Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Celebrating a Successful Tutor/Mentor Jam!

Since my mom reads this blog, I better preface this post with a disclaimer: I don’t usually spend Sundays at a bar.

This past Sunday night, however, was a noteworthy exception.

The first annual Tutor/Mentor Jam at Darkroom, a music venue in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, took place this past Sunday. The event served not only as a benefit concert for Tutor/Mentor Connection, but also as a means for entertainers, bands, and other community members to collectively draw visibility and support to volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs in high poverty neighborhoods throughout Chicago.

The night kicked off with a delicious barbecue provided by Man B Que who grilled up mouthwatering burgers, hot dogs, and mushroom burgers.

After everyone’s appetites were satiated, Alexander Webb, a former Northwestern quarterback, played a great acoustic set keeping the audience entranced with his beautiful melodies and soulful voice. His talent and passion for the cause made me proud to be a Northwestern Wildcat!

Soon, the Unusual Suspects went on stage and got everyone on their feet dancing! With fantastic vocals and an excellent horn section, they covered various blues artists that kept people singing and dancing along (the music helped me discover that several of my friends are good swing dancers—who knew?).

Afterward, Trakan took the stage with his band and gave a rock-solid and energizing performance. It was exciting to see Mike Trakan, the T/MC GIS Coordinator and the co-producer of the concert, on stage and in his element. Mike has been working for months to organize this event and he provides a great example of using his passion—music—and his networks—entertainers, musicians, and concert-goers—to draw support and visibility to tutor/mentor programs.

After Trakan, The Black Temple 21 played a lively hip-hop set, then No Hero finished off the night strong.

One of the highlig
hts of the evening was when Brea Adams, a mentor at Cabrini Connections, spoke about her involvement with the program and what keeps her engaged as a volunteer. I got to know Brea’s mentee, Crystal Townsend, this summer so I was excited to hear from the person who Crystal enthusiastically referred to as “SO cool!”

The first Tutor/Mentor Jam was a success—not only because of the money raised, but also (and probably even more importantly) because of the new people that connected to T/MC through the event. I was touched by how many of my friends came out to support the event, and so many staff, board members, band members, and others brought out their networks to collectively show support for tutor/mentor programs for at-risk youth.

Thank you to all the volunteers, bands, auction donors, and event sponsors for making the first T/M Jam a success, and a special thanks to all of my friends who came!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Storytelling 101: Community Media Workshop

Ingredients for a good story: a main character, a compelling plot, a conflict, a climax, a resolution.

Today I had the opportunity to attend a panel workshop through Community Media Workshop called “Reframing Stories of the Great Recession,” and I was reminded of some of the lessons I learned as a kid about how to write a story.

This workshop, aimed at nonprofit leaders, included media panelists who discussed ways to approach journalists with stories that reach communities, donors, and clients during these challenging economic times.

As the panelists emphasized and as common experience demonstrates each day, the recession has hit everyone…nonprofits, businesses, the government, families, and yes…even the media. Just as nonprofits are experiencing massive limitations in resources and personnel and just as businesses are struggling to stay afloat, media agencies are cutting back drastically on staff and reporting. One nonprofit leader discussed how she recently sent press releases to a reporter from a small paper only to discover that the reporter did not have access to Microsoft Word.

Clearly, members of both nonprofit and journalism sectors are stretched thin. For nonprofits, it is important to reevaluate strategies for approaching the media during this shifting landscape.

I wanted to share a few of the major points I learned during this informative panel. I know these are important lessons for me to keep in mind when trying to approach the media surrounding our November Conference, the Tutor/Mentor Jam, and volunteer recruitment campaigns. Hopefully, these strategies can also be useful to other programs as they evaluate their approaches to drawing public attention and understanding toward the importance of tutor/mentor programs through the media and through storytelling.

Major Takeaways:

1) Understand who you are pitching a story to: Writers are approached with hundreds of stories each week. They are more likely to respond when someone has researched them and understands how their story fits the reporter’s writing niche or role. Tailor the story to the specific reporter and pose it as “You are the best reporter to cover this story for X reason."

2) Stories need a “main character”: One panelist said that he flags any email with words in the subject line including Fundraiser, Benefit, Anniversary, or Annual Event to go directly into his spam folder. He doesn't want to write about it, and people don’t want to read it. The media wants to sell papers, and that takes compelling stories that tie into larger themes and specific policies. In order to get media attention on an event or fundraiser, approach them with a specific story of an individual that illustrates an issue relevant to the event, then use the story to draw attention to your organization and the events it is holding.

