Monday, August 13, 2012

NextGenCD: Who Am I?

In honor of the upcoming NeighborWorks America Young Professionals symposium, we have collected several blog posts from those under 35 asking their feelings on the meaning of community development. Share your comments on Twitter using #NextGenCD.
By Sara Varela 
NeighborWorks America
Community Building and Organizing
communications specialist
I decided to title my blog entry “Who Am I” because that was the first question that popped into my mind when I read the prompt. Technically speaking I am over the 35 age limit we use to define ‘young’, but realistically speaking, “young” is a relative term. Plus, even if I am technically not that young any more, as the very famous Colombian song goes… “Yo tambien tuve 20 aƱos” ("I was also 20, once"). So I’d like to share some of my experiences and thoughts about community development.

In 1998 I was a young foreign student who had just arrived from Venezuela with hopes of finding a job, finishing my bachelor’s degree and understanding the American culture a bit better. I remember being in a bus in Manchester, NH and having a Spanish speaking person approach me and engage in conversation. This seemingly random person gave me a referral to a job opening at a great community development financial institution. After I got called for an interview, I reached out to this person again to give him an update. His one piece of advice was: “just make sure you say you like to work with the community”. I wasn’t really sure what he meant by that, but somehow, when the moment was right, during my first interview I said it – and that’s how I landed my first job in community economic development.

Flickr user naillkennedy Creative Commons
This concept of “community” has appealed to me ever since. I actually ended up doing a master's in community economic development, just to make sure I totally understood what this “community” concept was. However, I don’t really think I ever thought about what communities I belonged to, or I came from, or anything, until I started working in community development. I share this because a survey we did in preparation for the NeighborWorks Training Institute (NTI) symposium this Wednesday reflects that a great majority of young professionals currently working in community development stumbled across this line of work by accident, just like I did.

I have been working in this field ever since, and I love it. So, going back to my understanding of community development, I think it is the field that connects the haves with the have-nots, that teaches people to fish for themselves vs. giving them a fish. It is the connection between the corporate and the non-profit world. It attempts to level the playing ground for people living with lower income levels, less education and fewer assets. In my experience, community development is a very rewarding field of work and has been a fantastic discovery for me.

Trying not to lose the forest in the trees
However, in terms of career opportunities it can be challenging sometimes to see the bigger picture. I tend to get lost in the forest; I haven’t been able to see a clear path to career growth. When I worked at the local level, I learned that most organizations doing economic development have a very flat structure, which is great for many things, like: young professionals with a hunger for learning. This gives them the opportunity to take on responsibilities and projects of great importance; On the other hand, flat organizations have very limited growth potential, and young professionals tend to leave after a couple of years when it is apparent the only option for professional growth is to wait for someone in upper management to retire. I started writing this entry before seeing the results of the survey that went out to all the registered participants for the symposium, and I found it very interesting to see many of my feelings and observations reflected there.
Post-its from New Orleans NTI workshop

I will be participating on a panel in the symposium, and will take part in two courses the other days. I am really looking forward to the week ahead, and was very excited when I learned the symposium theme was young professionals, perhaps because I still feel I fit that category. So three cheers for those of us “young people” and the connections we will make, and three cheers for NeighborWorks America for choosing that theme as a focus. It will be interesting to see if more opportunities open up in the field and within the organizations sending staff because of the symposium theme and the conversations it will generate.