Special Projects

You and Me and Data

“They’re always surprised when I say this,” the panelist says. It’s the Head of User Research at a certain company. He’s poised confidently in his tall, white bar stool, gripping the microphone. “But here’s something I always tell the people I’m supervising: only 30 to 50 percent of a research job is being a researcher.” The other panelists listen intently, pivoting their heads towards him. “The other 50 to 70 percent are your soft skills: working cross-functionally, and storytelling with data.” Thoughts and murmurs reverberate across the crowd. He gauges the audience’s reaction. “That sort of thing.” 

Meanwhile, my hands fly percussively across the keyboard of my work laptop—I’ve been taking notes the entire presentation. It’s not really common to see a researcher representing their company at a panel, much less a researcher active at the intersection of technology and social impact. Yet here he is: another queer man of color who had connected the dots between his own fancy-schmancy New England education and the impact he could make in Applied Research. Of course, it isn’t statistically insignificant that he has around a decade of experience over my measly full-time months. He’s the only reason I bothered coming to a panel that, for the most part, mostly had targeted client-facing B2B professionals.  He can probably hear the clacking. I hope he understands—it’s not all that different from qualitative research, right? 

For all the research I had executed and wanted to execute, for all the rigor I had taken into Year Up and learned within it, for all the data carved into the shape of 70 colorful, animated slides and graphs: am I truly embodying a researcher?

Keyboard clacking or not, the researcher continues his thought. “It’s a human-centered practice,” he concludes. He’s referring to both research participants and coworkers. A practice that’s 30 to 50 percent research, 50 to 70 percent stakeholder management. There’s a pause. 

Another panelist flicks the switch of his own microphone. Conversation then drifts back to the Director of Sales at a Series A startup, and we start talking about product management again. 

The idea of those human-centered proportions thus haunts me for several hours. 

I don’t believe that the researcher had been wrong: even as an early career researcher and analyst, the words still ring true. Since the start of my fellowship at Year Up, I have been plunging headlong into data and its repercussions. Most of my first month of the fellowship—besides the inherently hectic nature of onboarding anywhere—had been occupied by meticulous survey design, study rollout, mixed methods analysis, workshop agenda-building, and the construction of a corresponding 80-odd slide deck. In fact, the researcher’s words align with what had been my approach at Year Up beforehand: gather your data into a nice, lean repository and do the work of extracting narrative for the data’s eventual audience. Easier said than done, and a process that stops getting faster after a certain point of skill. Doable. 

Yet that researcher ratio strikes me at a very specific time. Less than 12 hours after this in-person, after-work, Wednesday night panel comes a very special Thursday morning: I am going to be facilitating another LC Lookback, the second of four.  

I’ve been working towards this data democratization workshop since as early as October, starting with a lengthy research proposal centered on the use of semi-structured interviewing as part of market-level research. Even with semi-structured interviewing pushed to next cycle, I’ve been grinding away at participant surveys—whether attempting to eliminate all chance for respondent bias, or simply just making sure trainees respond at all. Surveys turn into results, results turn into spreadsheets, and spreadsheets turn into waves of PivotTables and flashy visualizations. With any luck, presentations transform into change– whether incremental or sweeping– that delivers a better experience for the program’s end users. It’s a continuous, delicate art of observation, adjustment, and implementation.

Even beyond the data of this study, I’ve dived into the rigor of research: I voraciously consume articles penned by researchers and rapidly absorb the language particular to different industries and facets of the craft. I consult mentors in the field and establish a laundry list of professional development opportunities for myself throughout the remainder of the fellowship. I decide that I want to embody the strengths of both qualitative and quantitative methods—and, in the process, earn a certification in User Research and Design from the University of Michigan. I interrogate my own qualitative skills, and obliterate any vaguely leading questions from my interview scripts. I pin Survey Design down to its academic science, grinding each and every distracting element away from my surveys. I grind away at quant: I master SQL, and build myself up to an intermediate degree of Python for Data Analysis. I convince IT to let me install RStudio, and I almost get them to install a Python IDE.  Request denied—security reasons, they say.  

Still, for a while, data becomes me. Rigor becomes me. Embodying the researcher becomes me. I learn what the hottest discourse among corporate researchers is this season: proving your value add. 

And a few days before that Thursday, at the suggestion of a mentor, I drop a slide from my lengthy, lengthy workshop deck into a channel accessible to my stakeholders. That’s the nature of research, right? You grow stakeholder buy-in through drops of insights. It’s a good, basic metric: it’s a Net Promoter Score, a measurement cooked up at Bain & Co for the sake of comparing quantified, popular opinion between industries and companies. It’s not very common in non-profits, but we use it at Year Up. I upload my visualization to Slack, and respond accordingly when someone asks for a bit of context. It’s industry standard—and moreover, one of our standards at Year Up: I think there’s no harm done. 

