What was your journey to becoming the Vice President of Planning, Development and Evaluation for Sasha Bruce?
Before Sasha Bruce I had worked at a great non-profit in San Francisco called Haight Ashbury Free Clinics. In 2004 my partner and I were visiting her sister nearby, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and next to her sister’s house was a big old farmhouse that was broken down and foreclosed on, and there was a note on the door that essentially said “This will go to the highest bidder” and you just posted a number online to respond. So we posted a number just for fun, that we thought in no way would be successful, but next thing we know we own this farmhouse on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
My partner worked, and still does work, at an advocacy non-profit that was interested in opening a DC office. And our families are from the East Coast. So we said, change is good, why don’t I start looking for a job and then we’ll have this great place to go on weekends. So I went looking for a job at a non-profit whose mission was compelling, and youth services, homeless youth services specifically, was my primary area of interest with Haight Ashbury and in general, so I wound up interviewing with our executive director and founder Deborah Shore. And, I’ll never forget it, I came to this interview all nervous, having flown from San Francisco for the job of development director, and I get here, and Debbie comes to interview me, and she’s barefoot, and I thought- this might work out! Long story short I got and took the job, and moved here July 4th, 2004, and have been here ever since. Over the years I’ve taken on more responsibilities, and so now I oversee evaluation, so we can measure our outcomes better and demonstrate our work, which is a strategic priority, and I also oversee our strategic planning.
Working with homeless youth sounds like it can be exhilarating and exhausting. What do you do in your spare time to balance your life?
On weekends I like to garden and I work on my house, and I exercise and play basketball. I’m with my partner. So really when I’m not working I’m either reading or exercising, or just being with my partner. There’s a particular kind of stress that comes with dealing with young people that are in trauma, that have a lot of challenges in their life. So, even though I’m in an office and I’m a paper pusher, there’s still a lot of pressure that comes working for a mission driven organization, and so you do have to pay attention to separating yourself from work life. There are people who don’t and God bless them, I think they do a great job, but I sometimes think you become ineffective if you aren’t able to separate yourself from your work. So I do think you have to.
You’ve been developing a new aftercare program for youth involved in your shelter. Can you talk about the evolution of this and how you and your team have gone from inspiration to implementation?
When Debbie started the organization the real need was to have harm reduction services, where you would build trusting relationships with young people who have been burned in life. So we really started initially as a drop in center, then we developed into a shelter. To this day we have the only youth specific homeless shelter in DC. Then we’re thinking, that’s great, but what you realize after all these years is, however important it is to help young people overcome the trauma, to provide a safe home, to make them healthy again, to reunite them in school and reunite them with family, if you reunite them with family that still has a lot of the problems that cause the young person to be homeless in the first place, you’re still doing good work, but you’re not preventing future episodes of homelessness. And so for years now we’ve known that an important initiative is to try to have an aftercare component. There’s no government entity, there’s a dearth of grantmaking institutions that would want to support our aftercare program, but we know it’s important to continue to stay in touch with the young people and continue to do family work with them in their natural settings so we can reduce future episodes of homelessness.
So we were really strong advocates the past couple of years at the DC council level to create a specific act called the Homeless Youth Act. And they created it, and it had budget teeth. The city put out an RFP for non-profits to bid on to create a drop in center, for which there were none, and a continuous shelter. The Act also mandates that an annual count of homeless youth be conducted, so that we can continue to demonstrate the need. Homeless youth are probably the most hidden kind of homeless population, and they don’t fit the federal guidelines for priority. For HUD and other federal agencies that try and help non-profits deal with homelessness, the goal understandably is that the outcome should be a transition to permanency, the housing first model. You want to get people into permanent housing so that all the conditions can be addressed. But that’s not relevant for homeless youth, because they’re not ready for permanent housing. They should be looking to get into school and reuniting with their family. So homeless youth kind of get left on the side as government entities focus on permanent housing outcomes.
So we were really excited to have this new DC council level legislation, which is hopefully going to be matched at the federal government level. The recognition is that the youth have specific needs, and one of them is drop in centers, because they’re recalcitrant to come into institutions and mainstream organizations. There’s shame, there are all kinds of things that are particular to youth around homelessness. So we bid on the drop in center- it was almost like we were going back to our roots, in that initial kind of place prior to shelter- as a safe place for people to be, where we can determine their needs in a competent way, offer them shelter if they’re ready, and if not continue to build a relationship so that they make good choices. It’s almost like aftercare in reverse. So that happened, and we got the grant, and another organization has the grant, and now the city has a more robust homeless youth services system, and a better recognition of the particular types of services that young people need. It’s been a neat evolution. So drop in and aftercare remain priorities for us, so we can offer a continuum of services.
