Thursday, July 9, 2009

One year later, what have I learned?

As of yesterday I've officially been working at Cabrini Connections, The Tutor/Mentor Connection for a full year. As you may or may not know, this is my last week here as an official staff member. Thinking back to where I was at this time last year, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. In fact, I was still wondering whether I had made the right choice in choosing not to pursue graduate work in neuroscience immediately after my graduation. Though I knew I needed to do something disorienting (in a good way) in order to put myself in a situation where I could grow as a person and develop my social and political consciousness outside of NU, I never could have predicted how profoundly a year of non-profit work would change my personal perspective on work, life and my own future.

One huge surprise was how easy, natural and engaging the work seemed after 4 years of grinding through research papers, oral presentations and other thesis related mumbo-jumbo with varying degrees of interest and enthusiasm. Knowing that the work I do is contributing to the well-being of 70+ kids in whom I'm now personally invested, makes me a lot more inclined to put in the necessary time and effort, than when I was at Northwestern writing papers for an audience of one and giving presentations to a dozen or so disinterested students.

Another is that the social reward of knowing that my work is helping disadvantaged youth succeed so far outweighs the relative lack of financial compensation that I'm taking a completely unpaid position at a radical Guatemalan non-profit school next year to further hone the skills and knowledge I've developed through my year here as a PIP fellow. Perhaps I'll reconsider down the road, but for the time being, living in relative poverty and loving my work is far preferable to any number of potentially more financially lucrative alternatives.

One other big one, and perhaps the most important is that connecting a youth with a caring adult volunteer through a tutoring/mentoring relationship is really one of the most powerful ways to help a disadvantaged youth succeed. Just spending a year here and coordinating our Cabrini Connections program exposed me to dozens of case studies that make a strong case for the value of programs like ours. Given the obvious benefit of our work in the areas of: academic achievement, employment gang-prevention, drug-prevention and violence-prevention, it is shameful that organizations like ours are constantly scrambling for the necessary operating dollars because government, business and other sectors with a stake in the future of youth growing up in poverty haven't taken a more active role in supporting programs like ours. Though much lip service continues to be paid to programs like ours, from our nation's capital all the way down to conversations at the nearest bus stop (I can't tell you how many times people have told me "oh that's so great" when I explain what we do), the fact is that programs like ours can't continue to do this necessary work without the necessary human and financial resources, which are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. Therefore, now more than ever, we need to bring more leaders and other motivated folks into the fold to advocate for our youth, our programs and our future.

Personally, I'm becoming more and more convinced that I am and will continue to be one of these people. For this, I have to thank Dan and EL Da'sheon, who have gone to great lengths to get me to understand the ins and outs of running a successful non-profit, been incredible mentors and true sources of wisdom and inspiration to me throughout this past year. Thank you for your guidance, thank you for your willingness to collaborate and most of all thank you for the difference that you're so committed to making in the lives of youth all over the city.

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