Five months after I finished my Gardner fellowship, and four months after I left for a job in the Dominican Republic, I sat down to have lunch with my Gardner mentor back in New York. After a quick check in he plunged right into questioning me about my current job, what I was learning, and my next steps, peppering in some suggestions for contacts he had so I could explore options. He allowed me to vent a little about some of the limitations of my current position, but then challenged me to articulate how I would move forward.
This experience was the epitome of my understanding of the Gardner fellowship. Being a Gardner fellow is thrilling and terrifying because it is an acknowledgement of my potential to be successful but still means I have to do the work to get there. I had the ability to design my first full time job. I have to confront what I wanted and what I dreamed of for my career, and draw a proactive map for myself to get there. There was no excuse for settling for less. It can feel isolating at times, because it is such a unique opportunity that we feel pressure to make sure it is perfect. However, I am just beginning to learn that it is not just the year itself that is important, but the contacts and skills that I continue to build upon as I move forward in my career. A favorite John Gardner quote of mine is, “Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.” This has an important meaning to me both in the context of my growth and that of my work. I have to appreciate the every experience I have, and every mistake I make, is an opportunity to learn. Being a fellow, while an honor, is only the beginning of my career. It is also very important for the work that I do, especially working with young people who have been through trauma. Approaching past trauma as something to be forgotten and erased is ineffective and at times can be re-traumatizing. I have to slowly learn the ways of acknowledging children’s traumatic pasts to support them in narrating their own stories to become a source of resilience and strength.
For my fellowship I worked at Children’s Village, a child welfare organization that has never had a fellow before. At first I hovered in the awkward role between intern and employee, unsure of how to present myself. I was able to go to high level meetings with board members, but I also never received an ID to get into the building. As time passed, I realized that I was missing opportunities to do work i was interested in because my supervisors weren’t sure what was appropriate for a “fellow.” I learned to start advocating for myself to work on the projects I cared about, even when I wasn’t comfortable with confrontation. People began to take me seriously as a professional and I was able to do more direct work that I was interested in, such as helping to run a group for young women at risk of sexual exploitation. I also realized that when I was clear about what I was trying to accomplish, people were much more willing to help me accomplish it. Everyone had made their own mistakes and were eager to help me as a young professional draw a different path informed by what they could not erase from their own.
In the Dominican Republic, I work for a very small organization where I am one of two paid administrative staff. While the social services here are very limited, and the absolute level of poverty is much higher, we work with youth that face similar challenges of poverty and violence to those in New York, and need the same sort of support. I am surprised by how often I find myself pulling from my experiences last year and in previous jobs, even though the context is much different. I love working with adolescents because they are just beginning to figure out who they are and how to make their own choices, and there is no simple way for me to support them through this. For example, there was a teenage boy in our programs here that ran away from his “foster” family to his biological mother. I say “foster” family because the formal systems of child welfare are limited here, but many people are caregivers to children of relatives or neighbors. In the process he also stopped going to school. While his foster mother was incredibly upset and could not understand why he would want to go back to his mother, who had abused and abandoned him, it made perfect sense to me. In child welfare, professionals see all the time that children will not give up on their biological parents, despite the situations they have been through. While sometimes it might seem easier to “erase” the biological family, it is impossible to do, and can end up being much more damaging to the child to ignore their existence. I tried to talk to the foster mother about this, and talk to the youth about his past and his options. It took a while, and many discussions that seemed to go nowhere, but eventually he went back to his foster family. I was relieved, but at the same time looked back on moments from our exchanges where I could have done better in recognizing his desire to connect with his biological family.
In many ways, working with children with traumatic histories makes me realize the weight of my own choices. When I see young people fighting for every limited opportunity, I am able to appreciate how much choice I have, and how many resources I have to make the right ones. It also motivates me to help the people I work with find ways to grow and change, not only as people but as leaders for their communities. I know I still have a lot of work to do before I can do this really well, and I will make plenty of mistakes in the process. But I am still excited to continue drawing my journey.
—Kati Hinman, 2014