The Work You Do Pays Its Benefits in Generations

April 10, 2019  • Daniel R. Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO delivered the following remarks at the national conference of the Child Welfare League of America on April 10, 2019 in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @DanPorterfield.

It’s an honor to be with you at this year’s national conference of the Child Welfare League of America. What a storied association that deserves every accolade for its work improving the lives of, and enhancing the systems that support, our most vulnerable young people. Thank you.

One reason I’m here is because of the success of your field. In 1939, my mother entered foster care in Massachusetts as a one-year-old. Her mother and father were alcoholics, and she wasn’t reunited with her mother for 14 years. Her foster parents were the grounding force in her personal and moral formation. If she hadn’t had that foster home, which gave her the resources to raise my sister and me as a single mother, there is no chance that we would be the well-adjusted adults we are today.

The work you do pays its benefits in generations and your influence is so powerful that you will never know where it stops.

The love, support, and structure that my mom found in foster care helped her become a strong, resilient, and inspirational woman who, at age 30, with two kids, no money, and no college degree, found a job teaching high school and enrolled in night school at what was then Towson College.

When I sat down to do my fifth-grade homework at the kitchen table, my mom was doing her homework right next to me.

When I graduated from elementary school in sixth grade, she graduated from college. And like many people who go back to college, one degree wasn’t enough for her.

When I was in middle school, she worked during the day and got her master’s degree at night from the University of Maryland.

When I was in college, she was in her 40’s, writing her doctoral dissertation on a topic some said wasn’t history—prostitutes in the American West. She went on to write more books about marginalized women who were left out of academic accounts of history. She ended up helping to shape her field and our knowledge of our country—largely because of a set of early experiences in foster care that gave her both stability and empathy for others who were struggling.

It was my mom’s journey from foster care to teaching and scholarship that showed me, yes, the power of will, but also the power of support systems and high-quality education. My sister and I went on to adopt and live out those commitments, too. My sister became a clinical psychologist helping vulnerable survivors of trauma. I went on to become an advocate for court supervised youth and undocumented immigrants, and later a college professor and then a college president with a focus on finding and mentoring first-generation college goers and low-income students.

In some sense, it was because of my mother that I knew the value of tripling the financial aid budget at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and peopling that school with triple the number of Pell Grant students—not simply because many of those students came from poverty but because they came from love and brought talent every bit the equal as the more advantaged students who were their classmates and friends.

All my insights as an educator and a person are simply the trace elements of the central story of my life which unfolded before I was even born—which is that the foster care and community support my mother received as a child saved her future and mine.

That’s why I was so honored to receive the invitation to speak with you today. I’m also honored to speak about the work of my colleagues at the Aspen Institute, which is a national nonprofit organization with more than sixty different programs all dedicated to improving the human condition and promoting a free, just, and equitable society. We work in many ways and places and cultures, and I think the values of our programs will be relevant for and will resonate with the work you do saving lives and shaping futures.

Let me tell you about the work of just a few of our programs, led by incredible people-serving heroes who are kindred spirits to you all:

There’s Ascend, led by Anne Mosle, which has developed and advanced a two-generation strategy for helping people rise from poverty—helping children and adults alike and in an integrated and dignity-enhancing way.

There’s our Center for Native American Youth, led by Erik Stegman, which is helping young people learn from and give back to their culture as an asset and source of innovation. CNAY is bringing young people from urban, rural, and tribal communities together to learn about leadership, grow in empowerment, and take the lessons and motivations home so they can be the leaders of the change they seek.

There’s our Forum for Community Solutions, led by Steve Patrick, which is, among other great things, leading collaborative, community-based efforts to build the power and influence of opportunity youth, who are ripe with talent and insights but lack opportunity and mentorship. The Forum for Community Solutions is working with community partners across the country to break down systemic barriers and create evidence-based, locally-tailored solutions that see opportunity youth as collections of assets.

There’s our National Commission for Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, led by Jackie Jodl, whose definitive report, “From A Nation At Risk, To A Nation At Hope,” presents a science-based argument that children’s learning is enhanced when the adults in their lives develop social and emotional well-being as the foundation on which academic learning sits. You all know this, of course. Educators have learned it from you.

And there’s our work on income security and economic opportunity by colleagues like Ida Rademacher and Maureen Conway, and work on community college excellence led by Josh Wyner, and work on public health led by Ruth Katz…and so much more. I can’t tell you how inspiring it is to come to work every day surrounded by colleagues who are all trying to create a better future for the one and the many in our society. They are just like you—they see the future in human terms and they understand the eminence of human need and human promise.

I have learned so much from their incredible work and years in education. From these experiences, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts concerning your critical work and your own careers as practitioners, policymakers, and partners to young people and families all across our country.

First, I would posit to you that we need to see and treat the people we want to help as collections of assets. I know this from my mom. A big part of this idea is inverting the narratives of deficiency to tell a story new and true—that each person is a bundle of abilities capable of great things—building, healing, learning, teaching, loving. Often, we see only what we are conditioned or socialized or professionalized to see. When we change our perspective ever so slightly, when we look for the assets and dignity in each person, we can build reciprocity with those we seek to serve and further the very outcomes we seek.

At F&M, we didn’t just triple the number of lower-income students—we tripled the talent and capacity of the student body as a whole. Ours was a talent strategy and pursuing talent in its many forms from all communities in the American mosaic made us a stronger institution academically, and more true to our educational mission. Some of the greatest people I have ever met were Muslim or Mexican immigrants, were segregated rural or urban students, were transgender or transitioning students.

