Fighting Poverty with Passion
A large and increasingly larger part of my term at Cowen Institute has been dealing with the issue that has been coined “Opportunity Youth.” Opportunity Youth are young people 16-24 not connected to school or work, and they are called Opportunity Youth because they would add great value to potential employers, their community, and themselves by being reconnected to those possibilities. The Cowen Institute recently released an awesome Reference Guide explaining how the issue affects New Orleans, Louisiana, and the United States, including breaking down who exactly these Opportunity Youth are, and in what parts of the country they are most prevalent.
New Orleans is the metro area with the third highest percentage of Opportunity Youth, and the Cowen Institute’s way of working to improve the issue is primarily through the Earn and Learn program. I’ve been involved in myriad ways with the program, but only recently have I become more personally invested by becoming the supervisor to our two in-office student apprentices (the title we give to Earn and Learn program participants), Sean and Krisie. I already had working relationships with Sean and Krisie since we worked in the same office, but my relationship with them has changed, as I am now responsible for passing down critiques of their work, giving them new assignments, reviewing their performance, and sometimes sitting in on their life coaching sessions.
I’ve been grateful for my new responsibilities, primarily because they take me out of my comfort zone. These are bright young people just a few years younger than myself, and I now sometimes have to give them tough love to get them to adhere to the program and help them progress in their professional careers. On one hand it is easy to say things like “You must be here early every day. That is the expectation of the program, and if you truly can’t make it to work on time, then we may have to rearrange your schedule.” But on the other hand, I am in the incredibly fortunate position where I can ‘flex’ my hours, and as long as I do the work that’s required of me, I have lenient expectations with regards to the precise time that I come to work in the morning. When we had more staff unity and emphasis on team-building, there was consistency with everyone’s schedules. Now, it’s not uncommon to walk down the hall and see only a few doors open with staff members in their offices grinding away on work. With more work divided between fewer employees, many staff members are meeting others outside the office, and people come and go throughout the day. How then can I expect my apprentices to set strict standards for themselves when the staff that they work for cannot do the same? We are supposed to be the professional ones, but we are just as guilty as allowing our personal worlds to seep into the realm of work. Even in the middle of personal coaching sessions, I can sense the hypocrisy of asking these young people to try and separate their challenging personal worlds from the work environment. It is only human to allow emotions and outside factors to influence one’s work, but we demand strict adherence so our apprentices can learn and grow as they progress. We are the ones that have always had outside support, the experience performing highly within academic schedules, and any number of other helpful factors. It’s not always realistic to expect so much- but the reality is is that they need to give us that much if they want to better their realities.
Sometimes I have felt like we as an organization are treading water, waiting for big landmarks to happen – such as getting a new website, hiring an Executive Director, an Operations Manager, a report to be released. We truly have been doing good work, and the Earn and Learn program is no exception. The program is actually the #1 thing that makes me excited about my job. I know my role as a VISTA is to build capacity, but in the beginning of my year I really struggled with feeling like my work had impact on real lives. In my work with the Earn and Learn program, I may not be touching many individuals directly, but I still know at the end of the day that my efforts are affecting their lives, hopefully for the better. No organization, no initiative, no employee, no workday is perfect. But dealing with imperative topics like the Opportunity Youth of New Orleans makes me at least want to push to be better. Perfect isn’t possible, but I owe it to my job, my apprentices, my organization, and myself to try and set a good example- leaving my personal life at home, and doing the best I can do during all the time I’m working. This will seem a common theme for regular readers of my blog- it’s true. There are a number of things at work that await external factors far outside of my control. But there are things I can do. There is a lot of work to be done.
Until next time.