The day after—but still before that Thursday, and before that Wednesday night—the Director of Program combs over my slides over a video call, and he finds himself a bit frazzled by the length. He’s especially concerned about the technical language I’ve deployed across my presentation. I’ve put in a slide explaining the history, purpose, and conventions of Lickert scales, those 1 to 5 or 1 to 7 or 0 to 10 things. I’ve put in a slide explaining response bias, and the ways in which a respondent’s context may affect their answers. There’s three, hefty slides discussing the roles of Qualitative Research, Quantitative Research, and Desk Research before any bulk of the data rears its head. “That’s the first time I’ve heard ‘desk research’ used that way,” he tells me. Then, he continues, “I think we need to make some cuts here.” 

I pause. I’ve been grinding away at these surveys, these spreadsheets, these hulking affinity diagrams of open-ended qualitative responses—to me, this is already a dilution. I think about the rigor I had so deeply immersed myself in. I think about the ways I had held myself back from including documentation of statistical significance. I think about my research, the ways I want it to grow, and how I want to grow. I wonder how, in that moment, to advocate for that growth. I wonder how to prove my value add.

I wonder how to prove my value add to myself. 

“You’ve only got 60 minutes for this, and it’s going to be a long, long day on Thursday,” the Director tells me. “I think—well, you have to consider your audience.” I see his eyes, even over Zoom, scanning across the numbers and texts and graphics. He asks, “Is everyone going to be able to understand this?” I consider his question, and hover my mouse over the delete button. “Wait,” he continues, “I think nerds like you and me can talk about this forever when we have the time.” I hover off the delete button. 

“Hide these slides—you or I or someone else can find them very, very helpful later,” he muses. I follow his instructions. That’s 3 fewer slides to sift through. “Try compressing them into one: what’s the main thought you’re communicating here? That a lot of work went into this, right?” Typing away again, I reply, “Yeah, that’s right.” The Director confirms my line of thinking, “Great. You have to make sure you’re telling a story with what you’re showing us. What’s the story we’re painting with the data?” 

We trim a slide or two off the deck, and compress and clarify where necessary. The deck actually doesn’t change very much—he muses about whether an hour will be enough time for all of the content, and I try to respond with confidence. “Hey, by the way: Great work, Avery,” he tells me, “You’ve been working hard on this.” I smile a bit and nod. He’s right, after all.

Come Thursday morning, and I’m reflecting while setting up the presentation space. I’m not so much nervous as I am jittery, and I suppose that the coffee hadn’t helped. Yet I’m still asking myself questions.

For all the research I had executed and wanted to execute, for all the rigor I had taken into Year Up and learned within it, for all the data carved into the shape of 70 colorful, animated slides and graphs: am I truly embodying a researcher? In my pursuit of not only scientific precision in my analysis, but scientific exactness in my reporting: am I managing my stakeholders’ expectations and understanding, or am I arrogantly positioning myself as a sole source of knowledge? And for the participants, the stakeholders for whom the data would matter most—yet wouldn’t be in the room of this day-long workshop—is this report going to be to their benefit? Am I making sure not to reduce them to a set of data points? 

Where am I on that scale of 30 to 50 percent against 50 to 70 percent? 

Interactives and warm-up activities come and go. My presentation—in all of its data-laden glory—comes and goes. I try not to pontificate; instead, I carve out a story through a reservoir of statistics and words, all stemming from the participants we had worked with for months upon months upon months. If I keep anything to an exact science, it’s my timekeeping: questions have their dedicated sections, and interruptions are not allowed. It’s appreciated by my colleagues. Someone compliments my sweater; it was going to be a long day, so our Site Director thought it best for us all to wear casual.

At the end of the workshop, we hold a “Plus/Delta,” an exercise to identify the strengths and growth areas of an event. One of my coworkers comes up to a whiteboard in front of the room, pops the cap off of her marker, and gestures toward the dozens of people seated. 

“Well,” she tells them, “I have a Plus to start off with.” My head pivots towards her. 

“Avery,” she continues, “Fantastic data. I learned a lot today.” She writes Avery’s Data in fat, bold letters at the top of the board, right under a plus-sign. “Check,” someone calls out, signaling agreement. “Check,” goes another voice. “Check.” Another. “Check.” Another. “Check.” Again. “Check.” It goes on like this for a little while, until there’s a stream of little checkmarks following my name. “Clarity of the data,” someone else calls out. “Check to that too,” says another. I try not to laugh. 