Guess what? These students don’t have the experience being described in public discourse as a collection of assets. The dominant narrative isn’t celebrating the courage of immigrant families or the spirituality of Muslim families or the bold coming forward and coming out of LGBT students. Too often these groups are attacked and stigmatized.  We all know this. We have to combat the stereotypes as part of our collective work because we know better and we know that children can’t flourish if they feel attacked or invisible or degraded. But, by genuinely seeing those we seek to help for all they bring to life, from talent to character to aspiration to family love to culture and faith and curiosity and hope, we deepen our own humanity and find still greater meaning in this work we do.

Second, we need to collaborate. As professionals, you are probably acculturated in your work to particular systems and the rules and norms within them. I know this was true for me as an educator. I learned what it meant to be an educator through the resources and rituals of the academy. However, once I became responsible in leadership roles at Georgetown University and Franklin & Marshall, I realized I needed to draw upon resources outside my own formation—like public health; like mental health; like mindfulness and spirituality; and like the cultural traditions of my students. As a professional, at every moment of my career I’ve learned how important it is to collaborate with others outside my field because I am working with people with diverse human needs. This is true—but I would add, don’t forget, all these other professions need to collaborate with you. You have so much to offer.

Third, we need to co-create, which is a big word and value at the Aspen Institute. By that I mean that we all can and should to the greatest extent possible include with those we are here to help to empower them as partners in framing the problems to be solved and the strategies to be pursued and the assessments to be undertaken and the interpretations to be made.

We do this all the time in higher education—for campuses are a place where students provide many of the services from which other students benefit. At Georgetown, I had the experience of partnering with undergraduates to create the first fully-staffed LGBTQ resource center at a Catholic institution. It emerged out of a year-long process in which students played a crucial role, and the sharing of ideas and hopes allowed us to build into the center’s founding goals commitments that responded to student ideas. I grew so much from the experience of genuinely co-creating with students—and I also learned a lot from my undergraduate partners about messages my wife and I might consider sending to our three children when they are very young giving them our clear approval for their growing up to be who they are and who they want to be.

Co-creation makes us uncomfortable sometimes because it implies surrendering control. Good. We should share power. Especially when those we seek to help have been harmed by deep societal forces like structural racism and many types of discrimination. We have to try to understand racism, as perpetuated by society and as lived or internalized by a person. And we have to learn about—and support—the resources in our communities that combat the insidious assault upon dignity that prejudice undertakes. This is a part of being a professional and it is critical to genuine co-creation.

I’ve shared these thoughts to you as professionals, but I’d like to offer you one more idea more personally, which emerges from a question I ask myself all the time: How to  find the right balance of professional work that brings me to deep engagement with others and my own personal needs and relationships?

I know there’s not one answer to this question for you, nor is there only one answer for me. But I do think that you need to attend to your own well-being intentionally and that those who are able to do that end up being the ones who probably have the greatest fulfillment and the greatest impact—especially given that there is so much secondary trauma and burnout that comes from the work that you do.

I read last week about the child welfare staff in Jackson County, Ohio who are working 12- and 14-hour days, taking informal “on-call” shifts on weekends, and are chronically understaffed, making it difficult to take sick and vacation time—self-care time—without feeling like they are putting a greater burden on their co-workers. A recent survey in that state found that 53 percent of children-services caseworkers have experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Educators are often first responders, too—and our capacity for empathy can create feelings of excessive urgency or pessimism in the face of great injustices some students face. It’s easy to get burned-out in other-centered work or to aggrandize our own imagined role as a savior. A couple things help me:

First, adopt a growth mindset and take every opportunity you can through your work to learn.

Second, just as you co-create with your clients, co-create with your colleagues, and, like you are doing today, find every opportunity to work together to learn new methods and new resources and sometimes have the deeper conversations about the meaning of it all. Conversations with social workers and counselors can really help—just as a way of checking in and making sure that we’re regulating our own emotional burners as we do high-stakes work.

Third, I think it is important to celebrate the victories and not just fret over the setbacks, and to find joy from those moments—and there are many—where your work makes all the difference for others. This is an essential part of a mindset needed for successful people-oriented work.

And finally, perhaps easier said than done, remember that boundaries are your friend, and that your relationships with colleagues and with clients are stronger and more productive when those you serve know what to expect of you. When they trust that you appreciate boundaries and are comfortable working within them. Being rock-solid predictable makes you trustworthy and it makes those you want to help feel secure. It is an easy feeling to want to save someone or be the hero of somebody else’s story. Every time you step away from that mindset, you position yourself to be more sustainably superb for the vast majority of people with whom you work.

The great environmentalist and author Wendell Berry once wrote that true conservationists are people “who know that the world is not given by [their parents], but borrowed from [their] children.” When we think of our lives and our work in similar terms and consider our significance in the context of past and future generations, the contributions we make can assume new meaning and greater depth.

You work with clients today, but your impact will resonate through the decades and centuries and be felt by their descendants. I’ve lived that. I know that because I am the person my mom helped me become, and she became who she was because of people in your field. So, when you encounter days of difficulty, look towards the horizon and know a brighter day awaits—for you, but also for unseen future generations whose lives you are affecting each and every day. Because they will look back, as I do, and be forever thankful.

Thanks for listening, thank you for your work.