Sophie and a colleague share information about Audubon Mid-Atlantic at a table.

The Importance of Deep Community Engagement

A normal day at work for me usually involves at least one bird, between one and three classrooms, and what feels like infinite students greeting me as I walk down the hallways with hugs and shouts of “Hey, Ms. Sophie,” or “Look, there’s the bird lady!” In my nine months in Philadelphia with Audubon Mid-Atlantic, I have learned that everything we do is community-driven. In my role, I engage with three schools on a weekly basis, providing four lessons per grade over the course of the school year. As I have spent week after week at these schools, I have continued to see the importance of not only being engaged with the community, but having deep roots, particularly in the local schools.

Although it is widely accepted that nature centers that are perceived as part of the community have a broader base of support, many nature centers have operated for dozens of years without deeply listening to the community.

It may seem repetitive to teach four lessons to every grade at the same school, but this continuity is what creates deep community engagement. As my supervisor, Damien Ruffner told me, “It can feel like you’re completing the same steps over and over, but you have to make yourself a consistent presence in the community.”

Environmental education researchers have found that community members are more likely to be involved in their local nature centers when their local centers are actively involved in the community. In other words, by becoming integrated into the learning of local students, my role is to not only teach them about environmental issues, but also help them feel comfortable enough to come visit the Discovery Center, where Audubon-Mid Atlantic is housed, on their own time with their families.

Although it is widely accepted that nature centers that are perceived as part of the community have a broader base of support, many nature centers have operated for dozens of years without deeply listening to the community, much less incorporating community feedback into their programming. In recent years, many centers have realized that they need to incorporate community members into their boards, leadership, and employees, and they are now making up for lost time. While a nature center may come in with the best intentions, going by what they think the community needs instead of what the community thinks they need, hurts centers’ community engagement.

The Discovery Center sits right next to the Strawberry Mansion Reservoir, which is now a lake that is preserved for animals and the people who want to take in this beautiful natural space. However, the reservoir (once a source of drinking water for the surrounding areas) was closed to the public in 1970. It was only re-opened to the public when the Discovery Center was founded in 2018. From the beginning, the Discovery Center operated with a community engagement committee, which continues to serve as an advisory committee that makes many of the programming, budgeting, and hiring decisions.

Every day, I go out on our .75 mile, out-and-back trail, run into at least one person from the local community, and get to chat with them. Often, they will tell me how they remember when this land was a reservoir and it was not open to residents. Now, they have the opportunity to access this natural space that was once closed off. The organizations housed at the Discovery Center feel that providing access to the community will allow community members to feel healed by and connected to nature. And maybe that is what deep community engagement is really about, helping the community feel ownership of and comfort in the spaces that should have been open to them from the beginning.


Browning et al. Factors that contribute to community members’ support of local nature centers (2018). Environmental Education Research.

“The Discovery Center”



Sophie Becker-Klein

Sophie Becker-Klein

Sophie Becker-Klein (she/her) is FAO Schwarz Fellow at Audubon Mid-Atlantic's Discovery Center in Philadelphia.


FAO Schwarz Fellow Ryan speaks from a podium at the Massachusetts State House

A Vision for Early Care and Education

Early care and education (ECE) is a fascinating field to work in. It is so multifaceted, with a plethora of stakeholder groups including children, families and caregivers, educators, program directors, and employers. I have been able to interact with many of the stakeholders throughout my Fellowship, and learn at least one new thing every day – about brain development, teaching credentials, the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care’s financial assistance program, and more – and anticipate that that will be the case for my entire time working in ECE. The field is so important, and I feel grateful to be a part of the early education community!

I have the absolute privilege of working every day in service of Jumpstart’s vision that one day every child in America will enter kindergarten prepared to succeed.

The children involved – aged 0 to 5 – are in the most developmentally significant phases of their lives. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child explains that “early experiences affect the quality of [brain architecture] by establishing either a sturdy or fragile foundation for all of the learning, health and behavior that follow,” with more than one million neural connections forming every second. Research finds that participating in an early care and education program as a child has positive effects throughout an individual’s life: participants are less likely to be placed in special education, have increased college graduation and employment rates, and have long-term health benefits.

