Learning, Earning and More

 “The more you learn, the more you earn. It’s an adage that many use to promote education as the catalyst for more earning power over a lifetime. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a person with a four-year degree will earn one million dollars more over the course of a lifetime than that of someone with only a high school diploma. With a college education, an individual can expect better working conditions, longer job tenure, more opportunities for training and, ultimately, more promotions as part of a career ladder.

Education is not only the catalyst for more earning power, but it is the undergirding factor for a stable—and happier—life. With education comes a sense of confidence—personal, social, financial, and emotional. That confidence translates into greater autonomy and self-direction and ultimately means that an individual will have more choices about decisions made over a lifetime.

Education is also an equalizer. It can begin to blur the differences between social classes and gender privilege. Those who have grown up in a poor environment will be empowered to work and play on more equal footing with those who have grown up in more advantaged circumstances. This diversity means that people are able to eschew their differences and reach instead for common ground.

I believe that the power of possible is made into reality through education.

But for many young people, the complicated process of applying for college, navigating financial aid and student loans, making choices about what to study, and steering through the various college offices—registrar, advising, finance, work-study, student services, scheduling—and more—can be daunting and overwhelming to even the most ambitious student. This tension between knowing that education is the catalyst for a better life and the tactical, practical realities of applying and getting in—and staying in—college is very real. What will make the difference?

The number one difference for young people who want to go to college is finding support from someone who believes that they can go to college and succeed.   When you believe that achieving a dream is possible…when you believe that you have options and choices, when you are inspired by those around you to aim high, dreams become reality.  Do you know that when a child has a savings account, even less than $500, she is 3 times more likely to enroll and 4 times more likely to graduate from college?   The very act of just having the savings account inspires a young person to believe that college is possible. And then, college is not just possible, but it is a reality.

Here at Fedcap, we looked at this problem of college entrance and thought long and hard about how to introduce a precise intervention that could help young people find their way through the process of college application. We understood that the support needed would have to come from schools, but also, more importantly, it had to be fueled by advocacy at home. But what if college was not part of familiar family vernacular? What if, for example, a child is in foster care, and her parents had never attended college or navigated the system? We developed a program called PrepNow!™ to help parents and foster parents  guide their children or the youth in their care through the college application process. And, we developed GetReady!™, a program for young people  who are in the process of preparing for adulthood. Both programs offer a roadmap for encouraging and supporting young people who want to go to college along with practical and tactical tools for managing the process.

What other interventions can you think of that might help support a young person plan, prepare, and apply to college? If you attended college, what was the most useful guide that you found along the way? What choices might you have lost had you not attended college? How might your own earning power be different had you not attended college? These questions and their answers are fascinating to me—and as always, I welcome your thoughts.









The Single Story: Expanding Our View and Our Understanding

The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

–Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Recently I watched a Ted Talk that spoke volumes to me about the danger of what speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “single story.” In the talk, Chimamanda discusses what happens when we hear—or tell—the same story about a place or a person. A “single story,” she says, relegates a person to a single point of view, one lens, one narrative that people then assume is the whole story. She tells of her own experience when at 19, she came from Nigeria to the U.S. to attend college. Her roommate, upon learning that she would be living with someone from Africa assumed that Chimamanda must come from terrible poverty, starved of education and infrastructure. In fact, Chimamanda is the daughter of a college professor and an administrator and grew up in a conventional, comfortable middle-class Nigerian home.

Chimamanda’s own introduction to a single story came when a hired helper named Fide came to work at their house. “The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. When I didn’t finish my dinner, my mother would say, “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” She goes on to explain: “Then one Saturday, we went to [Fide’s] village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterened basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.”

How often do we make assumptions about people based on our own lens told through a single story? Here at Fedcap, we work with a number of “populations,” that can be too easily defined by their barrier or their hardship rather than their entire story. What picture do you conjure when you hear “previously incarcerated?” Whose face comes to mind when we talk of recovering addicts? What does a homeless person look like? What are their stories? The people we meet on a daily basis—whether through our programs or as we navigate our lives—all have backgrounds, histories, talents, and rich narratives that, when seen, heard, acknowledged and affirmed, serve as a source of strength and resilience that will help them overcome whatever barrier is in their way and will see them through to success in the form of economic well-being.

The staff at Fedcap and our family of agencies work hard to gather and celebrate the whole story of those we serve. And I am constantly reminded that one of the keys to helping people out of their own stories of stigma and a key to removing barriers is to listen for the whole story—to probe for the stories of strength, creativity, resilience and possibility that already inhabit parts of their lives. By acknowledging the whole story, we help lift people up, we celebrate our common humanity, and we give them a sturdy platform from which to move forward. And, by hearing the whole story, we are made even more whole and we are ever better to explore the power of possible.

I am curious about your own experiences of a “single story.” Have you experienced it in your own life? Have you been surprised, as Chimamanda was, when you discovered a rich and deeper story about someone you know? I welcome your thoughts.

