Building Trust Through the Creation of Conflict

Building Trust Through the Creation of ConflictRecently, I had the opportunity to participate in an exciting exercise designed to build trust. Using items I found around the office, I created an obstacle course that teams had to guide a blindfolded team member through. Many people have probably participated in this activity, or one very similar to it, on a retreat or at a leadership training event. The activity stresses the importance of communication and trust because people must give clear, verbal instructions to their teammates, who must in turn listen to and trust the instructions, in order to get through the course successfully.

My role did not end at creating the course because I was also the official scorekeeper, and my prime directive, given to me by my boss, was to create conflict. I changed up the course between groups, assigned random, unexplained time penalties for rule infractions (I did not always explain the rules), and talked over groups as they tried to lead people through the course. The team with the fastest time won solely because I improved its time by 23 seconds after team members communicated with each other in Spanish. I had no plans to reward teams for communicating in a different language, but I figured why not!

While teams did not argue with me during the course of the round, once we all came together and revealed each team’s time, people began to complain about my poor time keeping skills (mission accomplished!). Even though people complained about the fairness of the activity for a little while, the bulk of the debrief was spent listening to teams complement each other about the clear directions and about how willing people were to trust each other.

In the end, I learned a lot about trust and communication through observing our leadership team complete the exercise. Participants worked quickly to determine, or naturally fell into, certain roles on their respective teams, which allowed them to avoid the problem of having too many people clamoring over each other. The blindfolded people completely trusted the people guiding them, which helped every team to complete the exercise with few missteps. Teams also spent more time building each other up and focusing on each other’s strengths than they did on the fairness of their scores.

Waiting for the Weekdays: 2016 in Review

Growing up, I often heard the expression working for the weekends. As a student, I more than understood what this phrase meant. The week was tough while the weekend was fun. However, my experience with Communities In Schools (CIS) has caused me to rethink this commonly heard saying. Why wait for the weekends, when weekdays are exciting?

My fellowship began on August 1, 2016, and from the moment that I walked through the door, CIS greeted me with incredible support and compassion. Employees whom I had not yet even met had sent me emails to welcome me to the organization, staff members in the central office greeted me by name, and my two bosses wasted no time marking sure that I had everything that I needed to be successful.

When I started with CIS I knew that I would have the opportunity to wear many hats. As the assistant to the Finance and HR departments my responsibilities ranged from onboarding new employees to helping people request funds for their programs. Coworkers wasted no time figuring out where my passions lay, and they worked tirelessly to provide me with opportunities to learn and grow. In the last few months, my coworkers have given me the chance to lead training sessions, create presentations, help with the volunteer program, learn about advancement initiatives, and participate in trainings. Also, as the resident tester of new technology, I have had the opportunity to do professional development trainings on leadership and finance. These courses prepared me for the work that I do every day.

I would be remiss to not mention all of the people who have served as mentors since I arrived at CIS. Bosses and coworkers have taken the time to explain tasks, learn about me, and discuss their roles at CIS. These discussions have helped me to gain a better understanding of how CIS operates, and the role of everyone within the organization, which is important as a member of the HR team. One of my main goals when I joined CIS back in August was to learn about how a nonprofit operates. In other words, what does it take for a nonprofit to operate effectively? My coworkers took the time to learn about my interests and have gone out of their way to help me learn and grow.

While this blog post focuses on my experiences, I would be doing a poor job expressing the incredible culture of CIS if I made it sound like the support I receive from the organization is unique. Every member of this organization devotes themselves completely to serving each other and the people in the community. In recent years, our Executive Director, Molly Shaw, has led the push to strengthen CIS’s culture and the bond between employees. We have had a chance to participate in a gratitude exercise, a holiday song competition, leadership style survey, and Halloween themed event (see earlier blog post). All of these events have given staff the opportunity to learn about each other, which has helped the organization to feel more like a family.

Creating an Intentional Culture – Superman Style

Halloween started early at the Communities In Schools (CIS) central office because of a plan to bring staff together for a chance to bond. Once October rolled around, staff began to decorate the office using odds and ends and creativity that would have left Willy Wonka amazed. People decorated their office doors, cubicles, and copy rooms. The effect of the decorations was a synthesis of Halloween and Thanksgiving themed items that made Fall come alive. It took a while to decorate the whole office because people had to use whatever spare moments they could find, but the result was mesmerizing. Fall had come to CIS.