It is evident that early care and education is vital to child development and life outcomes. It thus should not be controversial to suggest that all children, no matter income or zip code, should have the opportunity to access ECE. All children can access – and are legally compelled to attend – publicly funded schools (i.e. public schools) from ages five to 16, give or take a few years depending on the state. Unsurprisingly and unfortunately, that is not the case in the early years. Instead, the ECE system is – as described in a Bank Street Education Center report – a “haphazard patchwork of [publicly subsidized] resources [that] leaves the rest to find care in a severely broken private-pay marketplace that few families can afford.”

A recent brief from the United States Department of Labor highlights the lack of affordability of early care and education. “In 2018, median childcare prices for one child ranged from $4,810 ($5,357 in 2022 dollars) to $15,417 ($17,171 in 2022 dollars) depending on provider type, children’s age, and county population size.” With such exorbitant costs, family contributions range from between 8% and 19.3% of the median family income; an already burdensome cost that only increases with each child. A Boston Globe analysis of the Department of Labor’s data found that all 14 counties in Massachusetts rank in the top 100 nationally for the cost of infant care, with Middlesex and Norfolk counties costing more than $26,000 annually—costs that rank in the top three nationally.

Such high expenses sometimes force parents to leave the workforce to minimize the cost of child care, a decision that often falls onto working mothers. High quality early care and education is now recognized as “a critical piece of the workforce infrastructure,” and as “fundamental to the success of… local econom[ies].” The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates that “lack of access to child care in Massachusetts is resulting in at least $2.7 billion each year in lost earnings for individuals, lower productivity and additional costs for employers, and lost tax revenue for the Commonwealth.”

And then there’s the heart of ECE: the educators, program directors, and other folks associated with keeping the programs running. These folks spend their entire days educating (facilitating literacy, linguistic, and social-emotional development), navigating interpersonal conflicts over the destruction of block towers, and nurturing the kiddos so parents and caregivers can work. It is important to clarify that the high cost of care for families does not translate to high wages for educators. To the contrary—Directors know that the cost is already unsustainable, so they are loath to increase them any more to facilitate corresponding wage increases. As a result, early educators receive poverty wages. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics analyzed by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at the University of California Berkeley, child care workers made $11.65 per hour in 2019; a wage that ranks in the 2nd percentile of all jobs. They could earn more working at a Dunkin! Early educators – who are predominantly women of color – are overworked, undervalued, and underpaid.

The CSCCE data shows that educators could leave the field and go teach kindergarten at a public school and earn $30,000 more per year. The same goes for teaching pre-kindergarten at a public school. That’s not right.

The United States spends significantly less per child on early care and education compared to other countries. Seen as a private market instead of a public good, the burden is on parents and caregivers to pay exorbitant amounts to get their kids into care. The system is broken. The system is in crisis. Children, families, educators, programs, and the economy are all affected because of the country’s lack of investment in the industry. This is an economic equity, gender equity, racial equity, and educational equity issue. It is easy not to see the forest through the trees amidst the compounding equity issues. However, at the core of it all, one fact remains: all children deserve an accessible and affordable early care and education experience, and educators should be compensated commensurate with public school educators with similar credentials and experience.

In my capacity as a FAO Schwarz Fellow at Jumpstart, I have been welcomed into early education centers where I met wonderful directors, educators, and kiddos. I have also met with legislators in the Massachusetts State House and advocated for bills that would increase educator compensation, provide direct-to-provider funding to stabilize programs, and increase the state’s financial assistance to families to help make programs more affordable.

I have the absolute privilege of working every day in service of Jumpstart’s vision that one day every child in America will enter kindergarten prepared to succeed. It’s the best job in the world.

Ryan Telingator

Ryan Telingator

Ryan (he/him) is the FAO Schwarz Fellow at Jumpstart in Boston.


Practicing Reflection on Community Engagement

At The Food Project, work follows the seasons—physically intensive summers of farmwork are followed by autumn’s final harvests, land closing ceremonies, and preparing farms for next year, which in turn leads into winters of logistical planning and final sales of the summer’s produce. So, as the intensity of outdoor work scaled down this year, with the beginnings of winter, our leadership held a week of all-staff meetings to reflect on the necessary changes to be made to our programs.

At the moment, our organization bases our work around three pillars of focus: Food, Youth, and Community. Even as our projects feature much overlap between these pillars, the focus areas allow us to create our goal outcomes, clarify our mission, and determine which programs are within our capacity and strengths as an organization. Thus, in revisiting our organization’s structure and plans this winter, we evaluated our current goals around the pillars extensively.

