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.
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.
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