As Halloween drew closer, the administration team gathered to think of activities for staff and their children to do. Our Executive Director has emphasized the importance of a strong culture within the organization and so this Halloween event was planned with the goal of giving staff the chance to learn more about each other and their families (staff were allowed to bring their children and spouses to celebrate the special day)!

After a power-house brainstorming session, the administration decided to have a word search, scavenger hunt, cookie decorating station, happy monster hand creation (clear gloves filled with popcorn and candy corn), and magician. Once people had volunteered for various duties, we addressed perhaps the greatest challenge of the day. Would we be allowed to come in costume?

An intense debate raged for almost a minute before we decided that we could wear costumes to help celebrate the special day. My mind raced as I wracked my brain for what superhero I should come dressed as. After another minute of deliberation, I decided on superman.

Time passed during which we organized the events and prepared for the special day.

Halloween: October 31, 2016

            With my cape billowing behind me I strode confidently into work as only the man of steel could do. It was not long before I was set up by a tiny Iron Man, Hulk, Ninja Turtle, Batman, Cleopatra, Police Officer, Scooby-Doo, and Nemo. Many of the staff brought their kids into work to participate in the festivities. The day passed in a whirlwind of activity. Sweeping from one station to the next, I had the chance to visit with staff who are usually working in CMS schools, their spouses, and their children. I learned so much about the people that I work with on Halloween.

I dramatize the events of our Halloween extravaganza in order to hopefully give some insight into the amazing energy and passion with which everyone approached this project. The event gave me a chance to see colleagues outside of our normal work context, which was very special. This holiday gave us all the chance to make memories, which served as the basis for new friendships, and to invest in each other.

The culture at Communities In Schools is one of the strongest and most vibrant that I have ever seen. Everyone is so supportive, caring, and invested in each other. I believe that this event signals the incredible work that has been done to strengthen the culture at CIS. It becomes easy to devote yourself to an organization that devotes itself to you.

10 months in…

It has been almost ten months since I started my Davidson Impact Fellowship at Communities In Schools (CIS). This is the first time I have sat down at my keyboard to try and post about my experience.

Let me start with a brief overview of CIS as an organization before I dive in after almost a year of radio silence on this forum. CIS is a dropout prevention organization that surrounds students with a community of support in order to help students succeed in school and achieve in life. We do this by addressing the unmet basic needs of the students (clothing, food, shelter, etc.), connecting them to resources in the community that we have partnered with, monitoring and implementing programs that target academics, behavior, coursework, and parent engagement, and exposing students to future possibilities through career exploration and college education. In Charlotte, we are currently in about 43 CMS Schools and serve thousands of students each year. We have at least one, sometimes three, permanently located site staff (Site Coordinators) at each school we are in and we have a Central Office  that consists of close to 30 employees who lead and support our Site Coordinators. This is where I spend most of my time as a Program Assistant. I will try and convey what that looks like for me in a later post.

Before that, though, I want to return to the fact that I am ten months into my first job ever with an incredible organization whose mission aligns with my values and whose students I have come to deeply care about. Yet, I am just now attempting to write. I think this is for a few reasons:

1. The needs that we are addressing through our work at Communities In Schools Charlotte-Mecklenburg are so vast and deep, so real and raw, and so complex, that I have a very difficult time digesting and processing it all with the support of my coworkers, my friends, my family, my mentors on a daily basis. The students we serve face homelessness, abuse, poverty, mental health issues, violence, and a system that expects them to fail. As an educational non-profit in Charlotte, we feel that weight and the responsibility that comes with trying to serve these students. I feel it with every student I interact with. Sitting down to try and squeeze all of the challenges our students face into one succinct, well thought out blog post seemed nearly impossible.

2. I am learning every single day. Whether it’s how to make a bus reservation for a college tour or how to teach a 3rd grader to comprehend what they are reading when they are two grades below their level or how to best serve the large unaccompanied youth population in Charlotte and in our schools, I am constantly learning and reaching to know more so that I can help our Site Coordinators, the ones on the ground everyday, better serve our students. So here is a disclaimer for future posts: I am not an expert on the education system in Charlotte or on generational poverty. Because I am not an expert, I didn’t feel as if I had a platform to stand on to talk about these social justice issues.

3. Who is reading this? Shout out to my fellow fellows! If prospective fellows read this blog, I would be worried I seemed too negative about my work. If President Quillen reads this post, I would be concerned about my grammar and not my content. So I have decided to treat this blog as a personal journal where I can share my experiences and joys and challenges (that someone at some point might read).