I feel grateful to be working for an organization that considers the practice of honest reflection and focused revision so significant.

During one of our meetings, leadership led staff through an exercise called the fishbowl, in which five people most involved in each pillar sat in a smaller inner circle whilst the rest of staff sat surrounding them. The inner circle would work on defining each pillar in regards to the work we do. If compelled to share their ideas as well, anyone from the outer circle could switch places with someone from the inner circle and take their turn to speak. Although a relatively small role, I felt very excited about being selected as one of the initial five to discuss the Community pillar.

Through my recent work managing the Build-A-Garden program—where we install raised garden beds for Boston residents and support them through growing their own food—I have become especially involved in our community engagement. Regularly interacting with residents via installations, workshops, seedling sales, etc., I observe ways in which our organization can improve our collaboration with the community, even as I am a relatively recent introduction to the organization. Thus, having the opportunity to share my perspectives on our community engagement not only empowered me to have a voice amongst our staff, but also gave me the opportunity to reflect on the genuine connections with the community I’ve made, and to recognize ways to positively influence my host organization’s future community collaborations.

Further, I see how our contributions to this discussion have since been integrated into organization-wide changes. In defining what community is at The Food Project, we generally found difficulty in determining a single, all-encompassing answer. While our organization creates its own immediate community, especially amongst the youth in our programs, we also engage with the broader community—sometimes in fleeting but meaningful one-time interactions, and sometimes with community members who work with us throughout their life. Recognizing this, through the reflections from our fishbowl and all-staff meetings, The Food Project has begun assessing the different kinds of community interactions we are involved in. The organization has also begun restructuring our programs, hoping to best leverage those community interactions to spark meaningful change.

I feel grateful to be working for an organization that considers the practice of honest reflection and focused revision so significant. While working in the nonprofit sector, I find it essential to regularly reflect on how our work must change alongside our changing communities. With springtime on the horizon, I look forward to further engaging our organization’s reflections and implementing them to support a flourishing community around gardening and food.

Vanessa Barragán

Vanessa Barragán

Vanessa (she/her) is the Build-a-Garden Manager and FAO Schwarz Fellow at The Food Project in Boston.


Jesse looking through binoculars with a group of people.

Imagining a Wild City

Sitting on a cold, mossy jetty, I watch the bottomless, blue Atlantic spill over the distant curve of the horizon. A few brave Herring Gulls swoop through the wind gusts overhead searching for small, beached crustaceans. I can also tell they’re curious if I’d bought a hotdog from Nathan’s before assuming my wintery perch. Turning my gaze to the idle boardwalk, Coney Island’s famous “Wonder Wheel” frames a distant metropolis.


According to Betsy McCulley, author of City at the Water’s Edge, “we tend to see nature and city in opposition.” A quiet, unspoiled, innocent nature is at the mercy of sprawling consumption; New York City is the hungry machine. Since its colonial origins as a Dutch trading post, New York City has concretized itself (quite literally) as a global center of human progress situated on one of the world’s largest natural harbors. But underneath the concrete floors and through the glass walls of approximately one million nearly indistinguishable buildings, lies a living truth: a human and non-human community inextricably linked to our bioregion.

As the FAO Schwarz Fellow at NYC Audubon, I am most interested in the intersectional challenges we face as an island megapolis in a time of global, anthropogenic change.

Imagine a Times Square where Red Maples and American Chestnuts grow nearly a hundred feet tall, providing shade, sustenance, and habitat for the critters below. Gray Wolves, Bobcats, and Mountain Lions survey the old-growth, deciduous forest floor for prey, like Eastern Cottontails and White-tailed Deer. The occasional Snapping Turtle wanders from the river to lay her eggs in the warm, rich earth; she’s careful not to become dinner for a lucky human. Though much of the biodiversity that once made up pre-1609 Mannahatta, the adjacent mainland (in the Bronx), Wamponomon (Queens and Brooklyn), and on the south side of the harbor (Staten Island) has been lost to colonial ecocide and aggressive urbanization, a group of warm-blooded vertebrates continues to remind us of the City’s wildness.

