My #emergingleaders inspire me

Most people who work outside the field of child welfare tend to assume that my work is dispiriting. They hear the words “foster care” and immediately think “at-risk youth,” a loaded term that conjures only negative images. They imagine that I am out every day fighting the good fight, doing charitable work for the needy. The truth is I have the best job in all of New York City. I have the best job for a whole host of reasons: terrific colleagues, flexible work hours, and a varied work week that keeps me engaged, whether I am deep in research or out in meetings. But above all, I have the best job in NYC because I am surrounded by young people who are at a stage in life where they are all trying to figure out who they are, who they want to become, and where their place is in the world. It’s fascinating.

I work most closely with my emerging leaders—young people on a mission to revolutionize child welfare and other fields of human services. They are working to connect their values, strengths, and passions to embark on careers that will sustain them financially and emotionally while improving the lives of others. Watching them go through this process is inspiring. But what is most touching about my emerging leaders is they way they all throw themselves so fully into their transitions. Aristotle would surely approve of their zealous pursuit of the good life.

How many of us would and could be productive, for example, in precarious housing situations? Sure, some of us worked jobs while going to school, but how many of us also had to navigate complex bureaucracies whose stated missions seem to contradict our daily experience of them? 

My window into the lives of my emerging leaders and other young adults who have transitioned from foster care offers me a profound and daily reminder of the strength and the goodness of the human spirit. 

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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

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

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).

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.

Knowing whom to reach out to (and a meta call for help)

[For Dawn] So I’ve been going through a very specific experience lately that I haven’t really shared with many people in my life, including (perhaps especially) those nearest and dearest to me. Since it’s a situation I’m unfamiliar—and therefore unequipped to deal—with I decided to turn to someone whom I know has handled something similar with tremendous grace and strength. From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem strange for me to bring something so personal to someone whom I’ve only recently met. But our limited number of interactions this year have been so enriching and energizing that I knew she would have a lot of advice and words of wisdom for me. [And thank you very much for all of it. Your kindness is overwhelming.]

This happens to be another good example of how I walk the walk and pass what I’ve learned on to my youth. I recently turned in a proposal to contribute to a transition curriculum for a mentoring program (more on that later), and one of the final activities that I have planned is for each young person to map out a personal support networkand then to label each individual in that web of relationships with the type of emotional and/or practical support s/he provides. 

I think it would be helpful for mentors to prompt their mentees with questions such as:

    • Whom do you turn to when you’re sad?
    • Who is the first person you call with good news?
    • Whom can you rely on to give you relationship advice?
    • If you’re in a silly mood, who’s the best person to laugh with?
    • If you just want to be quiet in someone’s company, whom can you sit with?
    • If you feel like dancing, who is your partner in crime?

I prefer a digital contact list myself, but in the context of this workshop I think it would be better for the youth to collect these contacts in an old fashioned paper notebook. Each page would have someone’s name and contact information, but also important details about that individual (e.g., activities they enjoy, skills they have, etc.). The notebook would be solid evidence of the existence of a community and safety net.

Of course for this exercise to have any value, it’s not enough that young people know they can reach out for help, not enough that they know how to reach out for help. The very first step is ensuring that they are ready to receive help. This is a whole nother ball of wax, as they say, and something that’s been weighing heavily on me lately, because I’ve been learning that even when people explicitly ask for help, they also have their own particular ways of resisting it.

Look! Here is another call for help: If anyone has any bright ideas about helping people who aren’t ready to accept help even if they ask for it, please ping me. I’d love to brainstorm with you. (Y gracias de antemano por cualquier ayuda proporcionada.)

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

Pull up a chair…

Yesterday Nahjee told me that I should be a therapist. I pshawed her: I have no such training! Later on, during my shift at AlleyNYC‘s front desk, I got into a conversation with one of the guests. Within ten minutes—before we’d even traded names—I’d managed to find out about his career dissatisfaction, helped him pinpoint a couple of emotionally-fulfilling aspects of his current job, and recommended two books to him (the same two books I recommend to anyone who even breathes a word of life confusion).

I call this quality of mine “nosiness,” though my husband objects to the term. The reality is that I find myself in these sorts of conversations because I have a very low tolerance for small talk. As cheesy as it sounds, I like getting to know the whole person and peeking into someone’s inner life.

My friend Dale and I share the conviction that there are no boring people in the world, that if everyone’s life story were to be treated by a filmmaker, biographer, journalist, or some other professional storyteller, all people’s lives would seem ever so rich and textured. I love talking to people about their lives. I live for this stuff. And I also believe that more people should be trained in the skill of having real, non BS conversations with their fellow human beings.

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: