TEDx Philly and the ‘Spark’


As I rode the train early Friday morning in a minimally-caffeinated stupor with my coworker, Jill, I was in the need of some sort of spark; I needed a little pick-me-up on a rainy Friday. And I got one.

We walked into the TEDx Philly conference and the organization and meticulous planning had certainly shone through. The beautiful stained glass windows of the Temple Performing Arts Center served as an ornate backdrop to what was, essentially, a pop-up event of speakers from around Philadelphia. We picked up our passes and grabbed great seats.

For those who are unfamiliar, TED is an nonprofit devoted to ‘Ideas Worth Spreading.’ Started in 1984 in California, the viral nature of YouTube has taken TED to the next level, and I quickly became a follower and a ‘lunch-break watcher’ of TED videos. Some are highly technical (self-sanitizing countertops in hospitals), some are more idealistic (‘Looks aren’t everything’), but all strive to connect. The theme of this year’s TEDx Philly was “The New Workshop of the World.”

Excited as the lights dimmed (and I was 3 cups of coffee and a KIND bar fuller), the TED conference began, and, speaker after speaker, I began to feel that spark that I was hoping I would feel.

In the nonprofit world, and, really, any line of work, there are discouraging days. There are days where even your strongest effort seems to just nudge the issue-at-hand rather than make the big impact that you hoped it would. But sometimes, that same small nudge can make all the difference.

While I’d love to recount every speaker, as they were all fantastic, I will focus on the one that really resonated with me: Natalie Nixon, Director of the Strategic Design MBA Program at Philadelphia University. She spoke of redesigning a corporation using the principles of jazz. As a musician, I felt a ‘buzz’ when she spoke of jazz musicians jamming and drew parallels to business models and how we can change the way we work together. She referenced Dr. Barrett’s 7 leadership lessons, and that we must develop an ‘improvisational mindset’ to work together in a chaordic setting (the balance between chaos and order).

SIDENOTE: The caffeine was definitely kicking in at this point, and the connections were igniting all up in my little brain!

Here are Dr. Barrett’s 7 leadership lessons from jazz (taken from the source):

  • Unlearning – disrupt outworn routines – challenge your routines and learn your way into new and different areas
  • Say “Yes to the Mess” – affirmative competence that favors experimentation – be open to possibilities and the creative power of teams
  • Learn from failures – use errors and mistakes as a source of learning. As Miles Davis puts it, ‘If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake.’
  • Use minimal structure and minimal consensus – create just-enough structure to coordinate and don’t wait for gaining consensus every time
  • Take turns soloing and supporting – embrace ‘Followership as a Noble Calling.’ Make each other happen
  • Create spaces for hanging out – create informal spaces to hang out where conversations about innovation and experimentation can happen
  • Leadership as provocative competence – know the potential of your people, disrupt their routines and move them away from their comfort zones, remind them of their true potential

Nixon referenced these and walked us through how each jazz practice can be translated to business. In the busy world of social work, we are constantly gaining clients, losing clients, gaining funding, losing funding and the obstacles are always fresh, often challenging, but provide that degree of excitement and human connection that draws us all in to the world of mentoring, and working with youth in foster care. Sometimes it’s your turn to ‘solo,’ and others, it’s time to step back and let your coworkers’ (or mentees’!) strengths shine.

As I drew upon my own experiences in music and in working in a nonprofit, I was able to use these to fuel my ideas for the future and reflect on how I want to conduct business, because, when it comes down to it, handbooks and textbooks can bolster your knowledge, but how you act on your feet (during your solo) is the true test of character.

And coffee helps…




Reflections on Dr. Ervin’s presentation on Multicultural Competence


Have you ever had a new haircut and then had someone tell you, “Your hair looks so nice now!” Or maybe you switched to contacts and heard, “You’re so handsome (or pretty) without your glasses!” You can’t help but wonder what that means about your hair or your appearance before, and while you think you just got a compliment, you still feel a bit insulted. Bad as it is to feel that way about your hair or eyes, imagine what it must be like to feel that way about your very self, and by extension, your family and friends, perhaps even the essence of who you are.

The term micro-aggression encompasses these back-handed compliments, particularly when they are given across what I will refer to as a diversity divide. By that, I mean between people who are of different race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or other “box” in which we so often find ourselves placed. This was one of the topics discussed at our mentor in-service on Multicultural Competence, facilitated by Audrey Ervin, Ph. D., a licensed psychologist in Doylestown.

Dr. Ervin is an energetic speaker and it was a fast-paced, open and interesting session. As luck would have it for those of you unable to attend, two days later the New York Times ran a front page piece addressing these microaggressions. Along the same lines, in Sunday’s paper was an article about the word homosexual, and whether or not those described by it find it pejorative. I will add that I also read a Slate article that disagreed with the Times’ stance. The dissenting opinions are all the more evidence that what some see as an innocuous comment can be a slight or outright insult to another person, and that we all must develop our empathy for other people.