4. Work work work work work work. The nature of non-profit work is that we are constantly triaging emergencies. A parent doesn’t show up to pick a student up from a program so we scramble to provide outside transportation. A student has just been picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and we have no idea where they have taken him. A student’s family has been evicted from their apartment and we must try and find them temporary shelter. I have three different supervisors which means I am trying to help support over 30 site staff. I am pulled in a lot of directions on a daily basis, so this blog has been on the back burner for a lot of my time.

Now that I have overcome this seemingly insurmountable hurdle of posting, I hope I can get to the meat of the work that I do, to the students, to the challenges they face and how we attempt to serve them, and to what my experience with CIS has been thus far. Stay tuned… but don’t hold your breath.

Back to School

      As a student enrollment coordinator, there are very few things I can’t do from the comfort of my computer. My boss and I always joke that if they put a coffee pot and a bathroom in our back corner of the office, we would never leave. We joke, but I hope it never actually happens because I would truly fear for my ability to maintain any type of social skills.

      With that in mind, after a while I started to become curious about what our site coordinators did on a daily basis at their schools. Following the suggestion of our Executive Director, I began reaching out to different coordinators to ask if I could stop by and talk to them about data, programming, and everything in between. Honestly, I just wanted to hear about their days.

      Whether I had visited an elementary, middle, or high school, I received a welcoming and unique experience at each site. I was lead on personal school tours, I participated in a 6th grade career preparation session (voluntarily, I could always use a little more direction), I helped hand out cupcakes for Honor Roll students, and even got to watch first hand one coordinator recruit a student to join CIS. I had one site coordinator sit down with me for hours and patiently go through every detail of her strategic plan for the school year just because she wanted to make sure that I left knowing it all. Oh, and on one of my visits I asked our site staff what all the name tags on her wall were for and she nonchalantly responded that they were for the hundreds of volunteers that she organized on a daily basis. HUNDREDS?!? Casual…

      I would always leave these visits so exhilarated. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job as enrollment coordinator, but a change of pace is always refreshing. Plus, I’m only here for a year; I want to learn everything about CIS while I still can, so these visits gave me a more comprehensive view about who our organization is.

      But with all that being said, I would be remiss to say that these visits only left me more educated. We as fellows were placed in these positions in order to contribute to our organization’s efforts in a powerful and meaningful way, and the CIS site staff should be a model for us all. Our coordinators, one of whom has been at CIS longer than I have been alive (!), are out there every day juggling the multiple roles they are asked to play within their school, and on top of that, finding the time to provide the support and resources our students need not only to succeed in school but also in life. And I think they’re incredible.

It Truly is the Season of Giving:


This year I am in charge of a Park Road Book tree for our students here at Communities In Schools. Each year this small, locally run, book store in Charlotte puts up a tree the day after Thanksgiving  for their patrons to sponsor our students. Students create ornaments, request books, and turn them in for the tree. This year Park Road Books took 350 ornaments, and every single student was chosen off the tree. I was blown away! How does a small bookstore motivate their patrons to buy SO MANY books for our students in those four weeks?It Truly is the Season of Giving:

Our main contact at the store greets me with a smile each time I show up at the store to pick up the next full box of boxes. She constantly tells me stories about patrons who were moved by our students’ stories, journeys and requests. Many of our teen mothers picked books not for themselves, but for their young children. One of our students spent his request on his little brother. Many of our high school students have chosen SAT or AP test prep books to better prepare themselves for college.

Simply by purchasing an extra book at the store the patrons of Park Road Books are changing a holiday season for our students. Some of these students have never owned a book of their own before. I am constantly moved by the generosity and support of the community. Strangers really can make a difference in the life of others if they are given the right opportunity.

A Day at the Jail to Learn More About What we do.

My time here at Communities In Schools has been full of new opportunities. I have learned so much sense my start in mid-July. Communities In Schools is the nation’s leading drop-out prevention program, and here in Charlotte-Mecklenburg we have had great success. The mission of Communities In Schools is to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life. We have site coordinators in 43 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools and they work with students who have been identified as at the highest risk of dropping out. Our site coordinators monitor their attendance, behavior, grades etc. They set them up with mentors, tutors, and role models. They provide them access to resources for health, wellness and cultural enrichment. And that is just the basics.

