Sara Weihmann of ‘New Avenues for Youth’: “Change is slow. Don’t expect immediate results”

Change is slow. Don’t expect immediate results. The way in which we work with young people can change the trajectory of their lives. Many of those gains are not statistically measurable and we may never know the impact we’ve have had on individuals’ lives. Sometimes the results may manifest in ways that we aren’t measuring […]

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Change is slow. Don’t expect immediate results. The way in which we work with young people can change the trajectory of their lives. Many of those gains are not statistically measurable and we may never know the impact we’ve have had on individuals’ lives. Sometimes the results may manifest in ways that we aren’t measuring or even considering.

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

Sara Weihmann is Director of Social Enterprise New Avenues for Youth. Sara has made a career out of empowering marginalized youth populations and helping them find access to greater opportunity through business and entrepreneurial training.

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

Thank YOU so much for selecting me and New Avenues For Youth’s Social Enterprises for this feature! After graduating college, I found a unique MBA graduate program in the Bay Area with an emphasis on environmental sustainability and social justice. During the program, I started a business specializing in the installation of edible gardens and urban farms for homeowners and organizations throughout the Bay Area. What started out as a passion for ecological sustainability and horticulture quickly evolved into a passion for food sovereignty, social justice, and elevating the voices of indigenous, black, and people of color to advocate for the resources they needed to thrive in community. I started participating on non-profit boards, coalitions, and councils focusing on food system equity. I found myself particularly passionate about working with young people living in excluded neighborhoods and mentoring them in agriculture and business strategy. There is nothing more fulfilling to me than seeing young people recognize their inherent value in an entrepreneurial setting where they get the freedom to brainstorm and take risks with their peers with guidance from mentors. When I moved back to my hometown of Portland, Oregon I noticed this opportunity at New Avenues for Youth as Director of Social Enterprise which seemed like a great fit for my passion and expertise — a combination of business strategy & management with a commitment to serving young people experiencing housing insecurity. This was over seven years ago and I still feel inspired every day by the impacts our workforce development social enterprises have on participants and the community. I am inspired by the professional peers in my network who are leading social enterprises nationally and in awe, daily, of the resilient and brilliant young folks who trust me (and us) as mentors in their lives.

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

For several years, New Avenues for Youth operated an apparel brand called dfrntpigeon, featuring apparel collections designed by young artists in collaboration with volunteer mentors from Portland’s design community. All items were printed by hand at New Avenues social enterprise screen printing shop, New Avenues INK. A couple winters ago, dfrntpigeon was offered the opportunity to build out a vacant store on the 3rd floor of a Downtown Mall as a “Holiday Pop Up” retail space. The opportunity seemed HUGE — as did the incredibly vast retail space we had only weeks to turn into a beautiful shopping experience for the local community. I worked with a team of young people engaged in the program, a local design agency (Nemo Designs), our agency’s handi-human, and a few personal friends and family members (thanks, husband!) to pull together the vision quickly. Many late nights were spent after-hours in a nearly vacant mall assembling retail fixtures and décor — including a 15’ x 15’ feature wall which required patiently drilling holes into the large vertical wall and filling them with thousands of faux flowers. What was interesting to me was the thought that designing beautiful interior retail spaces was a thoughtful process for experienced design professionals and somehow I had to pretend I was one of them for a couple weeks. Thankfully, the result was an incredible and inspiring retail environment that offered hours of retail training for young people who got to experience selling products to their community which they had designed and produced.

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?

During my first year managing the screen printing business, I eagerly upsold a customer on some additional products to include in their order. I was so excited about the additional revenue opportunity that I didn’t think critically enough about what would be operationally involved to pull it all together by their deadline. The products were not something that we had worked with before and the turnaround time I had promised was not realistic. At the time, it felt that we moved heaven and earth to make the commitment happen (which it did!) and I had the opportunity to learn the valuable lesson that saying “yes” to ALL opportunities is not always in the best interest of all parties involved. While I still have that spirit of creatively trying to be flexible and agile to connect with opportunities that are suddenly revealed, I have honed a stronger sense of boundaries and limitations so I don’t create disappointment for customers or strain on my team.

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

I am proud to work for an agency that addresses youth homelessness by delivering prevention and intervention services that address a broad range of needs. New Avenues provides programming and safe, inclusive spaces for LGBTQ youth, reaches geographically isolated youth in under-resourced communities, and supports youth in foster care and preparing them to transition into adulthood. Each young person has a unique backstory and personal goals. New Avenues staff meet young people where they are, work to reflect their inherent value and brilliance back to them when they may need it most, and connect them to the resources they need to get where they want to go.

Our Social Enterprises have provided hundreds of paid internships over the years to young people who have little-to-no traditional work experience. In our business and training environments, young people receive an hourly wage to learn basic job skills and participate in career exploration activities and career coaching. Interns are able to build confidence in our businesses, experience being a part of a team, practice receiving and providing feedback, and ultimately learn about the world of work in a trauma-informed environment. We follow up with participants up to a year after their exit from our program and recognize a trend in advancement towards post-secondary education, retained employment, and housing stability.

