Taking the measure of a year

I’ve been in transition for so long now that uncertainty and discomfort had become my life’s norms. How strange to be able to look back on a year and notice the extent of my transformation. Where once was a void, there now is a path. No doubt, I am still trailblazing (can I say trailblazing even though it still feels like bushwhacking?), but now I can clear the way for longer stretches at a time. If I had to distill 2013’s biggest lessons into pat formulas, I would say they were:

1. When facing your fears, the immediate objective is not to become “good” at something, but to become better at being a beginner.  Continue reading


#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

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

We Grow When We Tackle Challenges

“The best way for a young person to build character is for him to attempt something where there is a real and serious possibility of failure.” (Paul Tough, p. 85).

All of the reading that I have done these past few weeks has made me think of my own approach to risk and failure. In my personal and professional life I have a strong tendency to play it safe. I am guilty of letting my fear of falling on my face hold me back from trying something new.

A great friend of mine visited last weekend and this topic came up during one of our marathon conversations. She teaches third grade and her vision for her classroom is “We grow when we tackle challenges.” These third graders are extremely lucky to start learning this at a young age (and to have such an amazing teacher). But I think this motto is powerful at all ages. It’s scary to take a risk, but it is the only way to stretch ourselves to achieve new and original success. Reflecting on this theme has led me to some very interesting books (like this one) and a greater awareness of my own hesitancy to step outside the box. Posting on this blog is one (minor) risk and has opened me up to what I hope will be many more as I grow in my career.

Thank you, Ysette, for the chance to share on your blog and welcome back!

It’s kind of like Hair Club for Men

Two friends now have mentioned they thought of me while reading Jill Lepore’s latest New Yorker piece. The news brings a wistful smile to my face because in my past life I wanted to grow up to be Jill Lepore. She is the rare scholar who builds bridges effortlessly between history and literature, between the past and the present, between the scholarly community and the reading public, and as evidenced in her last article, between the professional and the personal. And let’s not leave out how her writing is intoxicating.

It fills me with a certain sadness to talk about Jill Lepore because it reminds me of the choices I’ve made along the way that carried me away from that dream: opting to major in Latin American Studies rather than American Studies; applying to graduate programs in Spanish rather than English or History departments; deciding to do my PhD at NYU instead of Harvard, where I might have actually met Lepore; and, ultimately, resolving to leave academia with only the cloudiest notion of where my future lay.

I shed no tears for this specific series of steps I’ve taken, but I marvel at the amount of time it takes to let go of an identity. I think I’ve written here before about how I had a very specific vision of myself as a professor: I’d be sitting in a bright, book-lined office overlooking a grassy quad in some small liberal arts college in the northeast. The shelves were white (best for showing off all those books!), I had a red Persian rug on the floor, there would be a game of ultimate frisbee going on outside, and students were always glad to come into my office to chat. It was a nice idea for a life, no? And one that looped for years in my head until one day it didn’t. When that light went out inside of me it kind of felt like dying.

All this finally brings me ’round to the title of this post. (Yes, I have a terrible habit of burying the lede when I blog.) How am I like Sy Sperling? Well, I’m not only the founder of Minds On Fire, but I’m also its first client. My work involves taking all the tools, knowledge, and wisdom that I’ve gathered and continue to use to reimagine a new future for myself. I bring it all together into a program for youth in transition. So essentially, I’ve designed my workshops and am building my curriculum around the scariest and most profound experience of my life.

Here is a present for those of you old enough to remember:

Gender identity, show and tell style

My identity programming has somehow found itself at the bottom of the priority list this past month, but I wanted to share an idea that started rolling around my head a few weeks ago for dissecting gender identity in a workshop setting . Drawing from anthropology (again), I plan on asking participants to bring in one artifact from their lives that seems to say something significant about gender identity. The possibilities are almost endless: They could bring in a personal effect, an image/song/music video, an excerpt from a text, a magazine ad, etc. Each person would have five minutes to present the artifact, and then the group would have another five minutes to respond.

I haven’t had enough time to think about it too carefully, but the guiding questions for the presentation could be:

  1. What is the artifact?
  2. How does it circulate in the culture?
  3. What vision of masculinity/femininity does it articulate?
  4. How consonant is it with your gender identity?

As a quick example, I would probably bring in the full bottle of foundation I bought over two years ago when my mother counseled me after graduation to wear makeup to my job interviews because “that is sadly the reality of the world” for women. So I walked into Sephora, asked for some guidance, and walked out with a bag full of makeup…that has largely gone unused since. It turned out (to my great relief) that the first five professional women I spoke to that summer went into work bare-faced or nearly so. While I admire women who are skilled in the application of a full face of makeup (how do they manage it without looking clownish, and how do they stand it in the full heat of summer?), I am much too lazy and unskilled for this daily undertaking. Additionally, for some reason it makes me feel like I’m in drag. I’m also reminded of how an aunt of mine said that at minimum women should wear mascara and lipstick, so we wouldn’t “look too scary.” I guess men’s faces are somehow less scary than women’s?

Note that I am NOT equating barefacedness with the discourse of authenticity. In fact, I’d love to garner responses from men and women who find makeup to be a tool that is expressive of their personal gender identities.

A young person’s perspective on how to talk about race and identity

One of my youth advisors gave me clever advice today on how to engage youth in care in conversations around race and identity, which she agrees are critical to discuss in a foster care setting. Here they are:

1. Use your personal experience to open a general discussion on a sensitive topic. Ask a question that everyone can relate to, and then let young people lead the way.