3) Learn to tell ‘conventional stories’ from nontraditional perspectives: As callous as it may seem, people are growing weary of doomsday recession stories about how organizations need more funding. Everyone is hurting right now, and as the media panelist asserted, that is not news that reporters are excited to cover. Journalists will be more likely to pick up stories when they are approached with new takes like how the recession is impacting middle class neighborhoods or other less expected places.

4) “There’s no good news without bad news.” The media is often criticized for harping on bad news, and oftentimes nonprofits are hesitant to bring forward stories with any negativity. The panelists, however, agreed that in order for readers to appreciate what an organization is doing, they must also learn about the problems, needs, and issues—even if the organization hasn’t solved everything quite yet!

5) Make the reporter’s job as easy as possible: As several panelists mentioned, reporters are currently stretched so thin that they often do not have the time to do much more with a story than tweak an original press release. It might sound obvious, but the better a press release, the more likely a story—and even a particular angle you hope to express—will be published.

I hope to incorporate these strategies into my work this coming year as I aim to draw visibility toward tutor/mentor programs throughout Chicago in a manner which motivates people to action.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Chicago Youth Centers: Elliott Donnelley Youth Center

Swimming lessons, field trips to the Shedd Aquarium, gym games, healthy meals….if these activities sound like summertime fun to you, then you’re not alone! Today Bradley and I visited Chicago Youth Center’s (CYC) Elliott Donnelly Youth Center in Bronzeville to see their Summer Fun Day Camp in its final week of programming for 2010 (sorry folks, I think this means summer really is almost over!!).

We were greeted upon our arrival by Marcus Davis, Mentor Coordinator at Elliott Donnelley. Marcus gave us a tour around the center and introduced us to staff in many different departments to offer a taste of the programs CYC offers to youth year-round.

Summer Fun provides recreational activities and a safe place for kids ages 5 through 12 to spend their summer months. In addition to fun activities at the center (in my glimpses into various rooms, kids were happily playing basketball, checkers, and enjoying computers), the program also takes the kids on biweekly field trips to a variety of places like water parks and the zoo.

One of the most popular parts of Summer Fun is the swimming lessons. The Elliott Donnelley Center is equipped with a pool, and kids have the opportunity to receive swimming instruction all summer long. At the end of the program, parents are invited to a poolside show to watch their kids demonstrate their newly acquired aquatics skills. The swim instructor, Ms. Arleta Williams, has been coaching swim lessons at Elliott Donnelley for twenty years and she herself learned to swim at the center! Arleta grew up participating in the program and always felt called to give back to the Bronzeville community and contribute her time and efforts to CYC.

Bradley and I also had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Caneal Rule who has led the Teen Leadership Development program for more than sixteen years. He discussed how students' behavioral issues in classrooms often stem from kids falling behind in a subject then acting out to divert attention from their lack of academic confidence. This year, he plans to have clubs for teens that focus on academic subjects and also offer one-on-one tutoring for youth who need extra help in a particular subject area.

Later, we met Ms. Larissa Adams, College and Career Specialist at Elliott D
onnelley. Ms. Larissa regularly meets with over thirty students in the College and Career Readiness Center to guide them toward formulating career aspirations, help them gain entrance into Chicago’s best high schools, and prepare students for college applications. I was amazed that this process starts as early as 3rd grade. As Larissa explained, the steps toward going to college begin in elementary school as kids take tests, learn about application processes, and begin to understand what it takes to land their dream job. For kids to go to college and launch their desired careers, they need to grow up with an ingrained understanding of what it will take to fulfill these aspirations.

Clearly, CYC does so much for youth by exposing them to opportunities, tutoring kids in academic subjects, keeping youth safe, and also allowing them to enjoy just being kids (in addition to the swimming pool and gym, the playground looked pretty tempting!).

Thanks to Marcus for showing us around the center—it really was a pleasure to catch a glimpse of so many kids enjoying their final days of Summer Fun.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Century After Ford...

In 1908, Henry Ford transformed the automobile from a flashy toy for the affluent to a commodity that became relatively affordable and widely available to the Average Joe (perhaps too widely available if you ask the modern environmentalist). Ford’s magic ingredient for making this manufacturing process efficient: The Assembly Line.

We all know the story.