New York City is home to over 400 species of birds living in or stopping over its 193,700 acres of urban, wetland, forest, and grassland habitat. Every spring and fall, millions of birds repeat their ancient cycle of migration through New York City, journeying along the “Atlantic Flyway” in search of food and breeding opportunities. As the birds follow a promising, blue haze on the horizon, they’re no longer met with a forested island of Maples and Chestnuts; rather, choice green oases amidst a maze of reflective glass. According to New York City Audubon’s research, up to a quarter of a million of these migrating birds are killed in the City each year in collisions with building glass. Nevertheless, the birds return again to remind us, despite rapid habitat degradation and fragmentation, that this wild city was once – and still is – their home.

As the FAO Schwarz Fellow at NYC Audubon, I am most interested in the intersectional challenges we face as an island megapolis in a time of global, anthropogenic change. Environmental pressures – like urban development – disproportionately affect urban wildlife as well as communities of color, illuminating a clear relationship between issues like habitat loss and gentrification. In a time of global climate crisis, it must be understood that the outcomes for New York City, its human and non-human dwellers, and its bioregion are undoubtedly entangled. To best address this looming pan-ecological disaster, we must work to address the living truth of our home and our neighbors. We must reconfigure and reimagine the nature of the City, and develop intimate knowledges of this place and its critters. Though much of this place is covered in a concrete veneer and many of its critters scarce or destroyed, the birds lead us to little pockets of something different. The birds take us to the rooftops, the beaches, the cemeteries, and the parks. They announce their continued survival in soaring melodies over sirens and car horns. When we listen, we can no longer see our City as a triumph over nature or a testament to masterful technology. No longer protected by arrogant presumptions of human superiority, we become curious about the land we inhabit and our fellow City dwellers (human animals and non-human animals alike).

Riding the train home from Coney Island, I watch the vast, blue Atlantic fade behind new construction along the tracks. Rock Pigeons balance on the edges of the half-finished buildings’ harsh, modern design — I wonder who will live there, and I wonder who lived there before.



McCully, Betsy. City at the Water’s Edge a Natural History of New York. Rivergate Books, an Imprint of Rutgers University Press, 2007.

“NYC Audubon,”

“The Welikia Project.” The Welikia (“Way-LEE-Kee-Uh”) Project,

Hunt, Christian. “The Second Great American Extinction Event (1600s to 1900s).” Wild Without End, Defenders of Wildlife, 18 Nov. 2018,

Chaudhuri, Una. The Stage Lives of Animals: Zooësis and Performance. Routledge, an Imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

Jesse McLaughlin

Jesse McLaughlin

Jesse (he/him) is the Advocacy & Engagement Associate at NYC Audubon.


Feature image by Anne Schwartz.

Kayla teaches a child to work with clay.

Community Education Spaces for Systemic Change

As an FAO Schwarz Fellow and the After-School Program Coordinator at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, and I also serve as a teaching artist within the organization. My direct service work happens with Claymobile (our mobile engagement program), as well as our in-house ceramic community events. One of my favorite direct service projects during my tenure so far was engaging with our Clay, Play, Read program, where we combine literacy programming and ceramics in each session for preschool-aged students. I was also able to take part in Clayfest, our yearly festival where we have all-day activities taking place throughout the studio.

Growing up in Philadelphia, I have always experienced access to multiple types of community education spaces like libraries, community centers, gardens, art studios, and more. My local library felt like a haven for me to learn about my interests, engage in craft projects, and go to events. My art experience was cut short in elementary school due to underfunding and I am now learning what it looks like to engage in art practice as self-care. As an adult, I look to community education spaces for practicing new hobbies, meeting with friends, and learning something new.

Social impact work has a goal of systemic change, and I believe that the prioritization of community spaces that encourage exploration is essential to that journey.

When I thought about what I wanted to study in college or choose as my career I always knew that I wanted to work in youth education, so I chose to study human development and community engagement. My experiences with community education spaces growing up taught me that there is always something more to discover in life. Community spaces, especially free or low-cost spaces encourage families, friends, and strangers to come together in collaboration to have a new experience, meet new people and ultimately feel safe. Starting work with my Fellowship at The Clay Studio this July showed me a new type of community education experience in the arts.

My special project work at The Clay Studio involves the creation of an after-school ceramics art program. The coordination of this program includes curriculum development, communication with schools, networking/marketing, enrollment, and registration. The age group is currently third through fifth grade and students come after school dismissal to the studio to hand-build, wheel throw, and make claymation films. This program is the first of its kind in this organization, giving us the ability to work with the same students for a long-term residency in our studio. The arts and ceramics, in particular, teach important skills to students such as patience, persistence, imagination, and play. Being able to create a space in our organization for this type of community to exist means that students get to practice their craft, engage with other children in their age group, and be welcomed with open arms.