Without trying to equate your experience with that of others, it’s possible to throw out a very general question that resonates with everyone in different ways: Have you ever walked into a room and felt like you didn’t belong? The brilliance of this question is that it can lead the group down various paths that include, but aren’t limited to, racial or ethnic identity. It’s a great way of broaching sensitive subjects without asking such a pointed question right at the start.

2. A good guest speaker can really help.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I may not always be the right person to lead these sorts of discussions. To take some of the pressure off, my youth advisor said that sometimes “a big black man with a bald head” might connect with the youth better.

3. Find ways of connecting with the quiet ones.

This is just solid classroom management: Try to engage the ones who aren’t as active in discussions by asking them to pass out handouts or write on the board. In my youth advisor’s words, “keep letting them know you see them, even if they don’t speak.”

4. Build in incentives to attend group discussions/workshops.

This is common practice in the child welfare space: Offer MetroCards, gift cards, or food to draw youth to events. Although we would all like young people to show up to our workshops because they’re informational, educational, engaging, and generally “good for them,” the reality is that often the first obstacle is getting them through the door before you can make that case to them convincingly.

Thank you, Nahjee, for your wonderful insights and advice!

How race/ethnicity impacts children in foster care

I’m still making my way through the e-training portion of the Casey Family Program’s Knowing Who You Are curriculum, which is devoted to training social workers and other adults and professionals in the child welfare system in how to nurture the healthy racial/ethnic identities of children in foster care. The section on institutional racism identifies key points in the child welfare process where the cases of children of color seem to be handled differently than those of their white peers. These include investigation, child placement, service provision, and permanency planning. Continue reading

Coming to terms with race

I recently wrote about the need to engage youth more deeply in matters of race/ethnicity and gender identity. The importance of these sorts of conversations—especially in the context of youth in foster care—is treated with a lot of thought and wisdom in Casey Family Program’s Knowing Who You Are curriculum. In an educational video, foster youth and foster youth alumni, along with birth parents, foster parents, and child welfare professionals, discuss the challenge of developing a strong racial or ethnic identity within the foster care system. When young people are separated from their families of origin and might get shuffled from home to home, they don’t always get the chance to connect in a deep and meaningful way to their heritage. It was very interesting to hear adults and young people alike recount how they came to realize that they had to deal with the uncomfortable topic of race/ethnicity/cultural background. Well meaning adults might want to gloss over any talk of otherness,  and youth in foster care often struggle to “fit in” and be accepted for who they are “on the inside,” but  ignoring the issue does not help young people build a solid and positive sense of self. As one social worker puts it, dealing with racial identity is not an ancillary activity: “This is the work.”

What was especially fascinating about the video was how it put on display all the highly individual struggles of each young person to get in touch with his or her racial or ethnic identity. A couple people of color said they’d been called “white” for the company they kept or the music they listened to. One young person lamented the fact that he felt entirely disconnected from his heritage because whenever he lived with a new foster family—black, white, Hispanic, or Asian—no one tried to get to know his background, and he found themselves adapting to their ways. There was also a mother who so shielded her kids from any negative stereotypes about Native Americans that she was at a loss when her son asked her why someone called him a “lazy Indian.” Everyone in the room agreed that in order to help youth connect more deeply with their racial/ethnic identities, the adults themselves had to wrestle mightily with their own identity issues.

What emerges from the conversation is not an essentialist definition of What It Means to Be Black/Hispanic/Indian, etc., but rather a recognition of race/ethnicity as a potential source of pride, strength, and self-knowledge. The social worker I quote above said that in her work with one of her clients, her goal was to help build a sense of community around her client’s identity as a young black woman.

This video resonated with an enterprise that was brought to my attention by one of this blog’s readers (Hi, Steph!): The Black Girl Project. The BGP is the brain child of Aiesha Turman, who provokes and facilitates discussions around the intersection of race and gender through history, and in the context of individual lives, in order to empower young black women. This is great work! Do click on the links to the Knowing Who You Are video and the trailer to the Black Girl Project.

Tightening up the self-portrait activity

I’ve been thinking of ways of making my identity self-portrait activity a bit more rigorous. The results from the pilot were useful because it revealed what young people tended to leave out of their portraits when representing their identities. In an earlier post I mentioned how I really had to push the youth to think about elements in their identity that linked them to a larger community, and in relation to that, another one of the most glaring omissions was a lack of engagement with race and gender. Even if those aspects of the self aren’t necessarily at the forefront of one’s self-concept, I think it’s valuable for young people to wrestle with them a little. Personally speaking, I don’t move through this world primarily as “Asian woman,” but I’ve had that label foisted on me often enough to know that my appearance affects how strangers perceive me. And it’s worth some thought to tease out the implications of that.

I think the defining the role of the mentors in this activity will be key to executing it properly. Before the session I had emailed the mentors a list of sample questions they could use in conversation with their youth during partner work.

  • Are there competing identities that they have to manage or decide between? 
  • Are there identities that they are trying to outgrow or resist? 
  • Do they feel locked into certain identities? 
  • Are there ones they would like to “try on”? What seems to fit? What doesn’t feel authentic? 
  • Do they feel pressure to conform to certain group identities (with family or peers)?

Since I tend to want to give people a certain level of freedom in my classroom, I presented these questions merely as suggestions. Now I see that I need to be a bit more forceful about structuring their discussions, and include a few more questions about race and gender in there. It might even be worth dedicating an entire session to the question of what it means to be a man/woman (in a specific community). One of the comics that I use as a warm-up for this activity deals specifically with different models of masculinity, and I think it can be a good springboard to a full session on gender identity.