Ford’s famously effective strategy for constructing a car-- workers building separate components in order to create a common product--is in many ways analogous to the Tutor/Mentor Connection's mission toward addressing massively complex issues like “urban poverty” or “equal access to opportunities” or “violence in American cities.” Even more so than assembling a car, however, attacking any of these issues as an individual (or even as a single organization) is as impossible as it is daunting.

Far more efficient is dividing up the workload and specializing in different tasks. These past few weeks, I have grown increasingly aware of the range of youth programs throughout Chicago with different specialties and roles. Some tutor/mentor programs focus on working within schools, some focus on the arts, others work with youth in particular neighborhoods, and still other programs mentor youth with incarcerated parents. These are just a sampling of the hundreds of tutor/mentor programs in Chicago. Each program has its strengths, its unique sets of challenges, and its specific contribution toward a goal shared across programs—launching all of Chicago's youth into bright, opportunity-filled futures.

This past month, we have been lucky to have two volunteers from the technology center at DePaul updating our computer lab. Next week, we have two recent college graduates--one with a background in advertising and another with a background in grant writing--beginning to volunteer in roles relevant to their interests. These are just a few examples of the many ways people are plugging into programs with their skill-sets.

The need to specialize is true not only on the macro-level of cities, but also within organizations. Tutor/Mentor Connection certainly has its set of “missing links”--places where we could be running more efficiently and effectively and are constantly looking for people to plug in their specialties by bringing time, talent, ideas, networks, and willing hands.

On the Cabrini Connections website is a list of volunteer opportunities that speaks to a wide range of interests, backgrounds, and time-commitment levels. If you look at this list of volunteer opportunities, it doesn't take long to realize that other programs have similar needs. I encourage you to consider how you might plug your skills and assets into a program in Chicago or another city.

As Henry Ford taught us, a lot can be accomplished when many workers contribute a small part.

What is your specialty?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

From Sand Castles to Futures: BUILD

Looking at the morning newspaper is often disheartening to say the least. In the past few weeks, the Chicago-area headlines have been filled with tragic stories of violence perpetrated against the young and innocent. As much as I realize the importance of reading these articles, I fear becoming jaded or beginning to feel powerless. I never want to view violence in my city as inherent or unavoidable.

Yesterday, however, I caught an incredible glimmer of hope. Broader Urban Involvement and Leadership Development (BUILD), works with at-risk youth offering them positive alternatives to violence. The program “begins with identification of youth who may be gang affiliated, delinquent, and/or encountering risk factors,” then works to engage them
in activities to “reduce risk-taking behaviors, set and reach educational and career goals, promote positive impact on peers, and encourage school retention and college/career prep.”

Bradley and I had the opportunity to visit San Lucas United Church yesterday which is home to BUILD’s summer program in the Humboldt Park community. When we arrived, the 60 kids involved in the program were finishing lunch and preparing for an exciting afternoon. Throughout the week the participants stay active by going fishing, visiting the beach, and competing in softball leagues.

During our visit Bradley and I spoke with Coco Calixto, a Prevention Specialist who has worked for BUILD for 27 years and whose roots with the organization span even further back to when Coco himself was a BUILD participant and then a volunteer. Coco is the kind of person who walks kids home from the program if their parents cannot pick them up, teaches the guys in the program how to barbecue during BUILD picnics, and has earned respect from the gangs in the surrounding area.

BUILD's summer program runs from 9:00am-5:00pm Mondays thru Thursdays and participants are broken up by three age groups: the Peewees (ages 6-8), the Juniors (ages 9-12), and the Seniors (ages 13+). The importance of involving even young kids in the program cannot be overstated. As C
oco told us, gangs often start recruiting kids as young as 6 or 7 because when little kids get caught with drugs, they get a mere “slap on the wrist” whereas older youth and teens are more severely punished.

During both the summer and school year programs, students are part of BUILD’s Life Skills curriculum which teaches kids street smarts to avoid dangerous situations and to make positive choices. Coco and the other BUILD staff members and volunteers find ways to keep this program engaging and high-energy . Oftentimes, they do role-playing games asking kids to navigate a difficult scenario. They challenge kids to think of positive ways to handle conflicts and to consider the consequences of each potential course of action. BUILD also brings in ex-gang members
who talk about the value in staying out of gangs and professionals from the community who discuss their steps toward a career.

The school year program also focuses on academics. In addition to volunteer tutors, BUILD encourages peer-to-peer tutoring to reinforce leadership skills for youth participants. Kids also have the opportunity to participate in cooking classes, budgeting simulation exercises,
and various sports leagues.