“Glad to hear that,” I joke. And there I am, an early career researcher and analyst. 

Even by the end of our Plus/Delta— even by the end of a day spanning all the way from 9 AM to 6 PM— I don’t know where I lie on that scale of 30 to 50, 50 to 70. I still haven’t put the puzzle pieces of my own research entirely together with that of Year Up’s national research functions. Unfortunately, I’m still 78% of the way off from completing my certification in Data Science in Python, but NumPy hasn’t been too hard to figure that out. I’ve been given the possibility of starting some semi-structured interviewing, but even that hasn’t been set in stone.

Yet, through all of that, I know I’m a researcher with a clear value add. And I don’t think I have to perform too many tests to prove that. The data against the null hypothesis is self-evident, even to me. 

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Avery Trinidad

Avery Trinidad (he/him) is the Research & Insights FAO Schwarz Fellow at Year Up in New York City.

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Talking with Kayla Johnson, FAO Schwarz Fellow at The Clay Studio

A second Fellow will join The Clay Studio in 2024. Thanks to the team at The Clay Studio for creating and sharing this video with us! 

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Kayla Johnson

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

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Day in the Life: Teaching Artist

In my role as an FAO Fellow here at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, I get to enjoy lots of variety in my day-to-day experience. My direct service work in the fellowship is working with Claymobile, our mobile engagement community program. The majority of this work is centered around teaching ceramic classes in schools, but I also get to teach in community centers, libraries, and farms. I began in this role acting as a teaching assistant, which means that I worked with the lead teacher in setting up the materials necessary for the class and supported students in their creative process. More recently, I have begun lead teaching in classrooms; it has been a wonderful process starting from having no knowledge about ceramics, to learning how to assist, then to leading a residency. Last week, I had my first class lead teaching at Steel Elementary. I started my day at the studio packing all of the necessary materials and then driving to the school. On arrival, we bring all of the materials to the classroom and introduce ourselves to students. 

Each day at work is different and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

As a lead teacher, one of the main components is teaching a demonstration of the ceramic project we will be completing. For this particular class, we made coil bowls which are made of small ceramic spirals using a plastic bowl as a mold. During my demonstration, I focused on the feeling of the clay as it was many student’s first experience with it. Teaching how to make a coil, how to smooth the inside of the bowl, and glazing are some of the main focuses for this project. After the demonstration, the rest of the class is spent moving around the classroom, checking in with students and answering any questions that arise. Many students shared ideas of projects they want to make in the future, what they might eat out of their bowls and share information about themselves and their families. The classroom teacher took pictures of each student with their finished bowls and we said goodbye, all in under two hours. 

After a Claymobile class, I’ll switch over to my special project work which is teaching in our new after-school program. The after-school program started last year, and we are now working with four schools in the area. After unpacking and taking lunch, I’ll set up our studio with the tools and demonstrations necessary for our class. Then, I walk to the school that we work with that day to pick up students at dismissal. After all of the students arrive, we walk to the studio together. Once we arrive, we have snacks and homework help which is necessary time for students to relax and connect with each other. Then we switch to studio time. Teaching in the after-school program can be similar to the style of Claymobile teaching, but as it is a smaller group who have had practice in multiple making techniques, it runs more independently. Some days we offer a full demonstration, others are free-making days where students choose what they want to make, but most days fall somewhere in between. This is a long-term program for students, so the curriculum is built particularly for the students from each school. Connecting with students on a weekly basis is one of my favorite parts of my job, and being able to provide a fun and safe space for students to make art and chat with friends. Working within the after-school program lends itself to a stable consistent schedule which is nice for me and Claymobile gives my schedule some flexibility and fun. Each day at work is different and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

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Kayla Johnson

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

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You Want What I Want: Research, Rapport, and Surveys

It’s January at Year Up New York|New Jersey, and I’m once again compelling 292-odd program participants to participate in a research study. That is, a survey-reliant research study.

Ever tried to get hundreds of people to do a survey? It’s harder than you would think. 

The first hurdle: having people even consider it. In client-facing contexts, many potential participants view corporate surveys as “lacking in empathy” and as a general inconvenience (Dholakia 2021). Employee engagement surveys—intended to gauge areas of discontent and improvement within organizations—sometimes exacerbate ongoing issues, failing to address the concerns workers actually have (Wahba 2023). According to a 2022 analysis, online surveys have an overall average response rate of 44.1%: even getting a tenuous majority of potential participants to respond is a major victory for researchers (Wu et. al 2022). Ultimately, whereas sloppy studies erode popular trust in surveys and their application, a good survey is always delicate, intentional, and targeted. Like a coffee shop.

