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Susan McDowell of LifeWorks: “Take time to really see the youth in your life”

Take time to really see the youth in your life. You don’t have to be a politician, a teacher, or a social worker to have an impact. Youth need to be SEEN by the adults in their lives and supported towards the opportunities they need. Honestly, this is harder than it used to be. For […]

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Take time to really see the youth in your life. You don’t have to be a politician, a teacher, or a social worker to have an impact. Youth need to be SEEN by the adults in their lives and supported towards the opportunities they need. Honestly, this is harder than it used to be. For all its benefits, social media has succeeded in making the social realities and pressures faced by youth invisible to the adults around them. It takes an incredible tenacity of intention and effort to understand what youth are experiencing, but it is absolutely imperative.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan McDowell.

Susan McDowell is Chief Executive Officer of LifeWorks, a youth and family service organization in Austin, Texas that helps transition-age youth achieve self-sufficiency through housing, education/workforce and mental health support. Susan has been awarded “Austinite Under 40 of the Year,” and “Ernst and Young Central Texas Social Entrepreneur of the Year.” Susan holds a B.A. and M.A. from Vanderbilt University and the University of Texas-Austin, respectively. She participates in numerous civic and planning bodies, and is a frequent speaker around issues ranging from youth homelessness to organizational leadership.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a 23-year-old graduate student in Philosophy, I was charged with teaching 80 students a semester. In an attempt to learn how to be a better teacher, I volunteered with a literacy center, where my first student was a young single father employed as a security guard. He and I worked on his writing, composing often humorous stories about his workday. After several weeks, he revealed that what we were really doing was writing “incident reports” for his job that were already late, and that he could not write on his own. Because his learning needs and individual strengths were never recognized, he was navigating a minefield of vulnerability around the security of his job, his housing, and in fact the custody of his child. Everyone deserves someone who really sees them for who they are, and who can invest in the opportunities they need to be successful. We founded LifeWorks on the belief that everyone deserves the opportunity to live a life that is great, including adults who are fearlessly supportive and committed.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

There is no possible way I can distinguish one story as most interesting. Every single week is a lesson in growth, humility and inspiration in this work and with this organization. I will share a gradual epiphany I’ve experienced doing this work, which is the inter-connectedness of so many factors influencing youth homelessness in our country. In my community, 76% of youth experiencing homelessness have been in foster care, juvenile justice, or both. Youth exiting foster care are at an incredibly high risk of homelessness, yet when you ask a 22-year-old youth when they first experienced homelessness, you will likely get a reference to when they were removed from their home as children. Homelessness is not about having a house. It is about having a family and a community. Any discussion or approach to solving for homelessness needs to understand that this is the real issue. We can find a house or apartment, but the real solution is how we support individuals and families in creating the enduring and loving networks of family and community that sustain us all.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Well, some of this stuff you can only laugh about in hindsight. Seventeen years ago, the LIfeWorks HR Director and I developed the parameters of LifeWorks first wellness program. Our thought was that it was not only the right way to support our organization, but also a great way to control the rapidly escalating costs of health insurance. We were in for a surprise. We started with a health “screening” fair that resulted in four people being immediately admitted to the hospital for critical issues, a surge of specialty visits and the cancellation of our insurance plan at the end of the year. It was a financial disaster, but and I believe that it saved lives. You have to understand that this work can be incredibly stressful, and the caretakers do not always prioritize the care of themselves. This was a wake-up call to us that we needed to be very intentional about building a culture that encourages health and self-care. The “mistake” was that we didn’t take the time to think it through and anticipate the impact, but I’m glad we didn’t. There is absolutely no price tag on doing the right thing.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

LifeWorks provides numerous programs that support the housing, mental health, education and workforce goals of youth and young adults. Our focus right now is leadership in Austin’s movement to End Youth Homelessness by making it rare, brief and non-recurring. We know that youth who have experienced foster care are more than twice as likely as US/Iraq War veterans to suffer from PTSD. Not only have they endured a tremendous amount of trauma, but the chances that they have been truly seen for their potential and provided what they need to build the lives they want are significantly lower than their peers. Our housing and supportive services provide opportunity and security to live, to work and to heal.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Justin (name changed for confidentiality) was referred to LifeWorks Emergency Shelter after he was discovered sleeping under a bridge. He was 17 at the time and suffering from some very challenging mental health issues. From our shelter, he moved to a transitional living program and ultimately to an apartment property we own. Navigation of his mental health challenges may always be a part of who he is, but he does so in a life where he works, makes music, attends school, participates in a vibrant faith community, and holds numerous leadership positions to advocate for housing and mental health policy and funding for youth and young adults.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

1) Provide support for families to succeed. The dissolution of families is tragic. We spend so much time, effort and money trying to “fix” our public systems of child welfare and juvenile justice because their issues are immediate, often involve tragedy, and capture the public eye with a view to blame and judge. Families — and most of all children — suffer as a result. Let’s upend our focus and invest in the opportunity and support to help families stay together and thrive.