Balancing an organization’s immune system

I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review by Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, where he compares an organization to the human immune system. Watkins introduces the idea that an organization functions much like a human in that it has a “brain”—which translates to the senior leadership team, and an “immune system”—which translates to the “body” of the organization i.e. the staff, programs, and projects that carry out the functions of the brain. Like the brain, the senior leaders are responsible for looking at the big picture derived from the environment, input, trends, and experience and it then processes that information, looking for threats and opportunities, creating strategy and disseminating information to the rest of the “body.” The immune system is responsible for the organism’s overall health, and it is required to detect any possible threats early on and send essential messages to the brain to combat any damage that might occur to the overall system.

I like this metaphor. There is a fine line between protecting an organism—or an organization—from outside threats that could damage it. It is up to both the brain and the immune system—the leaders and the rest of the organization—to be on the lookout for possible threats. What types of threats might damage an organization and how do we mitigate these threats?

On the other hand, if an organization is too protective, it can build a wall so tight that nothing can penetrate and therefore, like an overactive immune system, it can turn on itself and cause real damage. How might we guard against a highly reactive system?

How do we stay agile and balance the need for change while not tipping the organization so far over that we lose who we are and where we are going?

The answer to these questions, I believe, lies in being clear and intentional about who we are and where we are going and in constantly assessing and being vigilant about risk management.

Being intentional means looking at an organization’s culture and the several factors that comprise it—including vision, values, practices, structure, systems, and narrative—what we say about ourselves. When we are clear about these parts of ourselves, then we are clear about what projects, programs, and people to take in and to take on. We are quick to recognize when something is not a fit with who we are. And, maybe more importantly, on the other hand, we need to be able to see when a new idea, program, project, or person will challenge us, help us grow, and expand our way of thinking.

The work of leaders and the rest of the organization is balancing the risk between protecting ourselves and staying open to new ideas, trends, people, and changes. This is a deliberate conversation I continue to have with my staff, and I welcome your thinking on it as well. When is protecting the organization too much protection? And how do we know when it is time to stay open to new ideas without risking damage to the organization?

I would love to know what you think about this topic!

To see the original article by Michael Watkins, go to:




The Power of Possible

“I dwell in possibility.” –Emily Dickinson

One of the things that unites us here at Fedcap is our collective belief in the “power of possible.” These words represent not only what we imagine we can do to further economic self-sufficiency for those with barriers, but it is also the driver of our strategy and of the day-to-day execution of our strategy. Imaginings cannot exist without execution.

The power of possible is about innovation. It is about analyzing an existing system and looking at ways to disrupt it just enough to change its trajectory. Imagine a train is headed toward one destination. A simple shift in the track can change the course dramatically. Now imagine a man or woman is re-entering the community after incarceration. Statistics show that within a year, many of those released re-enter the justice system. But what if we were to intervene with the belief that the statistics don’t apply to everyone? And what if we create opportunities for specific and precise interventions in the form of people-to-people support and practical skill-building? The trajectory can change. It does change. I see it happen over and over again through our programs like the Career Design School.

The power of possible is also about leadership. Leadership means having the vision to imagine where we might go and sharing that vision in a way that ignites others’ imagination about what is possible. If we, as leaders, just present a “to-do” list without vision, it can lead to confusion as to why we are doing what we do. Essential to manifesting the possible in leadership is the need to include the skills and action plan to make the vision into reality. It is the balance between vision and execution that makes the impossible possible.

And, the power of possible is about intangible and tangible support. Our experience with the roughly 100,000 people that we serve tells us that one of the greatest catalysts in manifesting the possible is the existence of a person who sees the potential in another and who champions that potential. I hear from person after person the story of their success, and in every story, a champion emerges as the catalyst for change and growth. Just as important as having someone believe in the potential of another is the demonstration of that support in the form of mentorship, skill-building, and the call for accountability. Caring must be balanced by action.

As we enter 2017, I am stirred by the vision of what is possible in our work. I imagine a world without stigma for those with barriers. I imagine a world where those with barriers can envision possibilities without limitation–imposed either from within themselves or from members of society who do not know better. I imagine a world where those with barriers feel equity in every way—economically, socially, emotionally, and physically, no matter what their circumstance.

With this vision also comes the strategy, systems, structure, and execution to make the concepts of equity into reality. This is our work. I look forward to 2017 as a time where I know we will continue to erode the barriers to economic equity. With vision and the hard work behind the vision, I believe we can manifest extraordinary things. I believe in the power of possible. I’ve seen it in action, and I look forward to the growth and hard work of 2017.

To you all, I wish you a Happy New Year—and a year full of the Power of Possible.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

The Power of Story-In Action

Last week, our New Hampshire affiliate, Granite Pathways, hosted its first Solution Series HOCK9598.jpgbusiness forum to discuss ways that addressing employee mental illness and substance use disorder can improve the bottom line.  The forum was a great success and feedback suggests that many of the business leaders, government representatives, and nonprofit agency staff who attended were inspired to bring their learning back to their own workplaces.

The facts are that businesses who are intentional about assisting their employees who appear to be in trouble, and who compassionately work to support them in treatment and recovery, will experience a high return on their investment. Working through education to prevent substance use issues, intervening when and if an employee presents with an issue, and retaining those employees once they have gone through treatment can yield qualitative and quantitative results. A study done by the U.S. Navy revealed that for every dollar spent on investing in recovery, there is a $10 yield in savings.