Chat with your future participants. Block out time for them. Make your intentions, methods, and motivations transparent. Take notes on just about everything.

The reason, of course, that you would ever invest time (and sometimes money) in such a particular, harder-than-it-looks research method is the data. You probably want lots of data. Lots and lots of quantitative data. (Kind-of) fast and cheap. Even the best surveys are a relatively quick and standardized method of gathering data on a population: interviews take days if not weeks to process, observational studies require precise planning and timing, and usability studies often necessitate proprietary tools and training. In the context of social impact, particularly in the non-profit space, internal surveys can churn out numerical insights without the budget crunch of an outside consultation.

Year Up, for example, loves its quantitative data—it’s part of its pervasive “Feedback Culture”. The national organization, headquartered in Boston, charts outs surveys across the participant life cycle, meant to track engagement and opinion metrics at critical touchpoints of a trainee cohort’s journey. These “Direct Service Survey” metrics are then, among a myriad of other functions, analyzed by a dedicated team, shared with corporate partners, and play a critical part in the organization’s overall and agile Service Design. Data is used to make data-informed decisions by data-informed teams. Year Up’s New York|New Jersey market, in turn one of the largest across the organization, has its own pattern of surveys and evaluations. After all, as useful as national metrics are, the needs of individual cities, tracks, and cohorts can be very different. That’s where I come in.

My first survey at Year Up, conducted in only my first three weeks of employment, was focused on our contemporary Learning & Development (L&D) and Internship cohorts. Preparation for the Program Evaluation segment of LC Lookback, a biannual market-wide meeting of staff, required a rapid and targeted collection of student metrics. I did what I could with the resources I had available to me—a detailed guide left by the previous Fellow, Nia. Yet, despite still hovering above the 44.1% average recorded by Wu’s 2022 team, I still felt a bit nonplussed at an ultimate L&D response rate of 51.6%. I hadn’t been fully acclimated to Year Up’s organizational culture, wasn’t entirely sure of the research goals of our study, and definitely lacked the time to become familiar with my study participants. As good as the insights we drew, I had a constant feeling that they could have been better. It seemed like trainees, in the midst of organizational changes, had viewed my research with raised eyebrows.

I was missing a rapport between researcher and participant.

Thus, I decided to roll out my own strategy for rapport building. Starting with the next L&D cohort, set to graduate July 2024, I adopted four, simple research practices. If you ever find yourself designing internal research, always try to:

1. Make your research meaningful

Appeal to your study participants’ interests, emotions, and experiences. It might be a Rousseau-flavor cliché, but people like helping other people. People, of course, also like helping themselves. Inform participants of the benefits of participating in your research: let them know that, with the data that they may provide, you can improve not only their experience but those of others. Rather than positioning researchers as exclusive arbiters of knowledge and authority, emphasize the collaboration inherent in your work. Align your interests with theirs. Human-focused research is ultimately the culmination of a researchers’ skills and interlocutors’ contributions. If a survey evaluates the design of a longer-term service (such as the L&D period at Year Up), actively cultivate trust between researchers and participants. Contributing to research becomes helping researchers out!

2. Make your research practical

In the case of surveys, do not make your survey openable only on the second blue moon of a leap year. Do not make your survey consist of 50 consecutive matrices. Do not make your survey a series of 30 required open-ended questions with minimum 100 word counts. Do not compel your participants into responding in a time window that biases their responses. Do not make your survey a combination of the above. Surveys, at a minimum viable state, should be painless to access, complete, and submit. Completion is the second hurdle of a survey, and a difficult survey diminishes data quality and participant trust. Minimize the length of your engagement. Provide gentle-ish reminders. To whatever extent you can, anonymize results and remove personally identifying information. No one enjoys being given a hard time. In particular, no one enjoys being given a hard time in the form of an over-extended Google Forms sheet. Research, at its best, becomes an opportunity to share information.

3. Make your research insightful

Discerning an actual takeaway from research serves as a third hurdle: results should be analyzed, then translated. When elaborating on a previous study, track ongoing trends and patterns: how have organizational changes been reflected in your metrics? Identify your set of key performance indicators, and drill down where and when you can. Document opportunities for expansion in future elaborations of the study. Archive your findings in a way that remains accessible to future researchers and stakeholders. Above all else: make sure you can digestibly communicate your findings to those outside of the research team, especially your participants. To build trust towards your research and those of future researchers, your findings must be actually legible. Research is the production of information. When you perform good research, you begin to assign that information meaning.

