The 12 traits of “flourishers”

This is one of the many gems from sociologist Corey Keyes‘s keynote at the 6th Conference on Emerging Adulthood. He was explaining the concept of flourishers: those individuals who report that “every day” or “almost every day” they experience happiness, but less so for emotional reasons (feeling happy) than from psychological and social ones (positive functioning). He listed out the twelve traits that are much more pronounced in flourishers than the rest of the population, and I’m eager to share them with you:


  • don’t procrastinate
  • have a high degree of self-control 
  • feel highly capable
  • are deliberate (They know what they want out of life.)
  • have a high disposition to apologize (At this point I start raising my eyebrows because I’m five for five.)
  • have a malleable mindset about their own intelligence (They know that they don’t know everything and are open to being wrong.)
  • have higher levels of curiosity (They like to explore and expose themselves to new and challenging situations.)
  • they have an OCEAN personality
    • open (Again, they’re intellectually curious and open to novelty.)
    • conscientious (Again, they are disciplined and planful.)
    • extroverted (This is where I start docking points.) (Also, why do psychologists spell it with an ‘A’?)
    • agreeable (They’re compassionate and cooperative.)
    • not neurotic (Go ahead and dock some more points here.)
  • have an initiative for personal growth (They want to grow and they have a plan for how to go about it.)
  • learn from adversity
  • are motivated by mastery of the process rather than the outcome (They aren’t motivated by money; they’re all about the journey.)
  • feel loved and cared for

Keyes delineates these traits because he is committed to promoting a concept of mental health that is more solid and robust than our current understanding of it as the “absence of mental illness.” He suggests that we design our interventions with an eye to cultivating these traits in our young people. If we truly want to set them up for a life beyond subsistence or even “settling” (this is Keyes’s term for the complacency of the merely “happy”), then we must go above and beyond independent living and job skills and aim for the personal and professional fulfillment of our youth.

For this reason I especially like the last trait. One of the many things I admire about The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is the fact that they codify love in their theory of change and mission. We don’t talk about love with our young people nearly as much as we should.


“Truancy, lack of school attendance is not a kid problem; it’s a parent problem.”

What’s more, as Hannah’s Story intimates, this “parent problem” will not be solved on the level of the individual, but with broad social change. If you haven’t been following the Times’ coverage of Carroll Academy, start here and here. There is a ton more in the archives, but you will want to go through the articles slowly. They are heartbreaking.

Last day to see Artistic Noise exhibit at Commons Gallery

Artistic Noise gives youth in the juvenile justice system the opportunity to document their lives and express themselves through the visual arts. Their nine-month program includes life and job skills training, and culminates in an art show at a gallery. Right now Storytellers is on exhibit at the Commons Gallery. Its tagline is “No Words Necessary, Our Stories Speak,” so I was quite surprised to find that text was a central component of many of the art works.

Most to the point was the collection “Spectrum Life,” which had girls living in Spectrum Detention in Dorchester, Massachusetts represent their daily lives through photography. They then used Photoshop to integrate text into their images. There are photos of the objects and places central to the girls’ lives: three metal sinks that eighteen girls share and clean twice a day; a lonely little cot; the desk where staff members sit either to talk on the phone or to keep an eye on residents. The haunting absence of people is what stands out in those images. Even when the girls themselves are photographed, they turn their backs on the viewer. Still, there is an effort to articulate an identity and to challenge preconceptions. A portrait of two girls side by side reads, “Plenty of girls come in & out…Some share similarities, some don’t… But we all have one thing in common, for whatever reason we ended up here…” Another portrait bears the inscription “Just because we’re here doesn’t mean we’re bad. We’re all just kids with different stories to tell.”

“Found in New York” encourages young artists to create “found poems” and collages with clippings from newspapers and magazines. It is an interesting way to get people who might be intimidated by the writing process to think about language. The exercise specifies that the poems do not need to make sentences or convey something that necessarily “makes sense.” Some of the pieces touched on violence, but one collage mused on Monday morning breakfasts.

One particularly powerful project put youth in partnership with the Bronx Family Court. The artists were given a copy of Family Law, a text used in New York State’s Family Court, to use and repurpose in any way they desired. I cannot do justice to every piece in the collection so I will mention just one that played with light and dark spaces, words, voice, and silence. The artist Erwuen took a page of Family Law and blacked out almost everything but the word statement. He comments, “My view of this piece is that a statement can be very dark. The statement is very small and the darkness covers most of it. A statement in the courtroom can sometimes make silence. I silenced the court of law by blocking it out.” Think of the conversations that this one work can spur!

Do drop by Commons Gallery and spend half an hour to view these works and more. The show closes tomorrow.

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!

Great mentoring ideas from Adoptment

[Obligatory apologies for neglecting this blog.]

I’ve been meaning to write about an idea coming out of the Adoptment program to bring more structure into their mentoring sessions. The group has recently handed over the planning of one session to each mentor/mentee pair. Aside from allowing young people to take more responsibility for driving the agenda, this strategy has the added benefit of easing the administrative burden on the program coordinator.

The first participant-planned session was a hit! It involved a game of Jeopardy where each of the categories was purposely tailored to the knowledge areas of each youth in the program. These categories included obvious topics such as “entertainment” and “sports,” but to play to the strengths of everyone involved, the mentor/mentee pair spent some time combing through Facebook posts to brush up on everyone’s interests.

