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

They call themselves the Emerging Leaders

Emerging Leaders

[For Harry, who also believes] In the past year I’ve had the good fortune of meeting a lot of inspiring young people who have been in foster care and have creative ideas for businesses and programs that would improve the lives of our most vulnerable children and families. Three such individuals serve as youth advisors to Minds On Fire. To help them grow professionally, I started funneling resources to them individually, but it eventually hit me that I could easily scale my efforts. So I reached out to other young people I’d met and also asked some colleagues for referrals. The only requirements were that participants have direct experience with foster care and aspire to start a social enterprise or run a nonprofit organization.

We had our first meeting back in September (in AlleyNYC‘s War Room, bien sûr!) and the energy was electric. One person remarked that it was so energizing to meet other young people in foster care who were going to college and intending to give back to their communities. After a particularly joyous meet and greet we talked about my initial idea for the group, and also what everyone else wanted to get out of our meetings. They’re permitting me to do most of the steering in the beginning in order to lay a solid foundation on which we can build.

My primary objective is to expose these young people, who are currently between the ages of 19 and 26, to as many resources, professionals, and ideas related to social entrepreneurship as possible. These are the tools that will enable them to blaze trails into the business world and the child welfare system. What I also hope will happen is that the emerging leaders begin to see themselves as part of a cohort that will support each other’s dreams and perhaps even collaborate on some projects. The underlying belief is that they are the ones who will solve the biggest problems in child welfare because, having grown up in the system, they know its pain points. What’s more, they’re coming out of foster care resilient, observant, impassioned, streetwise, and compassionate. They are the ones who have the capacity to touch and transform our hardest to reach youth. Continue reading

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.

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

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.

This was intense for everyone in the room

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Credit: Lindsay Adamski

The second retreat workshop, “Bank Robbery,” came wholesale from MacGregor’s book. It’s an activity designed to lay bare the communication styles of a group by requiring it to solve a crime. Everyone got two or three unique clues, which they had to share orally, without writing anything down or moving around. YAB, in other words, had to talk this one through. And they had 25 minutes to do so.

I had no idea if they were going to be able to figure out the mystery in time, though I informed them that the process would be illuminating either way. YAB spent the first ten minutes trying to arrive at a reasonable method for sharing their clues. They tried going around in a circle, then they attempted to jump around the group by linking seemingly related clues, and then they argued about whose clues were the most important. Lindsay, Amy, and I kept eyeing each other. I don’t think any of us were optimistic about YAB coming to a solution.

But then something happened about halfway through the process. Continue reading

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

Preview of the NYFC Youth Advisory Board retreat

I started working with NYFC Youth Advisory Board (YAB) back in the fall of 2012, when they were undergoing a significant transition period. Here they are almost a year later, with another round of elections under their belt (and thankfully with a codified system for breaking ties this time!). YAB has never lacked for enthusiasm or ideas, so their project list for 2013-2014 is already very long. In order to start the school year on the right foot, the group could use an opportunity to gather their energy and reflect on the path they want to take.

For this purpose, YAB is headed out to their first group retreat in a couple of weeks and I have the good fortune to be invited along. The weekend promises to be a mixture of relaxation, recreation, and work. The work part, if it isn’t obvious, is where I step in. I have three big objectives I want to hit with them: to foster group bonding; to improve their inter-group communication skills; and to help them think through the project management process. Now that I typed that all out, it seems like a tall order for the weekend, but Amy, Lindsay, and I are enthusiastic, optimistic, and open to the unexpected. My minimum hope is to get through a weekend bunking with one other with smiles on everyone’s faces and no broken bones.

Re-evaluating program strategy

I’m realizing more and more that this project with YAB does not entail an intervention-style strategy of helping them build a foundation that can simply be handed over to them; it requires, rather, a more gradual process of independence-building. (Given everything I have learned about nations transitioning to democracy, it’s a bit embarrassing that i didn’t understand this from the start!) Here is a cautionary tale that will hopefully have a happy ending: Continue reading

Helping youth define their mission

Yesterday I began an extended program to help New Yorkers for Children‘s Youth Advisory Board define their organization. This is a very exciting time and I feel so lucky to play a part in this process. The YAB has been around for about four years now, but this year really marked a turning point for the group. NYFC’s web site advertises the YAB as a group of high school and college students in foster care who gather once a month for dinner to socialize and help plan events and programs that benefit younger children in care, and also to advise NYFC on the concerns of older students in care. Currently, most (if not all) are in college and are in their early twenties. YAB has largely played a supporting role in events planned by NYFC, but recently members have been expressing an increased desire to plan and carry out their own projects. To help in these efforts, they decided to hold elections for four positions (President, VP, Treasurer, and Secretary), and also to define their own mission statement.

The current version of their mission statement is too broad, so yesterday we engaged in a series of discussions and exercises designed to help them refine it. We began with a meditation on the word community, which they used to describe themselves in their mission statement. We talked about how a community was a group of people that had something in common: things like a geographic location (actual or symbolic, as in diasporic communities), an institutional affiliation (such as a student and alumni network), or even ideas and ideals (e.g., the philanthropic community). Someone added that people in communities also supported each other and looked out for one another’s best interests. What united the members of YAB a community was everyone’s experience of foster care.

To provoke them a bit, I presented them with the argument that YAB was more than just a community, that it was an organization. We talked about the work of community organizers, and through that they were able to define an organization as a group of people who rally behind a cause and work toward goals.

Once that observation had been made, we were able to begin digging into concepts that are fundamental to personal and organizational orientation: values, purpose, vision, mission, and functions. Everyone got a handy graphic tool to help define these concepts. Behold “Mission Man”: Continue reading