4. Make your research actionable

Ideally, indicate immediate actions that can be taken in accordance with your findings. Carry out the easy fixes and continue on the clear points of success. Action—or, at the very least, a plan of action—can make or break the trust of your participants. If you are cultivating trust on the basis that your research will work to the benefit of the participant group, it should work to the benefit of the participant group. Find the bravery to challenge institutional assumptions: at what points can we alter the course of our design or implementation, should it be to the benefit of our interlocutors? Recognize your study’s failings, limitations, and opportunities for improvement. Ultimately, champion a sustainable path forward. Any path of action shouldn’t lead to burn out: it should lead to progress. More than simply considering your research, stakeholders should be able to work with it. Action leads to better outcomes, which lead to better trust, which in turn leads to better research. Some would call it a virtuous cycle.

While these blocks of text may make things seem complicated, these maxims are fairly simple in practice. Chat with your future participants. Block out time for them. Make your intentions, methods, and motivations transparent. Take notes on just about everything. 

Not only have these practices increased trainee trust towards organizational research, but they’ve grown both the volume and quality of our data. I’ve been able to gather contextual research on the experiences of participants throughout the Learning & Development Phase. I’ve been able to build upon the work of of previous fellows, crafting a qualitative research protocol for Year Up New York|New Jersey. I’ve been able to become a trusted advocate for our participants. And most metric-friendly, I’ve been able to raise the response rate from a passable 51.6% to a new high of 95.7%—and still counting!

But as you refine your own research practice, life goes on at Year Up New York|New Jersey. The reminder emails to the remaining 20% continue to fly out of my outbox. My little T-tests continue to sort out random chance from statistically relevant phenomena, my presentation decks prepared for their deployment. Participants pop up at my desk, asking for everything from advice to a laptop charger.

Yet in-between all of my little notes, projects, and ambitions—and a wave of organizational change—our site still had our own End of Year meeting. There, I was rewarded the “Newbie Award,” tagged as a new staff member that had already greatly contributed to the Year Up New York|New Jersey collective. Presenting to the entirety of our market staff, my supervisor cracked a joke about how I was able to bring data into any conversation, presentation, or strategy. Our market laughed. As I accepted my neatly printed certificate, I couldn’t help but flash a guilty smile. 

I suppose, then, I’ve been doing something right.

 

WORKS CITED

Dholakia, Utpal. “Why Customers Hate Participating in Surveys.” Psychology Today. June 6, 2021. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-science-behind-behavior/202106/why-customers-hate-participating-in-surveys

Wahba, Phil. “Too Many CEOs Don’t Know What Their Workers Need. Employee ‘Engagement’ Surveys Can Make the Problem Even Worse.” Fortune. July 12, 2023. https://fortune.com/2023/07/12/employee-engagement-surveys-dissatisfaction/

Wu, Meng-Jia, Kelly Zhao and Francisca Fils-Aime. “Response Rates of Online Surveys in Published Research: A Meta-Analysis.” Computers in Human Behavior Reports 7 (2022). August 2022. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2451958822000409#sec1

 

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Avery Trinidad

Avery Trinidad (he/him) is the FAO Schwarz Fellow at Year Up in New York City.

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Jocelyn gives a talk on stage at a Museum of Science event.

Steps to Belonging: From Visitor to Educator

Just 10 minutes away from the Museum of Science in Boston is one of my most memorable places growing up, the city of Chelsea. Although a small city, it is packed with an abundance of people and places to experience. From a great view of the Boston skyline to the amazing food found on every corner, it has its perks. However, one of the best advantages of growing up in Chelsea was being just a short ride away from Boston, and specifically the Museum of Science. I can clearly recall the field trips that I had to the Museum. I got to experience “Night at the Museum” twice with their overnight program, and I would spend hours at Science in the Park with my family whenever we visited. One of my favorite parts of the Museum was getting to visit the chicks that were already, or soon to be, hatched. Having visited numerous times, I did not think it could get better.

Something important that I have learned throughout the past couple of months is how to make the Museum a place where everyone feels like they belong, no matter their background.