During “half-time” the entire group got together to discuss one question: “What is one thing related to your experience in foster care or adoption that you haven’t yet shared with the group?” The stories that arose were so profound that group continued their conversation even after the second half of the game.

Congratulations to A. and J. for their creativity and thoughtfulness in planning the session!

Lessons in social entrepreneurship from Year Up’s founder

Yesterday Gerald Chertavian flew into New York City to give a very inspirational talk about how he started Year Up. He had really solid advice about filling the gaps in your knowledge by hiring a diverse team of people and being very selective when it comes to assembling a board, but all those things are a bit farther down the line for me. What occupies me now are networking and creating a sustainable business model, neither of which come naturally or easily to me, so I’m still wrestling with what Gerald had to say about all that. I see how his approach has worked out tremendously for him, but am very ambivalent about applying all of it to my life. Continue reading

Youth Communication’s Summer Writing Workshop

I’ve been neglecting this blog, I know, but it’s been for good reason. I’m developing a couple new workshops, one on the teen brain for New Alternatives for Children (more on that later), and two for Youth Communication‘s Summer Writing Workshop (apply here). This year’s theme is identity, so they asked me to do two workshops on coming of age and adulthood. Keith, Virginia, and Luisa (the founder and the co-editors of Represent, their magazine by and for youth in foster care) really liked my program framework because it resonated with their own philosophy if Identity-Based Motivation (IBM). We all believe that it is critical for young people to develop a solid vision of their future selves early on. To me becoming an adult is not merely being able to do whatever you want to do, or having to shoulder an increasing amount of responsibilities. Becoming an adult means becoming the person you want to be.

At their request I’m turning my Tribal Rites of Passage workshop into a “giant writing prompt,” which means that instead of it being tied to a project that lets their imaginations run freely, participants are pushed to reflect on their lives and write more personally about the “tribes” to which they belong or hope to belong. Keith gave the example of a person who might come from a very Catholic Italian family but who identifies as gay. He also raised the challenge of multiracial individuals who either feel the need to privilege one heritage above the others, or refuse to be boxed into one identity or the other.

The YC staff also asked for a “becoming an adult” workshop, and they’re giving me as much time as I’d like, so I think I want to talk about some of the different ways that adulthood is talked about (scientifically, legally, sociologically, etc.). I’m very excited to be working with Youth Communications!

Getting on the same page with basic concepts

I’m not sure if I’ve already mentioned in this space how I fell into what I’m doing. Basically, one evening my husband came home from a mentoring training session and told me how his group facilitator was struggling with the question of how to help her young people transition to adulthood. I remember commenting that adults seem to be constantly telling teenagers that they have to “grow up,” but I wasn’t sure that kids always fully grasped what that meant. I wondered whether the mentees had firmly defined adulthood for themselves, and I set out to explore how I would draw that definition out, or help them to form one if they hadn’t already. My reasoning was that adults could talk till they were blue in the face about “adulthood,” but if youths don’t make a deep personal connection to that concept, it would remain an abstraction.

Earlier this week I mentioned that I’d started to research financial literacy programs, and it came to my attention that an old high school classmate gives financial literacy classes in schools, communities, and prisons. I haven’t yet read Brandale’s book, but I did read a blog post about an eye-opening experience he had in a fourth-grade classroom, where he realized the polarity of the students’ thoughts on financial standing. He begins his class by asking students to define what they think it means to be rich and what it means to be poor, and he was surprised by one young girl’s conviction that anyone who didn’t drive a Bentley was poor. I won’t go into more detail about Brandale’s post because I want to urge you to read it for yourself, but I will say that what I learned from him is that it will make little sense to give a class on financial literacy when the young people you’re teaching have no concept whatsoever of financial stability. Brandale realized that they not only lacked a picture of middle class life, but they had no grasp of how much things cost and how much money people made. The post is worth a read to remind educators that in order to meet our students at their level, we have to start with the most basic of concepts and nip any misconceptions in the bud.

Indexes of engagement

I don’t yet have the evaluations in hand from the last workshop, but based on the energy in the room and the output of the young people, I could safely say that the Tribal Rites of Passage activity was a success. Even though some people could not make it back for the second session due to personal and work issues, several things indicated that the participants were in fact engaged by the last session. Continue reading


If you’ve been reading my blog regularly, you know that I have an interest in community centers that cater to the educational and developmental needs of the city’s youth. Yesterday I learned about yet another one. The New York Times recently had an article on how the children of Mexican immigrants in New York City have significantly lower educational outcomes than the general student population. Problems of lagging grades and test scores and high drop-out rates begin in primary and secondary school but persist in college.

Mexicans currently represent the highest percentage of 16- to 19-year-old youth not graduated and not in school in the City: 47%, as compared to 22% for Puerto Ricans, 18% for African-Americans, and 7% for whites. Furthermore, students frequently drop out after enrolling in high school: while 95% are in school at age 14, just 25% are still in school at ages 18 to 19. That’s a drop of 70%.

Those figures are provided by MASA-MexED, an organization set up to serve the educational needs of students of Mexican descent in New York. They provide educational support at all levels: offering a range of services from an early childhood playgroup to tutoring, mentoring, test prep, and college counseling. In addition to special classes in art and science, they also run peripheral programs such as ESL classes for students and parents alike, and an outreach effort for the 2010 census.