On Monday evening I went with two exalt program graduates to a small event hosted by one of our foundation funders. This particular foundation raises capital from individual investors and then provides grants to a small number of early stage nonprofits. The purpose of this rather intimate gathering was to enable the foundation’s investors to meet the grantees and get a more visceral sense of what their work is about.
It can potentially be very awkward to “showcase” what we do through asking our students to speak about their lives to a group of strangers. Because we’re not just asking them to highlight achievements – we’re asking them to expose some of their greatest vulnerabilities to folks who largely have no exposure to the vastly different worlds they inhabit. We all cognitively understand that there are gross disparities in the way Americans live, largely depending on the zip code we’re born into. Often when we create situations to help personalize these inequities – usually for the well-intentioned purpose of generating urgency amongst those of us with more means to help solve this problem of opportunity disparity - the burden of uncomfortability falls on those without. They have to figure out how to adapt to another cultural context while simultaneously being prepared to bare their souls.
Our hosts in this instance are aware of these challenges in trying to bring together folks from very different worlds. While the consciousness, and genuine interest and compassion of the audience is key, much of what determines how the students (in this instance) experience the situation depends on a combination of their adapativity, resilience, open minded-ness, courage, maturity, and whether they have had any prior exposure to different environments. Q & M, the two students who accompanied me, had all of these in spades. So rather than me chaperoning a couple “court-involved youth” into a room full of well established white professionals, they arrived as well prepared ambassadors – both for themselves, and for exalt.
We were the first folks to arrive, and for the duration of the evening I barely saw Q & M. They got up each time new people came in and immediately went to networking. They collected more business cards than I did, and definitively worked the room better. What prepared them to be able to maintain direct eye contact throughout each new conversation? To politely accept or decline trout cupped in endive? To answer questions about their most personal obstacles while directing questions back to their interviewers about their professions?
Determination, and practice.
M graduated exalt in August of 2012 after successfully completing an internship at Third World Newsreel. He was 18, studying for his GED, and had new twin daughters. After graduating exalt he got a seasonal job at UPS, which ended after several months. We selected him to be the first graduate we sent for a post-program secondary internship at a new relationship one of our board members developed for us at the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). This is part of our new initiative to build a pipeline of secondary career exploratory/development opportunities for our alum to help them sustain the momentum they built during our program, and continue developing new networks, experience, and resources. M worked at a water treatment plant in Gowanus, Brooklyn for the summer of 2013 and did so well at this internship that the DEP created a job description tailored to him. He has formally applied and is expected to begin part time employment at the DEP next month.
Q graduated exalt in June 2013, after completing an administrative internship at the Harlem YMCA. Despite a very unstable home situation, he excelled in exalt – always the first to raise his hand, vocal in every aspect of the program. He is scheduled to graduate high school in January 2014. He recently started a second internship at the DEP as well, working in their administrative center in Queens. He’s also acting in an upcoming performance art piece directed by one of exalt’s former Advisory Board members.
Both Q & M recently attended a small event that exalt held at a gallery in Soho, one of our internship providers. While neither had to make a speech to our audience of about 30 people, we asked them to prepare and practice as if they were. They networked the hell out of that event as well.
Q was asked to make a brief speech at the funder’s event. He got caught in an unanticipated emotional moment. Standing in front of an expectant audience, he started to list what he said were the “three words that describe exalt.” “Family, love, and…”
I was standing next to him and could feel the energy of his nervousness, and a host of other emotions related to all he is going through personally. He started to well up. There was silence. That silence can feel like an eternity, like the weight of the whole world. I was about to tell him he didn’t have to go on, but he dug in, exhaled and, through tears said that the third word is “action.” He went on to describe how each of these words symbolized his experience.
Family, love, action. Families can take any form. And love is the universal support system that encourages us in our darkest and brightest moments, to take action.