Can you talk about some other programs you and Sasha Bruce have for youth?
A great example is an event we did with Shinola Detroit at the end of June. Shinola Detroit is a big high-end watch and leather goods manufacturing company, and they just opened up a flagship store in DC. Through Tracy Bernstein- our Board Chair- who knew some of the principals there, we made the connection and invited them to come learn about Sasha Bruce. Their President is named Jacques Panis- he’s a really great guy, who didn’t graduate college, and who gets our mission and work- and they became supporters of ours. With them we organized a panel in their new store of well-known people who would describe to our young people- we brought a group of 20 or so young people who are interested in careers and who haven’t completed high school- how they made their way in life, what attributes you need, and what focus you need to become successful.
We had a former Washington Redskin talking about the way he made his career, a radio personality who is very popular among youth called “Sunny in the City”, Jacques Panis, a young person who had gone from homelessness to career, and the head of the DC Mayor’s Office of Economic Development- basically the person in charge of jobs for DC- as the moderator. Even though they were panelists, it was really more of a discussion and there was great back and forth. So it was a neat thing to have this kind of discussion, where young people heard from people who made it by really pulling up their own bootstraps, and what it was that they did to make their careers. I think the panelists learned a lot from our young people too. It was a neat thing and we want to do more of that.
There are young people we serve who come from the poorest parts of DC, and it’s common for them never to have even been to the Capitol, or to know about the professional opportunities one might have. Their community, for many of the young people, is limited to the neighborhood they grew up in. Poverty, joblessness, substance abuse, and school failure is the condition. So it becomes the norm. If you can get them out of the norm and to see other possibilities, my experience is that the young people embrace it and want those other possibilities. They just need to be shown the opportunities and then they will be their own agents to go for it.
How can people who are passionate about Sasha Bruce’s work and mission get involved and support the organization?
We’re looking for opportunities where we can make connections with people who want to give training and job opportunities for youth. That’s the biggest thing. When we talk to our young people, we ask them, what do you need the most, after a roof over your head? The answer: Jobs. So we’re looking for opportunities to make connections in industries like IT and restaurant service, etc.
I think a reasonable thing for us would be 20 opportunities, for our youth to have really more of an intensive experience in this. We also want people to be advocates for our mission. So we want people to be active in the policy area- supporting legislation and policy which helps young people be safe and have opportunities.
Of course, we’re also looking for volunteers. We’re right in the middle of developing our capacity of our volunteer program. We want volunteers to have a meaningful experience, and for the young people to have consistent volunteers. The thing we don’t want is for young people to get a mentor for instance, and for it to be a short term proposition and the person goes away. Because that’s repeating the experience they had in their families. So we want to find and train really good volunteers, to be mentors for a significant amount of time.
And finally, you can get involved with financial support. There are so many ways to do that, but I think one of the ways we want to grow most is for people to come, learn about our organization, meet our kids, so that they can really see if this is the right type of investment they want to make, and of course take next steps if they want to.
What is your favorite Smithsonian museum?
The Natural History Museum. I especially like their dioramas!
What was the last book you read? Favorite movie?
I read books all the time. The best recent book I read is Big Rock Candy Mountain by William Styron. Styron was famous in the middle part of the century, and it’s a semi-autobiographical story about a family that travels all across the US, and all the things that happened to them, and it depicted a swath of time in US history that I found fascinating- the Western migration.
One last question, when you were little, what did you dream of doing when you grew up? Did you ever imagine yourself working in the non-profit space, and helping others in especially difficult circumstances?
I wanted to be a cowboy. And I almost became one. I was in Wyoming during my college summers working at a ranch camp, and after my final year I got a job on a ranch right at the end of the season. So I actually had my own horse and a truck, and I was mostly irrigating- I wasn’t punching cattle- but I was pretty close to being a cowboy. I got to pretend I was one. But after failing as a cowboy I was thinking maybe I want to be a farrier- a person who does horseshoeing for horses- but I didn’t go to school for it. There was a cool school in Bishop, California that I almost went to to become a farrier, but then after that I went to San Francisco, and that’s when I realized I wanted to start working with homeless youth and people that had limited access to healthcare.