Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Opportunity Nation Summit 2012

OpportunityNation Logo Transparent(Image from Opportunity Nation website www.opportunitynation.org)
This year at the Opportunity Nation Summit we discussed 'Our Shared Plan' and learned how we can engage our local political leaders.  I felt like this tied in nicely to one of the American Sociological Association(ASA) workshops that I went to in August on 'Working with the Media & Policy Makers.' This has definitely been something that I have wanted to learn about because I have a great love for politics but it is also extremely intimidating for me because I lack experience.

 The tips and information that we learned in the 'Engaging State Representatives' workshop was very basic but helpful for a novice.  In it, we were told that ideally we should try to engage our state representatives and senators at home.  In their home states, they have less time commitments and are easier to reach.  Also, at home, a community member, like myself, could offer an invitation for a site visit and take my representative to see the organization or program that I am promoting.  Site visits to effective programs that are making a difference or to others that are dysfunctional can influence a representative's opinion about my project of interest and find ways to make sure that legislation and state funding promote projects like mine.  This can also be helpful if you find that your representative is considering cutting funding in a social welfare sector that is working. Visiting the site and seeing the benefits would make you political leader think twice before pulling funding.

If you choose to meet your state representatives in D.C., work with the staffers and be very flexible.  As I mentioned before, state representatives are usually on a tight schedule in D.C. and cannot adapt to your schedule. Other methods that are less effective are letter writing and phone calls. These two methods are difficult because you must substantiate that you are indeed one of his/her constituents and that he does in fact work for you!  So many letters, e-mails and calls are made and yet they rarely actually make it to the political leader's desk.  The take away message: Use the human touch! Set up a meeting, a site visit and come with a plan.  Be conscientious of the representative's time and pitch your case with evidence.  At the ASA conference, they stated that you should make sure that your research is in laymen's terms with findings that are easy to understand and to the point.  And lastly, however you pitch it, share your plan and ask what he/she will do to address the issue that you raised.

Researchers can also share their findings on local research addressing pertinent social issues with the local media.  Op. ed.'s and brief articles can inform the general public of what is happening in the community.  Again, it is important to make recommendations of what can be done to address the issue or to enhance existing programs, laws, etc.  Know your craft. Be confident, but do not be cocky or condescending.

Although I am away from my state the majority of the time, I want to find more ways to do pertinent research in the communities that I live in, continue to vote for representatives that are conscious or my state's weaknesses and contribute to the the ongoing dialogue of social development in my community.  Professionally, I think I can best contribute to these efforts by performing pertinent research that has meaningful applications in my community.  What's your plan?

My plan is a work in progress but here is what I am doing right now:

  • I'm a new member of the county rape crisis team and working with the team coordinator to revamp some of the training material statistics, sources and citations.
  • I have completed the training necessary to volunteer at the local battered women's shelter and attend the weekly support group meetings. I'm also scheduled to volunteer at some of their upcoming events.
  • I'm working on getting my thesis and paperwork done so that I can jump into interviews and gather baseline data as soon as I get back to Jordan.

((Note: I know that my efforts don't even compare to some of the other Opportunity Nation scholars but I'm doing the very best that I can and pledge to do more when I have more time!))

(Image from HBR's "Mind the (Skills) Gap" http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/09/mind_the_skills_gap.html )
The summit was a wonderful way to network, meet new ambitious students and professionals and reconnect with those that I met last year.  You know you're on a dynamite team when each person is dedicating his/her time to making a difference.  Some of the other sessions that I went to were about volunteerism and how it helps youth and young adults gain valuable skills in preparation for entrance into the job force.  Some of the main issues that we talked about with these unpaid internships is the fact that they are not a reality for the low and some middle-income youth.  Although students would like to gain the experience, contacts and skills from these unpaid internships and volunteer opportunities, they cannot afford to boot the bill and opt out. Instead they work dead-end summer jobs (and part-time jobs during the school year) to make ends meet.  Another interesting point that one of my peers made was that in weaker economies, unpaid internships and volunteers sometimes soak up positions that used to be paid.  I think that's more true in places like Jordan and Spain, but when funding gets tight and eager students and recent graduates still want the experience, contacts and skills without demanding pay, why should they pay?