Fast forward some years later, with experience working in Education and having graduated with a degree in Anthropology and Biology, when looking for a job post-grad, I was primarily interested in finding a job in informal education, preferably in the STEM field. And, loving where I grew up and the experiences that I had, I immediately went to see if the Museum of Science in Boston was hiring. You can imagine my excitement when I found out about the FAO Schwarz Fellowship role at the Museum. The excitement did not just come from the fact of where I would be working, but also because of the mission behind both the Fellowship organization and the host organization. The Museum of Science’s mission “to inspire a lifelong love of science in everyone”, in unison with what the FAO Schwarz Fellowship and foundation stand for: social impact, leadership, and education. Both reinforced one of my values: education and science should be accessible to anyone and everyone. 

Taking on the role of the new FAO Schwarz Fellow at the Museum of Science caused that excitement to turn into joy. Since starting in June of 2023, I have been able to do what it is that I am passionate about, every day. I have collaborated with different departments throughout the Museum to better support our Summer Youth Interns. I got to plan and lead my first High School Science Series focused on Artificial Intelligence. I even got to work with ferrets to promote my first live animal presentation about “Why Do Animals Make Us Happy?” Being able to experience what it takes to put all these events and shows together is an inspiring opportunity. 

One of my favorite events that I found truly inspiring, from both a visitor and educator standpoint, was our Hispanic and Latinx Heritage weekend celebration in October, an event I heavily and proudly supported. From securing guest speakers to performance groups to creating a bilingual activity for the weekend, the hard work that was put into this event was noteworthy. To me, the most important part of this weekend was being able to see myself, my small city of Chelsea, and other people of Hispanic and Latinx heritage, belong at the Museum of Science through the celebration of our cultures. This has not always been the case, but I am glad it is now. This is only one of the various heritage weekend celebrations that the Museum has committed to furthering.

Something important that I have learned throughout the past couple of months is how to make the Museum a place where everyone feels like they belong, no matter their background. Thinking back to my time as a visitor, experiencing the joy of learning and seeing the live shows, there are some aspects that I would have appreciated having at the Museum, such as heritage weekend celebrations or bilingual exhibits. But now, as an educator at the Museum of Science, being able to contribute to that change, and to create a more inclusive and accessible Museum means a lot to me, and to all our visitors. I know that eight-year-old Jocelyn, eating her rock candy from the Museum gift shop, would be ecstatic to learn that life as a visitor at the Museum of Science can get better. Just ask those who work there.

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Jocelyn Poste

Jocelyn (she/her) is the Youth Programs, Community Engagement Department FAO Schwarz Fellow at the Museum of Science in Boston.

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Leading as a Young Person

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.

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?

No, it was an asset.

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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Avery Trinidad

Avery Trinidad (he/him) is the FAO Schwarz Fellow at Year Up in New York City.

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Natalia works with children and their families at an event at the Museum of the City of New York

A Day in the Life of a Fellow at MCNY

9:00-9:15 – Grounding 

  • I start my mornings by checking my email, responding to any messages, and planning my schedule for the day. I find this routine really grounding because I know exactly what I need to do and when to do it throughout the day.

 

9:15-9:45 – Field Trip Prep Time 

  • Most, if not every morning, I will be leading field trips for K-12 audiences as part of my direct service work. After I’ve grounded myself in my goals for the day, I will take time to prepare materials that students will engage with throughout the experience. Our field trip materials include a wide range of historical objects, iPads with videos, and arts and crafts materials. 
  • I will also review the information about the group to best tailor the experience to their needs. Sometimes the teacher let us know ahead of time that the students are studying a specific topic related to the gallery, so I will make sure to include that topic as a discussion point in the tour. 
  • I will often teach more than one field trip in a day during the academic year, so I will prep materials for my second field trip at this time if needed so that I am not rushing later on.

 

10:00 – 1:00 – Field Trips 

  • Depending on the time of year, I will teach one or two field trips a day. Each trip is an entirely different experience. Some of the variables that make each field trip unique include the student’s prior knowledge and interests, their grade level and previous museum experience, the gallery we are visiting, the time of day they visit, or even the weather. Developing my arsenal of teaching strategies has taken lots of practice, experimentation, and collaboration with other facilitators on the Education team. 

 

12:45 – 1:00 – Clean Up! 

  • Once all of my field trips for the day are done, I will put away materials that I took out for the day. I will also make note if we are running low on supplies and replenish them so that they’re prepared for the other museum educators who may need them.

 

1:00 – 2:00 – Lunch

  • When the weather is nice, I will eat lunch in Central Park! The Museum is across the street from the Conservatory Gardens, so I will often sit on a bench in that area. Now, having worked at the Museum for a year, it’s been really fascinating to see and learn how the gardeners change the landscape over the seasons. 

