The training rooms are packed. These young people, after weeks upon weeks of applications, interviews, and deliberation, have entered the Wall Street office space of the New York | New Jersey market for the first time. Like their peers across the country, they have placed their trust in one permutation of a national workforce development organization, hoping to empower themselves as they journey further through their young adulthood. These young people are at Year Up.
There’s a certain tension in the air. They have come in the most professional outfits they could have mustered for the moment, even as your own shirt collar has begun to chafe your neck. These young people are wracked with nervousness, one you are fighting with every passing second. They are looking at you, and the PowerPoint behind you, for answers. How do you manage the expectations of several dozen twenty-somethings, each eager to progress forward in their lives and succeed?
Answer: Charisma, a thoroughly organized schedule, and pizza lunches. Lots and lots of pizza. What else can you expect from Lower Manhattan?
But the first ninety days of my time at Year Up’s New York | New Jersey market have not only been marked by shuffling pizza boxes around the office, but something infinitely less greasy– a harmony between data and direct service, and the hard work of putting largescale ambitions into incremental action. Year Up prides itself on its “feedback culture,” a system in which staff, students, and the organization at large are able to engage in conversation addressing both strengths and growth areas. For the FAO Schwarz Fellow in New York, this means tackling data at the macro level: organizing surveys for literal hundreds of people. And as with any FAO Schwarz Fellow, this means engaging directly with the population you serve.
When I came to Year Up in July 2023, I had been managing my own expectations as a fellow. I knew I liked working with data, and I knew I was good with working with people. I knew, based on the experience of the previous fellow Nia Atkins, that I could expect a lot of both. I knew that LC Lookback, an event wherein staff use the outcomes of the previous cycle to plan towards the next, was something she worked with often. When I was then asked to conduct research for the August 2023 LC Lookback, only a week into my tenure, I accepted it as part and parcel of my role. Sure, it was a daunting project that required precision and close collaboration over a mere month– which for non-social scientists, feels a little like cramming for a test the night before– but I earned my BA in Sociology from research I eked out in rural New England. This was something I knew I could do. This was a chance to begin doing data analysis with tangible, immediate impact.
August rolled around. LC Lookback came and went, and I presented, showing off my comically long slide deck to fellow staff members. This I had received academic training for. You acknowledge your biases, limitations, and blind spots. You work towards substantive conclusions given the human-centric data you gather. I felt a little proud of the instances where I worked in more qualitative data, sprinkling open-ended answers from participants in-between colorful graphs and numbers. Here was a strength (They really like in-person programming!) and there was a growth area (They really don’t like not getting in-person programming!). Data was data, and to a reasonable degree, I felt confident in handling it.
One LC Lookback down, something like 3 to 4 to go, right?
What I wasn’t so sure of was how direct service would turn out. Unlike some of the other fellows, I wasn’t working with children: on that first day of Orientation, in came participants as young as 17 and as old as 28. Some of them were parents. Others had just finished their Associates’ Degree. The average age was 23. I knew that because I had looked at the demographic data beforehand, trying to see where and how that data would inform my job.
Could I, a mere 22 year-old that scrambled out of college three months before, serve these fellow young people with any degree of competence? Was my age going to be a burden in my work?
Answer: No. It was an asset.
When I got up before those dozens of participants– in-between the program managers and instructors admittedly much more relevant to their day-to-day– I cracked a joke. Then another. And with an awkward flourish of my hand, I had the room smiling, chuckling, and engaged. That’s important when there’s a long road between the start of the morning and the afternoon pizza party. “I’m Avery Trinidad, and I’m gonna be the one to flood your inbox with surveys in a few months.”
Hey, I guess I still knew how to work a crowd. Kinda.
On the way to a break, a participant brought up his hand for a fist bump. Then another, and then another. It turned into a (short) line. I obliged. Trust is important in direct service. It takes a while to build it. It comes in many forms, after all.
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