In addition, the role includes community partnerships, and this has allowed me to contact local arts and culture organizations to collaborate with our after-school program and incorporate other forms of education in the program. One of the pillars of community education is simply offering a space that is available for people to spend time in without the expectation of spending money or working. Being able to spend time in this environment and create a program for children has been so rewarding because I have experienced the benefits of programs similar in my childhood.

As we as a city, country, and world are engaging with challenges related to social equity, safety, and isolation, I feel that the creation of community engagement and education programs will act as a protective factor for all. Social impact work has a goal of systemic change, and I believe that the prioritization of community spaces that encourage exploration is essential to that journey.

Kayla Johnson

Kayla Johnson

Kayla Johnson (she/they) is the After-School Program Coordinator and FAO Schwarz Fellow at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia.


Sophie teaches two young children in a classroom.

Continuing to Learn Outside the Classroom

As someone who has always loved learning, one of the aspects of post-undergrad life that I was most hesitant about was that I wouldn’t have the chance to learn. I thought this was just one of life’s given facts—learning happens in school. But, on my first day with Audubon Mid-Atlantic, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this isn’t the case, at least not here.

I had a pretty clear path in mind for myself when I started college: teach people about environmental issues. Although I thought about the environment on a daily basis and took almost all classes that had to do with climate and the environment, birds were not a topic that often came up. I had always been passionate about animals, but birds were not especially high on my list of favorites. Then, I got a job working for Audubon Mid-Atlantic, the Mid-Atlantic Region of the National Audubon Society.

I haven’t stopped learning and don’t plan on it anytime soon.

The National Audubon Society’s mission is to protect birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow. Working for an organization that focuses on birds, I knew that I would have my work cut out for me. There is a saying “those who cannot do, teach.” I personally believe this saying is complete nonsense–in fact, in order to teach about a concept, one has to have a much deeper understanding. Because of that, I knew I had a lot to learn from my start date in July in order to teach students about birds starting in October.

If you thought that four months would be enough time to learn about birds, you would be completely wrong. As soon as I started to research, read articles, and practice my binocular skills, I couldn’t get enough of birds. At the center where I work, there are over 145 different species of birds that visit over the course of a year. This means that just to teach about birds at my center at an in-depth level, I have to learn how to identify them based on sound and sight as well as their behaviors. Then, there is the more general concepts of migration and adaptation. Who would have known there would be so much to learn about one animal!

I haven’t stopped learning and don’t plan on it anytime soon. I now have to remind myself to keep my eyes on the road when I spot a bird while driving and get the itch to identify it. I have a hard time going for a walk without bringing my trusty binoculars with me or whipping out my phone for a quick sound identification of a bird call. And best of all, I get to share this newfound passion with my students, friends, and family, while I continue to learn about birds every day.

Sophie Becker-Klein

Sophie Becker-Klein

Sophie Becker-Klein (she/her) is FAO Schwarz Fellow at Audubon Mid-Atlantic's Discovery Center in Philadelphia.


Nia Atkins is pictured on Zoom with hear Year Up coaching group

Stepping Into the Role of Coach at Year Up

Direct service is an incredibly important part of my work and everyone’s work at Year Up. Many other staff members and I engage in direct service by serving as coaches to small groups of young people—our coachees—as they progress through Year Up’s programming. No small task, coaching involves meeting multiple times a week with one’s coachees both as a group and one-on-one, providing feedback on various professional skills, presentations, and resumes, and offering consistent support through any challenges our young adults may face.

When I first joined Year Up in June 2021, I observed more seasoned coaches before becoming a coach myself. I got the opportunity to see many different coach-coachee interactions and learn about what it takes to foster and maintain a successful coach-coachee relationship. Veteran staff members talked to me about their experiences including past mistakes they may have made in their first few go-arounds and how they’ve learned and grown since then. Despite my access to a wealth of coaching resources, the thought of stepping into the role of “coach” myself, daunted me. I felt insecure about being similar in age to my coachees and worried that I would not yet know enough about Year Up programming to be helpful to them.