 

2:00 – 5:00 PM – Special Project Work Time 

  • In the afternoons I have dedicated time to work on my special projects. These projects change throughout the year depending on the upcoming programs and gallery rotations. Much of the special project work I do is collaborative, and I really appreciate the opportunities to work and learn from my colleagues!  
  • Field Trip co-development – One of the special projects I have been working on is co-developing a field trip for our upcoming exhibit People, Place and Influence: The Collection at 100. Part of this work includes selecting objects that students will interact with, identifying the types of engagements we will have students participate in, and selecting the main concepts we want students to take away from the field trip. 
  • FAO Foundation work – I will also work on projects for the FAO Foundation. The projects I have worked on this year include creating a graduation book to celebrate the second-year fellows upon the completion of their fellowship, preparing to present for prospective students, planning for the upcoming New York City retreat, and more.

 

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Natalia Wang

Natalia (she/they) is the FAO Schwarz Fellow at the Museum of the City of New York.

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Jesse holds a sign that says "no more dead birds, pass lights out" at the Lights Out Rally in NYC in May 2023.

Collective Creativity: Confronting the Problem of Collisions Head On

New York City is a captivating sight both day and night for its ceaseless bright and bustling energy, but the allure of artificial light at night has unintended consequences for migratory birds. The beaming lights that define the City’s nightscape disrupt wild birds’ crucial, ancient journeys and can create a sudden end in the form of collision with glass.

As part of my Fellowship with NYC Audubon, I also manage the environmental center on Governors Island, including the Artist in Residence Program. One of the great joys of my job is supporting artists in their work to educate the public...

Artificial Light at Night (ALAN) affects the millions of birds that pass through New York City during their migration every single year. Birds rely on natural light cues for their migration, navigation, communication, and reproduction. Light pollution can disrupt these behaviors, drawing them into cities like New York and confusing them, making them more susceptible to deadly collisions with windows.

Though the majority of collisions with buildings take place in the daylight, the birds are drawn to these unsafe environments by night-time lights. When dawn comes and hungry birds look to refuel for their long journey ahead, they encounter a disorienting, urban landscape full of glass. Many collide seeking refuge or escape.

Given New York City’s great size and number of artificially lit buildings, achieving an impactful level of consistent, voluntary participation in “lights out” efforts by New York City buildings has proved challenging. In other words, kindly requesting each one of the City’s million buildings to turn off unnecessary nighttime lighting during peak migration is an impossible task. Therefore, NYC Audubon’s advocacy efforts focus on the creation, passage, and enforcement of legislation that would require a reduction in artificial night-time lighting during spring and fall migration. Such laws would save the lives of countless birds and greatly reduce city-wide energy consumption. Working in partnership with the Lights Out Coalition, NYC Audubon is currently advocating for legislation that will require all City buildings to dim unessential nighttime lighting during migration, extending previous legislation that applied to City owned and operated buildings.   

My special project as an FAO Schwarz Fellow is to take an active role in NYC Audubon’s Lights Out advocacy. This effort has been slowly gaining traction over the past year, but things have taken off in the last few months with the introduction of Int. 1039 in New York City Council. Leading up to the introduction of legislation, I worked with the Lights Out Coalition to organize a rally at City Hall and bring in a crowd of supporters, drafted a fact sheet with press talking points, and created a webpage and email about the new bill. 

But local legislative advocacy is only one avenue for action. I believe that reducing collisions with glass requires a collective commitment to creative solutions for wild birds. As part of my Fellowship with NYC Audubon, I also manage the organization’s seasonal environmental center on Governors Island, including the Artist in Residence Program and gallery space. One of the great joys of my job is supporting artists in their work to educate the public about the trials and triumphs of birds in New York City, as well as inspire action to protect our winged neighbors. 

Recently, I have had the honor of curating Of Ash and Air, a solo show of Leslie Ruckman and Gal Nissim’s work that explores a new mythology, guided by the long history and symbolism of human-bird relationships. Ruckman and Nissim’s artworks serve as powerful visual narratives, inviting viewers to reconsider their relationship with the avian inhabitants of the City. Featured in Of Ash and Air are glass sculptures of songbirds cast from real, NYC collision victims collected by NYC Audubon’s dedicated volunteers. These solemn but compelling pieces prompt viewers to tangibly confront the second-greatest direct cause of bird mortality in the United States: collisions with glass. Reincarnated in the material that killed them, the sculptures honor the birds in their death, aiming to bring awareness to a seemingly invisible problem.

