Social Impact

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.


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.


Fellows participate n the tomato harvest at the Food Project in Boston

Fellows Gather in Boston for Four Days of Professional Development

Special thanks to Jesse McLaughlin, 2024 FAO Schwarz Fellow at NYC Audubon Fellow​

Current Fellows recently gathered in Boston for four days of professional development and immersion in the world of social impact.

After traveling from NYC and Philadelphia, Fellows arrived in Boston on Monday, met up at the Museum of Science for a variety of group activities, and then had dinner together at their Airbnb. One Fellow said, “it was so great to finally meet everyone in person and have time to get to know each other.”

On Tuesday, the cohort visited The Food Project in Dorchester where they participated in farm chores and learned about food security. The Fellows managed to clear an entire section of tomato plants nearing the end of their season, but not before picking the last of the harvest for distribution at local farmers’ markets. The Fellows then took time off to explore Boston’s iconic 2.5 mile-Freedom Trail, grab dinner along the water, and do a little cannoli taste-testing. When asked which iconic cannoli she preferred, one Boston Fellow exclaimed: “Mike’s!”


“It was so great to finally meet everyone in person and have time to get to know each other.”

On Wednesday, the Fellows met with senior leadership from Jumpstart to hear about their professional journeys and about the impact of early education on children’s lives. The Fellows learned Jumpstart’s policy work and had a tour of the Massachusetts Statehouse.  (You can read about one Fellow’s perspective on that work in a previous post.)

After lunch, the Fellows headed off to Breakthrough of Greater Boston where they learned about the organization, spoke with the Executive Director, and led mock interviews with high school seniors. The Fellows then had supper in Harvard Square and a special birthday celebration for one of the first-year Fellows who said he “felt even more supported and connected to [his] other fellows on this special day away from home.


Thursday’s destination was the Museum of Science where equity in STEM education and enrichment were key topics. The Fellows had the opportunity to lead activity stations in hands-on chemistry projects for high school students as part of the Museum’s High School Science Series. The Fellows met with the President of the Museum and had time to explore the Museum including touring the live animal care center. There was a lot of lively conversation and questions—NYC Audubon and Audubon Mid-Atlantic Fellows were particularly thrilled to be able to see Cobalt the Blue Jay up close and personal in the care center.

The day ended with dinner at the Boston-area home of a Trustee, a chance to meet several alumni Fellows, and to enjoy the company of the FAO Schwarz Fellowship community over a delicious meal and s’mores cooked over a fire pit. One alumna Fellow who attended said that she “enjoyed getting to meet the new fellows and reconnect with everyone. I’m forever grateful for the fellowship and how it helped set me up for many amazing years at my non-profit.” 

On Friday, Fellows reflected on what they learned and took part in closing activities before heading home. “Inspired, committed, rejuvenated, and connected to the FAO Fellowship community” were some of the words Fellows used to describe how they were feeling about the retreat.

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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.


Direct Service at Reading Partners New York

One of my favorite parts of my role at Reading Partners is the direct service component, where I get to tutor elementary school students one-on-one in literacy. Each session with a student includes a tutor read aloud where the student picks a book for me to read to them, a skill instruction portion with the focus on a particular phonics or comprehension skill, and a student read aloud book that the student reads to me with my support. 

This year, Reading Partners will provide tutoring in 20 public schools across New York City, and we hope to reach 1200 students. While we aim to see our program as a large-scale intervention that will help hundreds of students, the beauty of our program is in its one-on-one, small-scale nature, where tutors and students can grow together and build incredible mentorships. That is what makes our students love signing on to Reading Partners and what makes our tutors sign up year after year!

As E and I grew closer, his confidence grew–he always had his camera on, he wasn't afraid to make mistakes and ask questions, and he would even volunteer to alternate pages with me when it was time for the Tutor Read Aloud book.

In the last year, I’ve gotten to mentor and tutor three students in the Bronx weekly: A, a second-grader who always wanted to save time at the end to show me her art projects; S, a second-grader who I didn’t get to meet with many times but was always curious about my ballet background; and E, a fifth-grader and avid baseball player who was “excited but a little nervous” for middle school. 

My relationship with E was particularly special, as we got very comfortable with each other and both were really sad that he wouldn’t be in Reading Partners when he moved to middle school. At the beginning of our Wednesday session, we would always debrief our weekends, and at the end of our weekly Friday session we would share what we were looking forward to that weekend. I made sure to remember what he shared with me and ask about his baseball tryouts and games. 

As E and I grew closer, his confidence grew–he always had his camera on, he wasn’t afraid to make mistakes and ask questions, and he would even volunteer to alternate pages with me when it was time for the Tutor Read Aloud book. The year ended with a special moment when E read a poem with confidence and expression for our recorded end-of-year celebration that was shared with all of our stakeholders.

As we delve into another year of tutoring, I’m looking forward to building relationships with more students in the Bronx, and maybe even reconnecting with some of my past students! There’s nothing more inspiring than witnessing growth in a young student and getting to play a positive and encouraging role in their academic journey!

If you’re curious about tutoring with Reading Partners (we are in 13 regions across the United States!), visit our website. You can make a difference in the life of a child with just one hour a week!


Clara Monk

Clara Monk

Clara Monk (she/her) is a Fellow on the Community Engagement Team at Reading Partners in New York City.


Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

Person filling out paperwork

At the Intersection of Federal Policy and Direct Service: the FAFSA

A large part of my Fellowship has been working with students to complete the Federal Application For Student Aid or the FAFSA. Each year, students come to FAFSA sessions with dozens of questions about how to complete one of the most daunting forms of the college process. Most often these are students with unique family circumstances such as those with appointed guardians, fellow dependents that aren’t siblings, and parents who they may not have contact with. There is space in the form to explain these circumstances but it’s easy to miss, and a misclick can force a student to have to submit a correction, which can cause hiccups in aid.