This past August—a little over a year into my Fellowship—I got to see my first group of coaches graduate Year Up, and all I could think about during the graduation ceremony was how proud I was of them.

In October of 2021, I became a coach for the first time. While I had lingering anxiety about my ability to succeed in the role, my multi-month tenure at Year Up had prepared me well. Additionally, I had the privilege of co-coaching with one of the most senior staff members at Year Up’s New York and New Jersey office. Together we guided a group of five students through an almost year-long journey full of highs and lows. I learned a lot about Year Up and about coaching from my co-coach. I also learned a lot from my coachees about the student experience at Year Up and about what Year Up means to them.

This past August—a little over a year into my Fellowship—I got to see my first group of coachees graduate Year Up, and all I could think about during the graduation ceremony was how proud I was of them. I had watched their shyness and uncertainty develop into confidence and authority. And I could not help but notice that I had gone through a similar journey as a coach. By the time of their graduation, I already had a second group of coachees in a new cohort, and everything had felt much easier and less stressful with them because I had done it all before. I was much more knowledgeable, confident, and commanding in my role, and as a result, I was a stronger coach than I’d been before. Moreover, I realized over the course of one year and two different coaching groups that I really love the direct service work I do! Coaching students is by far my favorite part of my Fellowship position.

This October we welcomed yet another new cohort of students, but this time is different in that it is my first time coaching by myself. I would be lying if I said I am not a little bit nervous to coach on my own, but anytime those nerves set in, I remember that my experience, commitment, and passion will continue to guide me in the right direction.

Nia Atkins

Nia Atkins

Nia Atkins (she/her) is the FAO Schwarz Fellow at Year Up New York | New Jersey.


Jasmin reads to other Fellows at Reading Partners New York City.

Direct Service and Strategic Development in Social Impact Leadership

Entering my second year of the FAO Schwarz Fellowship this September, I have begun to reflect on many of the skills and opportunities for growth I have gained in just the last year. I am reminded of one of the program elements I was most excited for as a prospective applicant, a staple of the Fellowship’s structure that drew me to the program and to Jumpstart more specifically: the ability to split Fellowship responsibilities between direct service and strategic projects. This combination has become a valuable part of my experience, developed the important skills I have gained, and is an attribute of social impact leadership I now believe to be necessary for social impact leaders that seek real justice for communities.


Coming into the Fellowship, I was intrigued by the opportunity to work at the intersection of my skills. I was compelled by the program’s focus on engaging Fellows in both community and management through their work plans. Unlike many of the programs I looked into, the work structure of the Fellowship centered community advocacy and systems change simultaneously. Reading through the work plan listed for Jumpstart, I saw a combination of new skills and interests I wanted to foster that weren’t captured in other social impact or public administration programs. The work plan ranged from curriculum development to community event planning, and from program evaluation to Policy advocacy and lobbying. I saw the opportunity to combine strategic leadership projects with the direct, community-facing work that had originally drove me into the educational justice field.

The Fellowship experience has allowed me to build on both skills during my two years, developing an intersectional skill set that I feel should be necessary for all leaders in this sector.

Jumpstart as an organization prioritizes this mix of intervention efforts, combining the impacts of direct service and sector thought leadership and advocacy. With our organization’s focus on advancing the careers of Corps members as the main leaders in the direct service and education of preschool children, we are an organization with a foundation in direct service programming that through thought leadership, campaigns, and policy advocacy have advanced the early education advocacy system. This simultaneous connection between grassroots and grass tops work has both been a part of my role and has contributed to my vision that the balance between community-facing work and systems-focused change significantly and positively influences organizations like Jumpstart’s ability to achieve long-term, structural change. Connections to early education through our program partners, Corps members, educators, and communities influence our vision for structural change in the Early Childhood Education (ECE) system.

This integration of service and community engagement throughout the start of my social impact careers has been one of the most amazing parts of my Fellowship experience and has equipped me with skills I would not likely have gained in other spaces of work.  One of my current projects is working on garnering support for Jumpstart from University and Program partners around the country who can help support language we are crafting around increased protections for Federal Work Study students participating in service-learning programs. This policy-centered proposal requires leveraging skills in relationship building with elected officials, coalition building with grass tops peer organizations and simultaneously leveraging the relationships and connections we have made through serving children, teachers, and students at institutions of higher education. This advocacy effort has combined relationship and coalition-building skills on different ends of the sector, both coordinating grassroots voices of Corps members and educational institutions, alongside thought leadership and legislative support of elected officials. The combined strength of Jumpstart’s connection to college students, community service advocates and early education programs helps to create projects like these which connects community service and policy. While this work is complex, I have found that my most interesting, motivating, and challenging work rests between these spaces, and reminds me of the necessity of having skills at the intersection of strategy/systems-thinking and community-centered connection to create true change in the social impact sector.

