Forget about vulnerability: let’s talk about shamelessness

My life has been a speeding train lately, and oh, how I’ve missed my blog! My emerging leaders and I are working on self care for the next few weeks, so this post indulges in quite a bit of navel gazing.

Let’s get to my thoughts on vulnerability and shame that I promised almost a month ago—but first: hat tip to Brené Brown, who has really pushed the discussion on authenticity forward by speaking openly about her own vulnerability and shame. My two cents on this revolves around how shamelessness resonates with me much more than vulnerability, and how letting go of shame is one of the kindest and most empowering gifts I’ve given myself. Continue reading


News and goodies: Blog-related and otherwise

Happy New Year, friends and readers. I’ve been thinking lately that I really want to thank those of you who don’t know me in real life but read this blog anyway.

A few updates are in order:

1. Last summer I fell unexpectedly in love with Twitter. My closest friends remain incredulous. My husband was surprised by this. I myself would never have predicted this. But then again, for me surprise is the spice of life. Ping me if you’re on Twitter!  I find it easier to interact with readers there than on here. I tweet and FF tweets about #youthdev, #fostercare, #socent, #educ, #diversity in #highered, #gamification, #crowdfunding, #transition, #autism and #ASD… (I could go on and on.) My handle is @YsetteGuevara. What’s yours?

2. In related news, I will be managing the social media platforms of NYU’s diversity and inclusion team. (Talk about a surprise, since I *just* figured out Twitter and am not at all on FB.) I’ll be sharing more news on that when we launch.

3. There is reason behind this social media madness. My biggest goal for 2014 is to plan and launch a crowdfunding campaign for Incubate Good, the social entrepreneurship program I’m designing for my emerging leaders. It will be a tremendous challenge. I have to learn a lot in the next few months about setting a budget, mapping out a network tree, hosting events, producing a video, coming up with a communications plan… I’ll also have to work on managing the anxiety that will come up with all the exposure.

But you know what? I’m excited. I’m excited because I know that you will absolutely fall in love with my emerging leaders. All this will be for them. If you already like what you read about them here, you are definitely in for a treat, because during the campaign (if not before then) you will hear from them directly.

4. Lastly, there are a couple of guest posts in the pipeline:

The irreplaceable Steph Cowling will be continuing her role as devil’s advocate with some cautionary thoughts on young people’s fascination with entrepreneurship. See this article from HBR as a primer on the topic.

Additionally, I have a new guest blogger who is eager to write about her experiences working closely with young people in foster care as a life coach/youth development specialist.

2014 will be a great year, and I’m glad for your company on this journey.

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?

Let’s talk about freedom, shall we?

But let’s not look to the Bill of Rights, where government is inimical to liberty, and where the abstract and unassociated subject of classical liberalism cries, Don’t tread on me. I’d rather have one of the most impassioned admirers of the American Revolution, Hannah Arendt, set the tone today. Arendt loved the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, not for their protection of individual rights, but because they marked the foundation of something radically new: a public sphere for political action. As such, she reaches back to an older notion of freedom, one that is more properly labeled republican (again, in the classical sense).

Freedom, for Arendt, is the gift of action—the human ability to introduce novelty into the world. She roots this freedom in the moment of our birth: When each of us was born something new and utterly unanticipated came into existence. We are all newcomers or beginners in the fact of our singularity. And we continue to carry within us this potential to begin anew, to take initiative—i.e., to make a difference—throughout our lives. Arendt considered political revolution the apogee of human action, but in her thought to act simply means to disclose to your fellow men your unique self through words and deeds.

With age I find I take greater and greater delight in people’s capacity to surprise me, and I experience this surprise bodily in laughter and emotionally in wonderment. Hence I derive tremendous pleasure from working with young people, who are perched precisely at that moment when they are getting ready to take flight and astonish us with the unexpected.

In the spirit of Arendt, on this Independence Day, I urge you to think about your own freedom to act. But don’t frame it as a freedom from law, as a freedom of choice. How unbecoming for such a glorious occasion! Instead consider how you are going to allow your capacity for action to express the profound miracle of your singularity. Go on. You might even surprise yourself. Happy Fourth of July.


This evening I took down a much-beloved book off the shelf after repeatedly failing to get past the first page of a depressing memoir. The well-read volume creases open onto In the Skin of a Lion, a novel I love so much that for a few years I kept an extra copy of it around just so that one day I could pass it on without the heartache of loss. It’s been a little over a decade since I last permitted myself the pleasure of rereading it, and still: how much finer it is than its more famous sequel (and the film! ugh, the film).

I find that I have a spotty memory for plot, so certain moments still have the capacity to surprise me.

— Look!

Walking on the bridge were five nuns.

