By Mike Friedman, Ed.M.
I don’t watch much television these days, but when I do, Shark Tank is a go-to. Perhaps surprising, one of the biggest draws for me is that I have no desire to become an entrepreneur, at least not like the ones on the show. An intrapreneur, however, is more my style. They make change from within an existing organization while embracing the mindset of the entrepreneurs we see on Shark Tank to do similar, yet arguably more difficult, work. After all, it’s one thing to create from scratch, yet something quite different to be working from within the confines of systems and structures that were generated before your time. As I’ve quickly learned as the new Director of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Initiative (Teen Initiative), the Bay Area Jewish community is robust. The need is not so much for new institutions as it is for supporting current organizations in discovering new and engaging ways to reach more and different teens. We know from the recent Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities that the Bay Area is the 4th largest concentration of Jewish people in the United States, playing host to a large population with a vibrant and active core, yet much higher numbers who are substantially less engaged. The Teen Initiative, a product of Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund in partnership with Jewish Federation and The Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay, and with significant financial support from the Jim Joseph Foundation, is embracing the intrapreneur with a focus on reaching a less engaged population of Jewish teens. In fact, we’re betting on these individuals to be game-changers.
The Teen Initiative is about building community capacity. With five interwoven strategies – an Innovation Accelerator, professional development for youth professionals, experimentation micro-grants, a community information hub, and first-time scholarships – its goals are related to the delivery of new ideas and skills to a broad set of organizations and professionals who will expand the landscape of Jewish teen engagement through innovative, high-quality programming and increased access to programs. Ultimately, the Teen Initiative hopes to create an environment where more Jewish teens from diverse backgrounds – be it Jewish background, family make-up, socio-economic status, ethnic and cultural origins, or geographic location – benefit from Jewish engagement and experience healthy mental and social-emotional development during their adolescent years.
Just six months young, the Teen Initiative is already yielding positive results. I credit much of this to the fact we were able to benefit from the learnings and experiences of nine other teen initiatives, as well as an extended planning process. During our process, we involved the Bay Area community and identified specific local needs through the involvement of teens, educators, leaders and other communal professionals. It was this process that brought about an understanding of community needs, garnered stakeholder buy-in, established clear priorities and uncovered intrapreneurs as the community’s greatest assets and is leading to some of these early, quick wins. Additionally, being part of the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative, a collective of 10 communities across the country aiming to re-engage teens in Jewish life, offered easy and important access to seasoned experts and helpful planning resources. With no magic bullet, the Teen Initiative is coming at this from all angles, but with a clear focus. What follows are four major takeaways and how the learning is being put into action:
- Understand the community’s wants: One clear priority that emerged through the planning process was to support youth professionals, at all stages of their career trajectories. These individuals have the greatest ‘intrapreneurial potential’, and their grounding in the field will help stabilize the greater teen community. One strategy in doing this work is to go directly to the source and give them what they want. Three things our youth professionals put forward are a desire to learn, to connect, and to be supported. So that’s what the Teen Initiative is providing them. Regional networks, groups of youth professionals formed by geographic location, allow for relationship-building through communal learning and problem-solving. Two-day intensive learning experiences provide crash courses in specific skills and developing plans for their implementation with a group diverse in geography, role and experience. Mentorships give new opportunities to seasoned professionals, and much needed coaching to fledging colleagues. For the Funder Collaborative, helping youth professionals to feel well-prepared and confident, to have the necessary skills and knowledge to do their jobs, and to feel valued as professionals in their work is one of the measurements of success used to determine the effectiveness of initiatives. In the first four months of 2018 professional development activities have been accessed by more than 70 youth professionals from around the Bay Area who have offered very positive feedback and requested more opportunities for learning and growth through the Teen Initiative. It is clear to me we are doing something right.
- Identify specific strategies and own them: One of the approaches we are embracing is to fast-track organizations already doing something well so they can do it even better and with a refined purpose. This is the guiding principle of the Innovation Accelerator, for which we required a proof of concept (documented evidence that a potential product or service can be successful) from all organizations that applied. Be it marketing tactics, branding, staff, target audiences, or program components (just to name a few), we targeted organizations with professionals who are willing to push the boundaries of their work – intrapreneurs. Currently, there are eight organizations in the Innovation Accelerator cohort ready to embrace the entrepreneurial mindset and design programs to achieve specific outcomes. Working with program partners at UpStart, they receive grant funding, individual coaching, group workshops, and are poised to introduce new opportunities into the Jewish teen landscape this Fall. The individuals involved are testing assumptions, relaying lessons learned, and looking to bring about institutional change through their efforts around teen engagement.
- Seek out the ultimate partnerships – Win-Win-Win: After spending significant time creating the Teen Initiative, the need for quick and impactful implementation became apparent and working with the right partners was imperative. This required partners that not only we had confidence in and who cared about the work, but who were also held in high regards by Teen Initiative stakeholders. With the community at the center of the Teen Initiative, the partnership was beyond that of just the Federation and organization; it was also with the community. We needed partners who knew and understood the community through their own relationships and history. What we’ve found in Jewish LearningWorks, UpStart, and Rosov Consulting is just that: innate trust. Be it geographic proximity, organizational roots, reputation or staffing, our community members have been open to learning from and working with each of these partner organizations. Workshops fill up, surveys are responded to, and opportunities for connection are taken advantage of, and everyone involved is feeling the benefits of the collaboration.
- Keep a focus on relationships: I appreciate the need to build personal relationships with everyone in the community who can be a part of, or influenced by, the Teen Initiative. In fact, I find it to be one of the most rewarding pieces of this work. And while part of it is the counselor in me who finds deep value in hearing stories, I have also learned that asking for help is easier, the responses are quicker, and the results are increasingly positive when it is grounded in a personal relationship. Additionally, I have found that when it comes to teen engagement, the community really cares, and professionals want to join in conversation, which is even more meaningful when it’s not a stranger across the table. I saw this clearly in our efforts to collect baseline data. Focus groups attracted senior level professionals, seasoned youth professionals filled out surveys in high numbers, and a variety of organizations were willing partners in fielding our youth survey data. Relationships can drive all kinds of results, and they can also nurture the soul; both essential in this line of work.
The experiences of Jewish teens can impact who they are and become in this world. Adolescence is a truly transformative time, impacted by both what teens engage in and who they engage with, calling for considerable resources to be invested in the teens themselves, the professionals who work with them, and the organizations with whom they interact. What the Teen Initiative offers is meaningful and relevant to all three populations. Authentic experiences, the chance to do what they want and doing it Jewishly, for teens. Training, learning sessions and networking for professionals. Grant opportunities, workshops and coaching for local organizations, whether they are community staples or the new kid of the block. We are truly harnessing the best of the Bay Area’s entrepreneurial spirit and bringing it to the Jewish community.
Our short-term experience has shown that we’re on the right path. There will be challenges – questions around sustainability, lay buy-in, collaboration vs. competition – but those are what will keep us moving forward, what keeps me excited and engaged in this work. As one of my favorite, and perhaps too often quoted texts from Pirke Avot states, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We are starting something here in the Bay Area. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight, but I’m excited to be part of the journey.
Mike Friedman is Director of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Initiative