The Fellowship experience has allowed me to build on both skills during my two years, developing an intersectional skill set that I feel should be necessary for all leaders in this sector. Importantly, this work demonstrates that nonprofits and community-based organizations have a unique power in the space of advocacy in social change, reaching both into grassroots and grass tops communities during intervention. From these necessary experiences, I encourage prospective and/or new Fellows to consider the value of the unique position to be immersed in the two sides of work that impact justice initiatives within our organizations. While many of us will continue into positions of management and leadership in the nonprofit world, or other spaces of leadership for social justice, these few years following undergrad are a great opportunity to remain grounded in service and to reflect on how best to center service in our future work. These few years post-grad have been necessary for gaining skills in work that remains grounded in community impact, in community voice, and that centers the leadership of communities I advocate for through policy. As I hopefully continue into leadership positions in this sector, I know this grounding will be necessary to inform my perspective on strategies for progress.

Jasmin Norford

Jasmin Norford

Jasmin Norford (she/her) is the FAO Schwarz Fellow Jumpstart in New York City.


Reconnecting with Myself through Connecting with Community

For the majority of my life, I have existed in predominantly white spaces, as I mostly grew up in a wealthy town in California and then moved east to attend an Ivy League university. Despite having roommates, friends, family, and peers with varying identities and experiences, the people inhabiting these spaces tend to still share specific traits. These traits, including that we generally all have the privilege to choose these places to exist in, greatly shape the social environment.

In many ways, occupying these spaces drew out my insecurities: in my ability to lead despite being a rather reserved person, but also about my ethnic identity as a Mexican American. I experience many privileges associated with whiteness and, by existing in these predominantly white areas, lack certain experiences central to Latinidad. Even while understanding that Latinidad is a diverse identity in and of itself, as a pale-skinned, privileged Mexican American who has never visited Mexico and does not actively speak Spanish, I grew up questioning my right to my own identity.

In being able to express myself through my identities and my personality, I was able to discover and embrace my own personal leadership style.

In moving to Boston for the FAO Schwarz Fellowship, I did not necessarily expect to find comfort with myself and my identities. My main intention was to find a community through The Food Project’s work and help it increase its own food sovereignty. However, my first summer in the Fellowship has been a warm welcome into a community unlike any I have experienced before. The summer program at The Food Project, a six-week work preparation program for high school students involving farmwork and workshops on identity and social justice, also focuses on establishing positive, supportive relationships across the large group of students and their college-aged leaders.

Refreshingly, building my own relationships with my summer co-workers and the youth felt natural and comfortable compared to doing so in the competitive and often misunderstanding worlds I have inhabited before. The diversity across the group — not only in terms of culture, race, and experiences, but also in terms of interests and personalities — gave me the opportunity to find different ways of connecting with each person. The general sense of care for others in the group, despite such differences, allowed me to feel comfortable in my own skin. I could still be my natural, more reserved self at times, and I could make jokes and friendships with the youth in my group, all even as I led them. I could connect with the other leaders through an identity I had been so unsure of previously, as I often chatted with one of the other group leaders about shared experiences from our Mexican American culture.

In being able to express myself through my identities and my personality, I was able to discover and embrace my own personal leadership style. Moreover, being able to implement that leadership style, rather than a traditional notion of leadership socially constructed around the traits of cisgender, extroverted, white men, I gained immense confidence in myself.

Having a community of support and care which embraced my individuality allowed me to become a stronger support for it in return, while also helping heal personal challenges of my own. Through this first summer as the FAO Schwarz Fellow at The Food Project, I have already learned more about how reciprocal relationships of empowerment can benefit everyone involved, and I hope to continue embracing and sharing that lesson as I continue my time with the Fellowship.


Vanessa Barragán

Vanessa Barragán

Vanessa (she/her) is the Build-a-Garden Manager and FAO Schwarz Fellow at The Food Project in Boston.