As I’ve learned more about the FAFSA, I’ve learned about how it has changed over the years. In response to a lot of activism and legislative action, the form itself has become more streamlined and user friendly for both students and colleges. However, there is still a lot of work to be done surrounding the federal aid that is offered to students. Most recently, there has been a push by a coalition of higher education organizations–known as the Pell Alliance–to double one of the most important aspects of the federal student aid: the Pell Grant.

As I watch the students I serve apply to and progress through college, it becomes more and more clear to me that one of the biggest barriers to college access is figuring out how to pay the bill, rather than acceptance itself.

The Pell Grant can currently give up to $6,495 of aid, which does not have to be paid back, to low income college students. For some, this is a major part of their financial aid package, if not their only source of grant aid. Any change in the grant would need to go through federal legislative bodies to be included in the higher education budget. If included in the funding plans for federal higher education programs, doubling the Pell would bring the maximum grant awarded to $13,000. Additionally, the Pell Alliance is asking for the program to be extended to DREAMers and restore lifetime eligibility to 18 semesters of aid, rather than the 12 currently allowed. These changes would effectively extend the reach of the program, providing students who would normally have to take on many loans the chance to graduate with little to no debt.  

As I watch the students I serve apply to and progress through college, it becomes more and more clear to me that one of the biggest barriers to college access is figuring out how to pay the bill, rather than acceptance itself. Doubling the Pell Grant would allow so many students I serve access to the funds they need and allow them to focus on school rather than finances. Additionally, $6,500 more could be the difference between graduating with or without debt. Being student-centered is one of the most important values at Breakthrough Greater Boston, and a change like this could vastly improve the lives of our students. This work has added so much passion behind a monotonous task like filling out the FAFSA, and given me opportunities to learn about and understand my work more deeply. 

 A lot of my learning as a Fellow has been practical, developing key skills that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. However, staying up to date on federal and state trends has taught me that college access work extends beyond what I do at the office. The educators, counselors, and supporters of the Double Pell movement are going beyond direct service, to address root causes of student barriers. Following the activism of the Pell Alliance has shown me the role that the federal government can play in educating the youth of our nation, and I will continue to support the progress of the Double Pell change as it moves through the legislative process. 


Serena Salgao

Serena Salgao

Serena Salgado (she/her) is the College Success and Alumni Support FAO Schwarz Fellow at Breakthrough Greater Boston in Boston, MA.

Photo by Romain Dancre on Unsplash.

A child's hand is shown stamping a pattern on a white t-shirt.

Breaking the Digital Ice: Creative Approaches to Community Engagement

When I submitted my FAO Schwarz Fellowship application in February 2020, how could I have predicted that the world would become unrecognizable in just four short weeks? Graduating college, starting a full-time job, and moving to a new city are not easy feats, pandemic or not. Under normal circumstances, I would have walked across astage in May to receive my degree. I would have visited the city wherein I’d received a job offer–before accepting the offer.

Silhouetted sign post with arrows in front of sunset

Crises and Creativity: What we can learn from 2020

At Jumpstart, we emphasize the importance of young children’s capacity to learn during those critical early years, when their minds are flexible and open to new experiences. As adults, it can be easy to settle into our patterns and believe that our time to learn and change has passed. The pandemic has affected every aspect of my work and personal life, but rather than focus on the way things haven’t gone according to plan, I’m considering the ways my perspective has changed.

At the end of my fellowship, I’m thinking about how I can continue to challenge my expectations, habits, and ideas, even after leaving the crisis-mode of this past year.

I remember the dread throughout the nonprofit and education world as we entered the pandemic last spring. Without in-person classes, how could students learn effectively? Without in-person services, would families fall through the cracks? Before there was time to conduct research, we began planning how to address the expected learning loss. When things go sideways, it’s easy to catastrophize, freeze, and just wait for things to go back to normal.

Unimaginable events can lead to previously unimagined (or unimplemented) ideas. Knowing this, I hope to hold onto the mindset that every person or system still has a huge potential for growth.

At Jumpstart, once we realized that “normalcy” would never return, the work of redesigning programs for a virtual setting began. Tech averse folks (like me), had to let go of our resistances and become fluent in virtual platforms. Rather than create a temporary replacement for traditional community engagement, we were able to develop something new. Over the summer, I worked with Jumpstart volunteers who created astounding educational videos for children. Throughout the year, I collaborated with the Reads Alliance in Brooklyn and Queens to host trilingual Zoom events that often gathered nearly one hundred attendees and distributed hundreds of book kits. Although the in-person interaction was missing, we were able to create entirely different experiences. Virtual engagement gave us the ability to have translators for multiple languages, host guest speakers who live across the world, and connect with families who may not have had the time to travel to a traditional event.

This is not to force a silver lining onto a year that was devastating and traumatic, but to point out how the learning potential we see in children still exists in adults and organizations. Unimaginable events can lead to previously unimagined (or unimplemented) ideas. Knowing this, I hope to hold onto the mindset that every person or system still has a huge potential for growth, even though they may have exited that “critical period.” I hope that we can carry forward the innovations that have stemmed from this disaster, along with a new openness to adaptation. I’m excited to return to seeing children and families in-person, to have the side conversations and irreplaceable interactions, and I’ll bring a new sense of resourcefulness and creativity with me.

Meredith Jones

Meredith Jones

Meredith Jones (she/her) is the Policy and Community Impact Fellow Jumpstart for Young Children in New York City.


Photo Raul PetriUnsplash