Complaints, concerns, but also causes for optimism

I’ve been delaying writing this post because for a stretch I was too outraged about certain things I’d been hearing in the foster care scene. Outrage is healthy if you can articulate it well and channel it productively, but anger is not the emotion I want to lead with. So, what’s changed? So much in the last two weeks, it seems! But before I get to the good news, let’s start with the issues.

COMPLAINTS

1. Housing is the number one problem facing my emerging leaders, the youngest of whom just turned 21. At the beginning of last semester, we went around the table introducing ourselves to each other. I was struck that with the exception of the two eldest, who are working professionals in child welfare, every single person at the table was facing some form of housing crisis. A couple had to get extensions for their time in care; a couple others didn’t secure formal extensions, but were able to remain in their foster homes out of the generosity of foster parents willing to house them for just a little longer; one was on the verge of losing a NYCHA apartment due to bureaucratic inefficiencies; and still another two were worried that their agencies weren’t moving quickly enough on their housing applications.  Continue reading

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Decision-making with an #emergingleader

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Emerging Leader Maurice came into office hours last week wearing his red power tie. Our initial plan was to unpack his “hustle” from the Work On Purpose workshop we did in our last Emerging Leaders meeting, but he announced that he wanted to share some “good news” and a “dilemma,” which were in fact related. It turned out that Maurice needed to choose between two very different housing options that each appealed to conflicting values, and the decision was overwhelming him. With his permission, I’m sharing some of the details of our meeting because it contains an exercise that might prove useful to the young people you work with (or to you yourself, if you’re in the market for a decision-making tool).

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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.

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!

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?

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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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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

A three-strand theory of love and attraction

“You can be in love and still have a life, you know? You can build something.”

Jennifer Egan, The Invisible Circus

One of the really brilliant aspects of Egan’s treatment of her protagonist’s coming of age is its depiction of teenage watchfulness. At 18, Phoebe reads the world and the people around her for clues on how to build a life and make connections. Unsurprisingly, romantic relationships are a particular point of fascination for her. Here is Phoebe, spying on her sister’s former high school sweetheart and his fiancée as they hunt through apartment listings in the paper:

Carla exclaimed at something she’d found, set down her cigarette and circled the item with a stubby pencil, her other hand groping for Wolf as if for a pair of glasses or a cigarette pack, finding his wrist without lifting her eyes from the paper. The gesture transfixed Phoebe—the inadvertence of it, the thoughtlessness. Wolf rose from his chair and leaned over her, his chest to Carla’s back. He kissed her temple, breathing in her smell while his eyes perused whatever it was she’d found in the paper. The sheer ordinariness of it all confounded Phoebe, as if any one of these things might happen several times a day, with no one watching. They belong to each other, she thought, and found herself awed by the notion—knowing someone was there, just there, reaching for that person without a thought.

Phoebe, trying to wrap her head around the difference between this calm vision of domestic partnership and the wild, youthful romance she saw Wolf share with her sister, asks him how those two relationships compare. He answers, You can be in love and still have a life, you know?

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