summers I spent with her in high school and college, she gave me a hardcover journal and I started writing in the simple, reliable recipes that she herself used for her family. After awhile I started collecting recipes on my own from magazines, cookbooks, and friends. But my favorite recipes in the book are family recipes—not just old Filipino standbys, but also special family dishes that bring back good memories.

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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

Reading “Some Say the World”

In my post on “The Shawl” I show how a somewhat bibliotherapeutic approach to the story can be facilitated by following a central image through close reading. We can take a similar approach to Susan Perabo’s “Some Say the World,” which originally appeared in TriQuarterly (sometime between 1994-1996, according to various sources), but which I am reading from Frosch’s Coming of Age in the 21st Century. I’m considering teaching this story in my Critical Approaches to the ‘Family’ Program because it tells the story from the perspective of a teenager living in a broken and dysfunctional family who ends up finding a family bond with a parental figure who is not her blood relation. The protagonist is a young, heavily-medicated pyromaniac stuck at home playing Parcheesi with her stepfather while her irresponsible, self-absorbed mother carries on a regular affair with her ex-husband, the protagonist’s estranged father. Predictably, the central image in the story is fire. Continue reading