This column is simultaneously being published by Sojourners.
I was once asked to participate in our organization’s Take Your Daughter to Work celebration, and found myself both amused and challenged when one of our young participants queried the panel: Does your work interfere with your life?
My initial reply was that my work is a very important part of my life — something that is central to it and that adds meaning, structure, texture. Since the time of that panel discussion, I’ve thought a lot about what else I should have said. So I want to use this opportunity to share some additional thoughts — about how to have a youth work career that enhances your own life as well as the lives of others. Here are what I regard as a few guiding principles:
Have a broad game plan, but don’t be rigid in your thinking. One of the most positive features of a career in this field is the breadth and flexibility of our skill set. We often hear about the idea of a career ladder in professional life, but my own experience suggests that we should be thinking instead of a career lattice— a series of connected segues across a broad range of possibilities rather than a stepwise progression on a fairly narrow trajectory.
Remember, life is long. If someone had asked me in 1969 — the year I received my master’s in social work — what I would be doing in 45 years, I would have been completely bewildered. The concept of a four- or five-decade career would have been beyond my comprehension. But, looking back, I now see that each one of my early experiences helped me prepare for a subsequent step.
Find a focal point for your career that stirs your soul. Joseph Campbell advised, “Follow your bliss.” Good counsel in general, but better yet is to identify the nexus where your greatest passion meets the greatest needs of your neighborhood, your region, your country, the world. That shouldn’t be too hard, given the multiplicity of problems that surround us. I found that nexus in work with young people, especially low-income children.
Discover your competitive advantage. Take time to think about what you are especially good at, what will set your resume apart from others, what expertise employers are currently seeking and willing to pay for. For me, two areas of competitive advantage have been fundraising and writing — both of them disciplines that all too many youth workers tend to neglect or actively shun.
Be a lifelong learner. Read at least one professional book for every two novels. When I say professional book, I am thinking broadly — any nonfiction that might inform your practice. It might be Paul Krugman on the state of the American economy, or Jim Wallis on rediscovering values, or Anthony Bryk’s book on organizing schools for improvement. And being a lifelong learner might also mean going back to school from time to time.
Stay connected to your professional roots and learn from history. My particular hero is Jane Addams, the mother of social work in the United States. I have read all her biographies and have actually set up a mini-shrine to her in my office. When I face an especially vexing problem, I look hard at one of those cherished photos and ask “What would Jane do?”
Seek out professional mentors. I have been fortunate to have several such guides. My friend Elma Cole, the person who gave me those precious Jane Addams photographs, was a valued mentor for many years. I would regularly seek her counsel about career choices or daunting work problems. She would inevitably end our sessions with the same somewhat vexing question: “So what are you going to do about it?” And, of course, I now find myself saying that to colleagues who seek my advice.
Be a mentor yourself. Having a successful youth work career means looking forward as well as back — nurturing the next generation of leaders and practitioners. I always agree to talk with younger colleagues who want career guidance, or with recent college graduates who are trying to find their place in the world. It’s a way of repaying the Elmas in my life, and of replenishing my own ideas.
Keep a broad field of vision as you explore how to apply your skills. I have traveled around the desk, so to speak, moving from direct service, to program development and fundraising, to research and advocacy, to philanthropy — and now to a position at The Children’s Aid Society that allows me to synthesize all these experiences. I can highly recommend such diversity.
Most important: Never lose sight of the big picture.For me, that means remembering that social justice is central to what I do every day. This is the idea that gets me out of bed in the morning, even on these cold winter days in New York City.
Jane Quinn is the vice president for community schools at The Children’s Aid Society in New York City, where she directs the National Center for Community Schools.