We also have a program that works with first generation college students, one that works with teen moms, and another that works with youthful offenders in Jail North here in Charlotte. Today there was an open house at the jail and I was able to attend and really learn about our specialty program there. North Carolina is one of the few states left that prosecutes 16 and 17 year olds as adults. These youthful offenders are not put in a juvenile facility, they are put in jail. Until the age 18 years old the state of North Carolina requires they be educated, that is where our program comes in. The Sheriff’s Office, CMS public schools, and CIS Charlotte-Mecklenburg have come together to help support these students. CMS certified teachers are in the jail working with students on their academics. Then there is a CIS site coordinator placed in the facility as well. He works with those boys the same way our other site coordinators work with their students. He supports them, gets to know them, and he cares about them.

Today I was given a tour of the jail facility and then given the opportunity to hear from the teachers and officers who work with our students. What an amazing story they had to tell. They spoke of students who were brilliant; college bound even, but simply were not surrounded by a healthy atmosphere outside of the prison. They spoke about boys who come in, do their time, get out, and then come right back because there is no community for them outside the walls of the facility. The program created by the Sherriff’s Office, CMS, and CIS was created to change this narrative. It works to connect these boys with a caring, structured community while they are in jail, and then, through CIS, works to connect them with a community of support once they get out. 91% of the youthful offenders in the program in the 12-13 school year either graduated or were re-enrolled back into CMS for the 13-14 school year.

I work on the development team for CIS so I am not able to spend much time on site with our site coordinators and students but it is days like today that I remember that we are not only helping people be more successful, our programs are changing lives.


Perspective in CLT

Perspective in CLT           When I originally started brainstorming for this entry, I was so certain that I would write about transitions. I mean, it was so obvious. Here I am: a recent college graduate, in a city that I’ve never lived in before, with bills, loans and rent to pay. Oh my! I had always heard comfortably from a distance the scary stories of life post-grad, but I never thought it would all become so real. I suppose that’s growing up though.

But as days passed by and my time here at Communities In Schools got underway, I found myself welcoming this period of change as my own and the laundry list of worries didn’t seem so major anymore. More so than that, my time here at work helped me find my true inspiration for writing this post: perspective. But first, let me tell you a little bit about my incredible organization.

Communities In Schools is a national non-profit dedicated to addressing the dropout epidemic that plagues our education system today by surrounding students with a community of support. Within our offices here in Charlotte, I work closely with our Director of Research as an Enrollment Coordinator. That means that every student who is served by CIS-Charlotte at some point passes through my cubicle, and with our site coordinators in over 40 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, you could guess that I see quite a few files. It’s certainly tedious work, but I really do enjoy it.

Within my first couple weeks on the job, the entire CIS-Charlotte staff got together for our annual in-service, which was honestly the best introduction to the organization that I could have ever asked for.  Over those two days, I heard first-hand from site coordinators about the students that we serve and learned about the tremendous hardships that these students call reality.  It was so great to have this initial experience because it gave me so much perspective as to why I spend day in and day out dissecting data and examining spreadsheets. Those just aren’t numbers on the screen that I’m looking at, it’s our kids, and it still helps me remember that they are always at the heart of everything we do.

This in-service was also so impactful for me because it not only gave me professional perspective, but also, personal. During our programming discussion, one of our high school directors was talking about a big educational event coming up that was aimed towards the parents of our students. She explained that the event would be a sit down dinner that highlighted tips to parents on how to carry a conversation with their children.  This simple, yet essential objective really stuck with me because it made me remember the times when I would get so aggravated with my mom when she made me tell my family about my day during dinner. Of course the rebellious teenage version of me could NEVER understand why she insisted on asking every day. I mean, come on Mom! English was onlyyy at the same time everyyy day! What I failed to recognize was how lucky I was to even have dinner with them all together.

It’s funny what perspective will do to you.  CIS has reminded me to be grateful for every little thing that I have, even if it does seem as trivial as recapping my day to my family. That’s what this fellowship continues to teach me. I can’t help but smile as I sit here and write this because once again Davidson gets the last laugh. I may have graduated last spring, but this college will always help me learn even if it isn’t in a traditional classroom setting. I still to this day believe that I learned my most important lessons from the people that surrounded me on campus, not through textbooks or JSTOR articles, and I am so happy that through the generous funding of the Davidson Impact Fellowship I am able to continue to learn from the people here at Communities In Schools.