And here I am, the dutiful reader, just as shocked as the characters to find them up there. This time around I catch myself laughing aloud every now and then. Was it funny back then as well, or have I gotten less serious with age?

Critics are wont to call Ondaatje’s prose ‘poetic’ or ‘lyrical,’ but how do I convey the way his words fill my chest? Although some plot points escape my recollection, certain phrases, sentences—even entire passages—return to me like old friends. His prose achieves the memorable quality of verse without resorting to the cheap trick of rhyme. Maybe this is because his writing also manages to evoke such vivid scenes in the reader’s mind. I am mostly haunted by the novel’s strange, quiet, and utterly spellbinding images: a boy and his father working a rope together to save a cow from drowning; loggers skating over a frozen river, holding flaming cattails to illuminate the night.

Lest I rob you of the pleasures of a virgin read, I won’t say any more. And please don’t look at any professional reviews beforehand, either. You may only be put off by silly descriptions of it as a ‘postmodern novel.’ Don’t get the wrong idea: In the Skin of a Lion is neither pretentious nor difficult to get through. It isn’t beach material, exactly, but it is perfect for a quiet weekend at home or away. I hope you read the stories as the character Hana hears them, “under six stars and a moon.”

The importance of networks, of community

This has been a tough week for a lot of my friends and colleagues, but what is getting many of us through has been time spent in the company of like-minded, big-hearted people. Just as it’s vital for young people to have caring adults in their lives, it continues to be necessary for all of us grown-ups to cultivate circles of support. That said, I surprised myself a little while ago by deciding that I was no longer going to wrestle with how to build out a mentoring component to my program, because I realized that what I really want to do is to help young people build their own networks. A network, after all, is a web of connection, a safety net. In order for youth to be able to make these connections, we need to equip them with certain tools: how to create professional social media profiles and a meaningful online presence, how to reach out to professionals for informational interviews—of course. But most fundamentally of all, young people need to learn how to nurture a confident, positive sense of self, so when they do take the risk of reaching out to strangers for a favor, they do so in the knowledge that they have something of value to offer in return.

What young people are capable of

I’m still digesting the experience of my two-day program at Youth Communication, but what I will say for now is that the group I worked with managed to surprise me with their stamina in the classroom. Yesterday we effectively had a working lunch because they asked to see a documentary related to a discussion we were having on rumspringa. These kids managed to sustain their engagement for almost five hours straight. There were five-minute breaks at the end of each lesson, and pair-work doing computer research and presentations, so they weren’t tied down to the conference table, but from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM these young people (ages 15-20) were effectively focused on talking and writing about how youth around the world become adults. Friends in academia are all very impressed with this display of endurance! Hats off to each and every one of them.

On expectations

One of the most important messages conveyed in Betsy Krebs and Paul Pitcoff’s Beyond the Foster Care System is that we can and should alter our expectations (and the policies that reflect those preconceptions) of the intellectual abilities of youth in foster care. This conviction is consonant with my belief that if you expect and demand a lot from your students, more often than not they will work hard to meet those expectations. This is not to say that people will write brilliantly and earn all ‘A’s just because you “believe in them.” But it is important for educators to truly have confidence in everyone’s capacity for creativity, careful thought, and improvement. Students are more likely to put in the effort when they sense this on your part; and conversely they will sooner write you off if they think you have given up on them.

How does this work in practice? For starters, educators can set the tone immediately at the beginning of a course. Krebs and Pitcoff do this by being explicit about their attendance policy in their GBS seminar and eliminating all of the common lures used to bribe foster teens to make appointments (food, Metrocards). The message this sends out is that participants in their workshops are treated as adults who choose to do the work because they want to, not because anyone is making them do so. More importantly, GBS facilitators employ the Socratic method to engage students’ critical faculties, rather than treating them as vessels to be filled by expert knowledge.

Most teachers admit that one of the best aspects of the profession is being surprised by the insight of their students. In their book Krebs and Pitcoff recount how the teenagers in their acquaintance repeatedly amazed them with their thirst for knowledge and their ability to plow through pages of complex and abstract law codes.

Krebs and Pitcoff regard Paolo Freire as the inspiration for their pedagogical approach, but as I was reading their book I was reminded of Jacques Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster, which tells the history of a nineteenth-century teacher by the name of Joseph Jacotot, who spoke only French yet managed to instruct his Flemish students (who spoke no French) in a stunning range of subjects, after which he concluded (as does Rancière after him) that all men have equal intelligence and that everyone has the capacity for self-instruction (as, for example, when we each learn our mother tongues). The Ignorant Schoolmaster will confound you and challenge your deepest prejudices, and the miracle at the center of it will urge you to regard your students in a new light.