None of us would be mentors, I venture to say, if we did not have a healthy dose of empathy. What Dr. Ervin also reinforced was that pairing our empathy with knowledge of our mentee’s multi-faceted identity, as well as true awareness of our own, takes us a long way towards multi-cultural competence. We all come to this point in our lives shaped by our experiences and the “boxes” we are categorized in. We all have biases and prejudices. Those in and of themselves are not necessarily wrong—awareness of where we are coming from and what we do with those biases and prejudices are key. I know one of my own biases, one that is quite probably unfounded in many cases, so I work hard to keep that in check and not let it form my opinion of someone I don’t know beyond passing at the gym or in the line at the grocery store.

I wish I could encapsulate Dr. Ervin’s presentation more fully in a brief post, and I don’t want to turn this into a week’s worth of reading. I think she would agree if I said that the more we learn about where our mentees are coming from, what experiences, labels, and hardships they might have experienced, the greater will be our ability to work with them. Part of understanding their world view comes with contrasting it with our own. We underwent a powerful exercise with Dr. Ervin on white privilege; again, I wish I could share it here. If you have time to chase down one more article to read, make it Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

Again, I will say that mentors in this program must have their hearts in the right place, but sometimes we need even a little more than that. I hope you have time to read any of these articles, and I am sure Dr. Ervin would be happy to hear from mentors who wish to learn more about her presentation and her work. Our society is ever-changing, and keeping multi-culturally competent takes some work. It doesn’t mean stop giving others help or compliments, but maybe giving extra thought to the recipient’s take on that help or compliment first.



Getting started

I’m finally scheduled to meet my first mentee and am both excited and a little nervous. Even at my age (which you do not need to know, but is an anniversary of turning 29), I still wonder what to wear, wanting to be liked and to make a good first impression. In this kind of situation, that first impression is important. 

At our appreciation dinner I talked to a Tabor volunteer who was about to start a second mentoring relationship. I thought that a second, in some ways, could be harder than the first, but after asking her a few questions, I was very impressed with her attitude and approach. Here is how our exchange went:

Me: You recently met a new match, your second mentee. Did you approach that meeting any differently based on your experiences in your previous mentor/mentee relationship? Did you have any concerns this time that you might not have had before?

To both questions, she responded, “No.”

Me: How do you think your previous mentoring relationship will affect your approach to this new match? 
She: I come into this relationship the same as my previous relationship, with an open heart, open mind and positive attitude.

Me: Starting a new relationship as a mentor suggests that you had a positive experience the first time, or found it rewarding in some way. What would you say was your “take-away” from your first match?
She: Being a mentor is a humbling experience. My reason for being a mentor to an adolescent in the foster care system is one of having a heart for them. I don’t know what they have been through, what I do know is love. Love is kind, patient, caring and helpful. My take away is all they need is to feel loved, to know that there are people who want to add to their lives and not take from them.

Me: Is there anything you feel was left “undone” in that match?
She: I don’t feel that anything was left undone. I approached this relationship with the mindset that all I can do is provide good sound advice, to be someone that would be helpful and add something to this life that has been placed before me. Life is about choices, I approached this relationship knowing that I had something to offer and the other person has to make a choice.

Me: It’s human nature (or maybe it is just mine!) to make comparisons, but not always constructive. Were I in your position I might worry that I would carry over judgments or expectations from one mentee to the other. Has that crossed your mind? If so, do you have suggestions for soon-to-be-matched mentors on how to avoid that mindset?
She: With this new relationship, this hadn’t even crossed my mind. Comparing people might be human nature but it is not my nature. Each person has their own personality, morals, values, characteristics. I do not judge my relationships by the one before.  My suggestions for soon to be matched mentors, in every relationship there is opportunity to grow. I think how I can be better so that I can be helpful in this relationship.
For me being a mentor in this program means a chance to make a difference in a life, a life that has a purpose.

Rereading her responses eases my concerns, leaves me feeling more grounded and sure of myself. None of us are perfect, and our menthes won’t expect perfection. They don’t have to think of us as a best friend, or even a close friend. They need to trust us, and I know I can be trusted. They need to be open to us, and I have no control over that. I have to be open to her, and I know I can do that: I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. 

Friday I will drive a few miles away from home, and when I arrive at our meeting point it will be just the beginning of an exploration and open-ended journey. Through future blog posts you can share parts of that journey. See you along the way!



Intelligencer talks local stats and child abuse legislation

On the front cover today, our local paper, The Intelligencer, discussed statistics on local reports of child abuse and some new legislation that will be enacted in 2015.  Please take a look at the article to understand what’s happening in our own backyard ….



My Brother’s Keeper: A New Initiative

ImagePresident Obama announced an exciting new initiative on February 27th that will focus on helping young men of color whose lives are affected by poverty and prison. The new initiative, called My Brother’s Keeper, strives to create opportunity for these young men as well as bridge foundations and companies together to strategize,  evaluate,  and take steps to keep them in school and out of the criminal justice system.

As we reflect on our mentees, it is wonderful to see a national initiative to support our local efforts!

Read more about this exciting development here.