To finish our visit to BUILD, Coco took Bradley and I to the beach where “the Peewees” were collectively building a sand castle complete with a moat and river. I smiled realizing that Coco was once a kid in the program himself…his e
xample speaks volumes about BUILD's positive impact in the lives of kids, adults, families, and an entire community.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Program Ambassadors

The summer after my freshman year of college, I worked as a waitress for a restaurant in my hometown. It was a new restaurant struggling to build a clientele, and we were severely understaffed. On my first day of work I arrived expecting training, but instead the restaurant manager immediately put me to work waitressing tables—yikes! That entire summer working as a server, I never received training, barely knew the menu, and I did not once taste a single bite of the restaurant’s food. Customers would ask me for recommendations on my favorite menu items and I would always make some unfounded suggestions on the spot (I’ll confess I generally veered people toward the pricier entrĂ©es hoping to boost tips). I really couldn’t communicate anything worthwhile to the customers without having sampled the food myself and without more fully understanding the menu.

Generally speaking, one must taste and experience something before effectively explaining it to others. This is no less true in the world of philanthropy. One of the great strengths of having volunteers from so many sectors is that a wide variety of people have “tasted” our program and become ambassadors of our organization by sharing their experiences with their own co-workers, families, faith communities, and friends. When individuals share their passionate commitment to a program with those around them, they too can rally behind the cause.

In my first month at Tutor/Mentor Connection, I have had the chance to meet many people involved with our program: consultants volunteering as mentors, students from DePaul doing tech support for our computer labs, movie aficionados helping students in our film club make music videos, musicians lending their talents for the Tutor/Mentor Jam, and professional event planners helping with our benefits…they each understand the value of tutor/mentor programs precisely because they have witnessed the transformative effects these programs have on youth and adults alike.

Our volunteers effectively make tutor/mentor programs relevant to people in their own industries and sectors. They play a critical intermediary role getting others involved who may not otherwise realize how they can plug their personal passions, interests, or resources into a program for at-risk youth.

The restaurant I worked for several summers ago is now out of business…I am far more optimistic about the fate of Cabrini Connections, T/MC and the other tutor/mentor programs in Chicago. So many people are continuously “tasting” what these programs are doing and then spreading the word along to their networks. The more people we reach with our mission, the stronger we become and the more we can accomplish together. Thank you for doing your part!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Back to School Make It Cool

A high school might not be the first place you'd expect to find an animated crowd on a summer weekend morning. This past Saturday, however, a lively group of students, parents, performers, organizations, and business sponsors gathered outside of Clemente High School in Chicago’s West Side for "Back to School Make It Cool."

This event, presented by Youth Ready Chicago was intended to get kids revved up for the school year with school supply and backpack giveaways, carnival games, entertainment, food, and a resource fair for parents about programs to help their kids thrive in the upcoming school year.

When the day started, families were already eagerly lined up to receive school supplies and raffle tickets for hot items like a laptop and a bike. Students enjoyed a day filled with face-painting, giveaways, marching bands, hip-hop artists, food, and games.

Although there was plenty to keep the kids entertained (what seven-year-old doesn't love a jumpy castle?), I was excited to see the parents' enthusiasm at the resource fair. Representatives from various programs that had helped organize the event like Cabrini Connections set up information tables. Many parents took information about our program and signed up to enroll their students. Others who live in different neighborhoods or have younger students were interested in finding programs in their own communities using Program Locator, the T/MC database of tutor/mentor programs throughout Chicago. It was encouraging that we really didn’t have to “sell” parents on the value of such programs. Parents' eyes lit up when they heard about opportunities for free one-on-one tutoring/mentoring for their kids.

Obviously, these moms and dads are deeply invested in the education of their kids and realize what their students can gain from individual tutoring, homework help, mentoring, and enrichment programs.

While students walked away from "Back to School Make It Cool" fashioning new
backpacks and school supplies, the intangible impact of the day's events--getting the word out about programs that help kids form meaningful relationships with adults--has the potential to last far longer than the lifespan of crayons and book-bags. I hope to see some now-familiar faces in our program this coming year!

Friday, August 6, 2010

In a galaxy not so far away...

A live teleconference between a group of students in Chicago and a group of NASA scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California might sounds like something from the future (or at least from the Sci-Fi channel). Yesterday, however, I witnessed a dynamic video exchange between over forty students who just completed the Imagine Mars Project and a group of seven NASA scientists who were genuinely impressed by the kids’ accomplishments in the program.