In another part of the installation, animated murals illustrated on the UV spectrum– which birds can see but humans cannot – depict the entanglements of human and bird cultures throughout time. Through these murals, Leslie and Gal also propose an intentional solution to the unintentional problem of glass collisions, blurring the illusory boundary manufactured in urban environments. 

Of Ash and Air stands as a testament to the transformative power of art, encouraging us to reconsider our relationship with other-than-human species and imagine a future where birds and people coexist in harmony. Art reminds us that we have the power to shape our future. However we may reach that future, I hope it is one where urban landscapes are not hostile to migratory birds but rather spaces where the beauty of avian and human creativity intertwine. 

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Jesse McLaughlin

Jesse McLaughlin (he/him) is the Advocacy & Engagement Associate FAO Schwarz Fellow at NYC Audubon in New York City.

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Feature images in blog gallery by Gal Nissim and Leslie Ruckman, courtesy of NYC Audubon.

Significant and Measurable Growth: Reflecting on My Two-Year Fellowship

Approaching the end of my Fellowship, I have had several opportunities to reflect on the soft and hard skills I have gained from this experience and have been most struck with the significant and measurable growth I have seen in many parts of my professional and personal journey. This experience has afforded me incredible opportunity and leadership in programs and advocacy impacting children and families of New York City, while learning from a powerful community of advocates relentlessly invested in improving the lives of children through robust early learning opportunities. 

The Fellowhsip was a fantastic opportunity to remain in my passion area at the intersection of direct service and policy, while growing the skills I needed to be a more capable advocate and professional.

My direct service work through Jumpstart’s Community Impact team wove direct service components with helpful elements of strategic planning, development work, and more. We focused on expanding the role of Jumpstart services to fit specified community needs, to broaden our scope of service and connect with community partners in schools and beyond. Through the team I have gained valuable experience by planning and executing the Family Academy series with schools in several New York neighborhoods, navigating both a virtual and in-person programming format that created opportunities that engaged many families and caregivers as they built early literacy skills alongside their children. These events were some of the most impactful of my Fellowship, helping to build deep bonds with families, children, and school-based professionals who helped to support and implement our programing.

Additionally, participating in strategic planning through NY community coalitions like City’s First Readers and the Reads Initiative sharpened my skills in advocacy and coalition-building for more effective direct-service programming, gave me additional experience in supporting the grant and funding cycle for programming, and created lasting relationships with a powerful community of advocates.

Through my special project work in the Policy and Government Relations team, I have gained experience in both lobbying and advocacy for issues impacting the early childhood education field and was given incredible opportunity for leadership in supporting our New York Policy agenda build-out. The most impactful parts of this work over the last year have included the roll out of a bill supporting the Federal Work Study community service set-aside, including the exciting introduction of our bill in the 2023 House of Representatives legislative session. Supporting our team from the preliminary stages of drafting our legislation, to lobbying for the role of paid community service with legislators and using coalition- building skills to support and convene a broad coalition of organizational support around our initiative, made for an exciting experience that has reaffirmed my passion for policy advocacy and collective action. 

Beyond direct experiences in work, relations with both colleagues and mentors played a powerful role in my development as a Fellow. My supervisors and teams became excellent sources of support and leadership and took an important role in allowing me to discover my unique interests in our work, take leadership in key projects, while problem solving around challenges. Having these integral relationships early in my career with senior level professionals offered great opporunities for leadership and to learn from the stories, experiences, and support of those around me. These lasting connections will continue to empower my work beyond my current organization as I continue in educational advocacy. 

Beyond this, working in the education policy arena was a power experience to witness collective power in action. Working with coaltions of advocates, organizations, and program managers across New York City was not only a heartening experience to see the power of our collective voice and programming to improve access to education and resources for families, but to see the ability of groups to leverage the voices of educators, families, and organizations for real and measurable change. These lessons in the role of mentorship, the power of collective action and the skills I have taken from key projects will stay with me through the course of my career.

With incredible support and advice from the Jumpstart community and from the Fellowship, post-Fellowship I will be entering graduate school, pursuing a Masters in Educational Policy Studies from Boston University as a Martin Luther King Jr. Fellow. While completing my degree, I will continue to work in the educational advocacy sector as an Organizer while continuing to build skills in data analysis, policy management, and advocacy through my studies. I am honored to have gained such valuable experience, realtionships, and insight during these first two years in my career. The Fellowhsip was a fantastic opportunity to remain in my passion area at the intersection of direct service and policy, while growing the skills I needed to be a more capable advocate and professional.

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Jasmin Norford

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

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