2) Understand systemic racism. Eight percent of youth/young adults in Austin are Black. Forty-one percent of youth experiencing homelessness in Austin are Black. This reflects the disproportionalities of both juvenile justice and child welfare. These realities need to be front and center in all conversations, policy debates and strategies around supporting families and creating opportunities.

3) Take time to really see the youth in your life. You don’t have to be a politician, a teacher, or a social worker to have an impact. Youth need to be SEEN by the adults in their lives and supported towards the opportunities they need. Honestly, this is harder than it used to be. For all its benefits, social media has succeeded in making the social realities and pressures faced by youth invisible to the adults around them. It takes an incredible tenacity of intention and effort to understand what youth are experiencing, but it is absolutely imperative.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Well, I can share a few things that leadership is NOT. Leadership is not about having hierarchical authority in your organization. It is not about a title. It is not about being an extrovert or traditionally charismatic. It IS about being able to understand how to inspire commitment to a vision. Understanding when to listen and when to act. Understanding yourself. It is about creating a vision and culture that motivates everyone to bring their talents and selves to the table to work hard and stretch themselves, knowing that they are part of something that no one individual could do on their own. Over the last two years, LifeWorks has helped almost 750 youth exit homelessness to permanent housing. That is the result of hundreds of people working together — case managers, housing locators, counselors, workforce specialists, peer support specialists, teachers, not to mention the back-office tenacity of the finance, HR, and fundraising teams that support them. Leadership creates the conditions under which teams, organizations or entire community movements can succeed, where we can all be part of something larger than ourselves.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1) Leadership is about listening. If you spend enough time listening to the people around you, and you seek out the opinions of people who may not be around you every day but are impacted by your decisions, then you can act decisively when needed.

2) Be actively aware of what assumptions or perspectives you are bringing to any discussion or conflict. Conflict can be incredibly healthy, but it takes work and intentionality to keep it from becoming toxic. In community work, there are often numerous perspectives at the table and significant power differentials. Doing the work to understand your own assumptions and the assumptions others may reasonably have of you is a humbling but powerful experience.

3) You should make mistakes. While “being right” feels good, you actually learn very little. You learn from taking risks, failing and learning. We are in the middle of a movement to End Youth Homelessness in Austin Texas. There are a number of things we have absolutely been wrong about, but because we have had the courage to fail and the humility to listen, learn and adjust, there are 35% fewer youth experiencing homeless in Austin than there were two years ago.

4) If at all humanly possible, be nice. Take time to really see the people around you. There is a great deal we are fighting for at LifeWorks — access to housing, mental health care, job opportunities for the youth we serve. Everything we do is urgent and important, and we help make great things happen. Underlying our tenacity, however, is this stubborn thread of kindness. All the success in the world is meaningless if we don’t take the moments and the joy of just recognizing the humanity of individuals around us.

5) The work will still be there Monday.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I have recently become involved in the Hi, How Are You Project, which is dedicated to encouraging conversations and actions around promoting mental health. One in five individuals suffer from a mental health issue, but we struggle to be open about these and to recognize them as health issues as serious as cancer or diabetes. It has only become more challenging during COVID. One of the programs of the project is Happy Habits , which outlines nine areas where you can engage in activities and build habits that promote your overall mental health. It can be as simple as having one “Hi, how are you?” conversation or eating a healthy meal. It can also be longer-term, like finding your life’s purpose.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The enduring quote I seem to return to over the last 25 years is “if you are going for the long jump, you’re gonna get some sand in your shorts.” Every important goal — whether it involves the expansion of LifeWorks, the movement to End Youth Homelessness, or more personal journeys of learning and growth — comes with moments of profound (and often public) humility. To dream large and act boldly, you are going to make mistakes, and you are not going to make everyone happy. To truly grow as a leader, you must publicly and privately embrace these moments as part of the journey.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Both my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in Philosophy, and that background has served me extraordinarily well in life. At the same time, I think it essential that we really question the role of Western literature and philosophy in sustaining the inequities we have today.

I would love to know the author Maria Dahvana Headley, whose 2020 translation of Beowulf is not only a complete page-turner, but also speaks to the need and power of looking at Western literature through the lens of the characters whose stories are not told. She has also authored a re-telling of Beowulf with Grendel’s mother — reimagined as a traumatized war veteran experiencing homelessness — as the central character. The point goes beyond building empathy for a character who did not get fair press in the original. I think it is about laying bare the sheer power of storytelling — whose stories get told to who and how they shape our beliefs, cultures and economies. We need to keep re-imagining these stories; excavating to understand who they have served and who they haven’t.

She also seems just incredibly cool!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@lifeworksaustin

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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