Last week Rose Mabwa from Mercy Housing invited me to attend a culminating presentation by students involved with the Imagine Mars Project in Chicago. This six-week program sponsored by NASA represents “a national arts, sciences, and technology education initiative that leads students to work together with scientists, engineers, artists, and environmentalists to design a futuristic Mars community.” This past summer, the Illinois Neighborhood Networks Consortium (ILNNC), a non-profit which enhances and sustains Neighborhood Networks in Illinois, organized this program in a collaborative effort between its centers.

Fittingly, yesterday’s presentation was held at the Museum of Science and Industry where video screens projected a live stream from JPL in Los Angeles. In her comments introducing the program, Rose explained that Imagine Mars offers an engaging way for students to learn about science, engineering, architecture, math, and green technology during the summer. The students are mentored by professionals from NASA, water conservation organizations, and green technology centers who help them to design sustainable communities fit for human habitation on Mars. Each group of students also built a model of their community using recycled materials.

In designing their imagined cities and towns, students discussed what they considered important aspects of a community given the opportunity to start from scratch. These discussions often led to revealing conversations. As Rose said, sometimes kids see things in a more “pure and uncomplicated” form than do adults. When debating whether or not to put a police station on Mars, one student felt it was unnecessary while another said that people immigrating to Mars might come with “bad habits.” I was fascinated by these types of insights and the thoughtful reflection the students obviously invested into their projects.

Students were encouraged to focus on making their communities sustainable. As one student explained, “We don’t want to destroy another planet!” The communities were designed with a number of environmentally-conscience innovations ranging from solar paneled heating to water filtration systems that recycled melted water from Mars’ underground glaciers. Upon hearing that one community featured movie screens that could only be powered by pedaling on a stationary bike, one NASA scientist jokingly asserted that this would probably cut down on her habit of watching bad movies.

I was really impressed by the students' hard work and creativity. I was also excited to see how the combined efforts of many organizations and community members resulted in a spectacularly well-rounded project. Imagine Mars truly demonstrates the value in kids interacting with an array of professionals who model a variety of career choices.

Rose plans to hold a workshop at our November 2010 Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference discussing how Imagine Mars might be replicated by other programs in Chicago. As was evident today, it is definitely a project worthy of imitation.

Congrats to all of the students, ILNNC, NASA, and everyone else involved in the project. I know that next time I sit down to watch a movie, I will consider whether or not it would be worth several hours on a stationary bike...

Monday, August 2, 2010

Time to Turn the Calendar...

Don’t get me wrong, I love summer. But each year growing up, I was always itching to go back to school by the time August rolled around. I remember the nervous excitement that would build through the entire month of August as I gradually found out about teachers, bus routes, and locker assignments.

Although Chicago’s current blazing heat would suggest otherwise, the school year is quickly approaching. Along with the chance for department stores to capitalize on “back-to-school sales,” it is also a time when the media turns its attention to the state of American education.

As discussed in a recent New York Times article, our country’s “dismal” college completion rate is an issue that must be addressed while youth are still in their kindergarten through high school years. Even for those of us not living in neighborhoods with failing schools, this issue should cause us deep concern. In fact, the president of the College Board asserted that “The growing education deficit is no less a threat to our nation’s long-term well-being than the current fiscal crisis.” Sorry for the bad news.

While distressing statistics pervading the news should certainly elicit our alarm, they should not leave us feeling powerless. In fact, this is an excellent opportunity for us to reflect upon what we can personally do to turn things around—if not for entire school systems, perhaps for an individual student.

As T/MC President Dan Bassill discusses in his recent blog entry, this is a vital time for tutor/mentor programs to recruit volunteers and supporters. I urge you to explore the T/MC Program Locator to find a program in the Chicago-land community where you can become a mentor for the 2010-2011 school year. If working with students directly is not where you feel drawn, consider what else you might offer an organization: website design, event planning, administrative work, advocacy, donations…the list goes on. Any type of support is desperately needed to sustain the hundreds of tutor/mentor programs throughout the city (not to mention thousands of other programs throughout the U.S.).

Having just graduated from college, I am still in the habit of thinking of this season as a time of transition and an upcoming “fresh start.” Although this mentality might change as I move from school toward a career, I still hope to use this time period to think about my personal choices, aspirations, and commitments. I encourage you to join me in reflecting upon what we can each do during this season to invest in education—be it our own or that of someone else.