I had an awakening during one of the sessions when they were discussing two major problems that youth and young adults face in our slumped economy that I personified!  They talked about how recent college graduates are still having a very difficult time finding employment with their skill sets and when they do, they are oftentimes under-employed.  I've heard this a million times, but this was the first time that I really internalized that that was my story too.  I graduated with a BA and a great GPA and was intent on taking a few years off of school, saving up some money, gaining some experience and later down the road returning for a MA or PhD.  I had completed two internships -- both of which were abroad with the Jordanian government, an entity of which I cannot become a paid employee.

I rented an apartment and searched for a job, any job for about two months before I found anything that paid over minimum wage.  I was insulted that my four years of university studies, high grades, civic engagement and internships didn't put me ahead of the curve at all. In fact, I ended up getting a low paying job taking pictures of kids in a mall.  I love photography, but the pay was terrible and I could not survive off of the inconsistent hours that they gave me. On a positive note, I got some good Gandhi reading in on my bus rides to work.  The bleak job opportunities finally got the best of me and I decided that I was not going to survive unless I jumped straight into graduate school.  Although my parents were very supportive and gracious, I didn't want to move home. That seemed like defeat to me. I transformed my job-searching time into MSW and MS application program preparation time.  I met with professors, researched all of my school options and was determined to get a degree that would enable me to develop a marketable skill that was valued in the job market.

While I was anxiously waiting to hear back from graduate programs, I tried looking for a job again and found one! It too was low-paying but it was working with adults with disabilities.  I enjoyed it in spite of the pay.  I learned a lot of patience and became good friends with some of the clients.  When graduate schools began responding, I was faced with opportunity nation topic #2 issue of which I am a poster child-- barriers to higher education.  ((I recognize that ON focuses on access to undergraduate education, but my story still has some merit.)) I was THRILLED to find that I was accepted into the University of Chicago, Columbia University and the University of Denver MSW programs.  I was so excited and had my heart set on going to Columbia. While visiting the Morningside campus, I fell in love with the Harlem area instantly. After our tour, Q & A session and some frank discussions with financial aid advisers, I was crushed to learn that I would have to incur ridiculous amounts of debt that I may never be able to pay off without a loan forgiveness plan. The adviser told me that I shouldn't even plan on a loan forgiveness plan.  My status as a middle class American knocked all three of my schools out of reach. The idea that you can study anywhere if you're smart and work hard enough really isn't true. Those with less money have less opportunities when it comes to prestigious schools.

I was fortunate enough to have a safety net.  I had an incredible mentor and professor that convinced me to apply to my alma mater for an MS in Sociology. I did it as a last resort but had no intention on staying in Utah. However, when all of my other doors slammed shut, an affordable option through which I could study exactly what I wanted and go exactly where I wanted to go seemed really appealing.  I confirmed my acceptance and now am in my second year of my MS program and couldn't be happier.  With the incredible support of the faculty in the MESA and Sociology departments, I was privileged enough to make my institution proud by getting a Boren fellowship and a Fulbright scholarship. All of this was possible, #1 because I had a very supportive mentor and #2 because I was willing to listen. I think being innovative and persistent helped too.

 I am confident that after I graduate this time, I will be more marketable and will be able to get a job doing what I love working with vulnerable women in the US or abroad.  I know that I am very blessed and can see how easily I could have slipped between the cracks. I could still be stuck working at a dead end job, just barely getting by and wishing that someone had taken the time to warn me what I was up against. A gigantic thanks to those who took the time to invest their time in me!  I won't forget it and will return the favor.