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

There are so many young people who have incredible stories of overcoming unbelievable odds, identifying their path, and beginning to attain their goals. One recent intern comes to mind. Carla first engaged with New Avenues to access drop in meal and basic hygiene services through our Drop-In center. After this participant volunteered to wash dishes during breakfast, staff engaged her in conversation about the programs and resources available around employment and career services. Within days, this person began an internship at our social enterprise — where she excelled at cleaning tasks, product handling, and customer service. During her internship, Carla attended Job Readiness Training and a variety of other workshops and career exploration activities (including resume writing, informational interviews, and hiring events). Carla enrolled in three years of career coaching, built a career map and made plans for a transition after her internship. Days after her internship ended, Carla earned a position at a Portland-local, woman-owned enterprise that specifically hires female-identified folks transitioning back into the workforce. In less than three months, Carla went from being unemployed and staying in shelter to working a living-wage job she enjoyed and having her name on a lease.

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

Purchase screen printed apparel and promotional items from our social enterprise, New Avenues INK! Get your organization’s branded t-shirts, sweatshirts, masks, tote bags, and more from our social enterprise to impact young lives and directly fund their engagement in paid work experiences, job-training, and career exposure opportunities.

– Seek and adopt corporate culture and hiring practices that authentically attract and retain our talented young people, many of whom identify as LGBTQAI2+ and are Indigenous, Black, and People of Color — not in spite of their backgrounds but because of them. Our population can be some of the most hard-working, loyal, creative, resourceful, and bright humans in your workforce. Please do the internal organizational work to deconstruct barriers preventing this talent from joining your team as a valuable asset.

– Empathy. Empathy. Empathy. Understand that people who are sleeping outside are not doing so by choice. It is our collective responsibility as community/society/political leaders to advocate for affordable housing, access to health care and gainful employment opportunities. The real heroes are the resilient young humans who take a chance on agencies like New Avenues and open themselves up to building relationships with our staff. It’s a tremendous privilege for a young person to invite us in to mentor and support them as they identify and make the changes they want to see in their own life.

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

Leadership is a tremendous responsibility and opportunity to motivate a diverse array of people toward a common goal that maximizes community benefit. In my view, the best leaders are courageous, bold, humble, and can discern when to make quick decisions and when to slow down and engage in a thoughtful process that includes multiple stakeholder voices at the table. Leaders delegate opportunities to elevate and develop individual team members and provide the support and resources needed to be successful. As a leader, I strive to engage in deep listening and elevate the voices and perspectives of Black, Indigenous, People of Color to center equity in all decisions. I realize making mistakes is part of being a leader and mistakes can cause harm. I am committed to show up and learn from my mistakes and challenge instincts telling me to defend my rightness.

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

Change is slow. Don’t expect immediate results. The way in which we work with young people can change the trajectory of their lives. Many of those gains are not statistically measurable and we may never know the impact we’ve have had on individuals’ lives. Sometimes the results may manifest in ways that we aren’t measuring or even considering.

The work will still be there tomorrow. ☺ Prioritizing self-care and having professional boundaries is important to sustaining the very engine that gets the work done. The best ideas and decisions do not often come when the candle is burning from both ends.

Prioritize a culture of appreciation and orient toward relationships over tasks. This is a critical ongoing reminder for me as a supervisor. I believe I will get the best results out of my team when they feel consistently valued and heard. Especially when I first started, I was so eager to get to the next thing that I often forgot to slow down and bear witness to and appreciate the efforts of those around me.

“There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.” ~Brene Brown. I’m still warming up to this one. ☺ While I still struggle with perfectionism and (at times) rigid high standards, I’m observing more self-awareness in moments where I’m stifled by the possibility of failure and anxiously evaluating repercussions. I’ve certainly learned that if fear of failing prevents you from doing anything at all, the result is not usually good!

Social enterprises are “inefficient on purpose”. A quote from my mentor, Tamra Ryan (Women’s Bean Project — Denver, CO). The concept of financially sustainable social enterprise can sound more simple and attainable than the implementation actually is. Prioritizing a robust job training program that meets program participants needs is the priority of a workforce development social enterprises (like ours). Managing the financial realities of a business with a social impact model is challenging — a balance and a dance — and many social enterprises rely on grants and governmental subsidy to sustain and create a space for participants to thrive.

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. 🙂

An empathy revolution! It is impossible to know any persons’ experience or fully understand the motivation behind any persons’ actions. If I could inspire a movement it would be a simple premise — Assume that others are doing the best they can with what they have. Be patient and understanding with yourself and others. Be curious about your own reactions and resist the urge to judge and especially to react based on those judgements. Also, as part of my movement, people would be encouraged to recognize when they fall short of this ideal, practice swift self-forgiveness, and have the courage to get back out into the world with a tightened empathy frame!

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

“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” — Lilla Watson

This quote is important to me because it helps me remain tethered authentically to the social mission of New Avenues for Youth and the way I show up for young people in my role and engage with strategic decision-making. It is most relevant to me for the simple reason that I believe the world will be more joyful, abundant, and brilliant for us all when there is more equitable access to opportunity and resources.

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. 🙂

Tabitha Brown, because she is so authentic, warm-spirited, and optimistic (PLUS the meal would be incredible). ALOK Vaid-Menon because, to me, they are one of the most eloquent, intelligent, and tender activists of our time.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow New Avenues INK on Instagram @New_Avenues_INK

You can follow New Avenues for Youth on Instagram @newaves4youth

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

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