The facts about how the workplace can support individuals in recovery are irrefutable. In the meantime, however, it was the story of one of the panelists that proved particularly compelling.

hock9829“John” was a busy regional sales manager who traveled up and down the east coast on a regular basis. He trained busy sales staff, met with prospective clients, and managed several sales staff throughout the company. His job was stressful and busy and travel away from home was always a challenge, particularly because his daughter suffered from mental health issues and whose behavior was unpredictable at best.

One night, while John was away, he got the call that his daughter had attempted suicide and was hospitalized. John was slated for a large presentation the next morning, but opted to rent a car and speed home to be with his daughter. He called in sick the next day and didn’t tell anyone that anything was wrong at home. He felt so guilty about leaving work that he didn’t put in for the expense of his missed plane ticket or for the car rental. He worried that he would be reprimanded for calling in sick or that he would have to miss other important work meetings. All the while, he was carrying the weight of his daughter’s suicide attempt and the inevitable long-term fallout.

Months later, he could no longer keep his family situation from his supervisor. One day, he went into her office and told her what had happened. His supervisor listened intently, and then said simply, “Yes. The answer is always yes. You must put your family first, and we will support you. What can we do?”

After that meeting, John felt a newfound freedom to care for his family in ways he had not hock9820felt he could in the past. As a result of his supervisor’s concern and genuine compassion, as well as the company’s culture that reflected the same compassion, John felt a strong loyalty to the company and a desire to work even harder to be successful.

While there are policies in place that support employees as they look after loved ones who are sick, such as Family Medical Leave, many employees, like John, are reluctant to take advantage of them because they fear being stigmatized about their own mental health or substance use challenges or as in John’s case, that of a family member. But the power of John’s story, told first hand, is the story of the power of transformation and of what is possible if workplaces are deliberate and intentional about supporting their employees as they work to overcome their own mental health or substance issues. Supporting employees—and their families—is not just about mental health and substance use disorders, but it is ultimately about employee health and safety. Every employee should know the warning signs of a co-worker in trouble. Every supervisor should know how to deal compassionately with an employee who exhibits warning signs. And every employee should feel safe to reach out to their supervisors for help. What we know is that the workplace is a common space—and a common catalyst—for people with mental health or substance issues. There is a great opportunity in the workplace to address and support recovery in a concrete and active way.


John’s story highlights the power of transformation and of what’s possible—when workplaces strive to support rather than stigmatize their employees.

I welcome your thoughts.




The Impact of Story

“Storytelling can change a room. It can change lives. It can change the world.”  

–Gwenda Ledbetter

Last Monday night, over 500 people came together as we gathered at_dsc6649 Gotham Hall in New York for Fedcap’s annual Celebration of Work gala. Assembled were board members from our family of agencies as well as our friends, partners, supporters and staff.  I love this night each year as it is a time to pause, reflect and celebrate the work that we have done to change the lives of those with barriers to economic well-being.  This year, the gala proved to be one of the most powerful evenings in our agency’s history.

We chose to reflect on our work through the power of stories and we launched the Power of Possible Stories—an initiative through which we can tell hundreds, even thousands of stories and in the telling of the stories, change people’s lives.

Three remarkable people stood before the crowd and shared their narratives of untold hardship and survival, and of their ability to overcome unimaginable odds to ultimately thrive and flourish.

The stories told that night were not pretty. They did not follow an easy formula that was comfortable to hear. Instead, all three told stories involved gut wrenching pain and loss. Miriam Adler, a survivor of the Holocaust described fear in a way that I suspect many of us cannot imagine. She recounted first-hand what it was like to experience the loss of her family and the fear as she woke each day wondering if it would be her last.  Steve H. told his story of what it was like spend 19 years in prison, and Niki S. grew up to survive her mother’s mental illness, physical and sexual abuse, ravaging addiction and a life on the streets.  Undergirding these tough stories, told in stark beauty, was a thread of courage and the intensity of family love and the success and joy that followed perseverance.  _dsc6728

The testing ground for courage is often those troubled times during which our true strength of character is revealed. What we witnessed last Monday night was extraordinary strength of character. The things that happened to the people we heard from could have happened to any of us. Hearing their stories—and the many stories of those we serve—connects us to them in ways that nothing else quite does and inspires hope that the future can be different than the past. Hearing these stories inspires us to act, to make a difference, to change a life.

I will talk more about the Power of Possible Stories in the blogs to come.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

The Assumption of Greatness

I have spent a lot of this year thinking about the concept of equity.  It has been my observation that too often, disenfranchised groups internalize a limiting narrative and a sense of “less than” rather than one of possibility and optimism.

Changing that narrative is both a public and personal imperative.  In the simplest terms, when you believe that achieving a dream is possible…when you believe that you have options and choices success seems within reach . . .and positive action follows.  When people believe in themselves they usually act!

But telling people that there are possibilities is not enough.

Significant change must occur at an institutional and practice level.  Part of our work here at Fedcap is to ensure that each and every day we promote and embody aspirational thinking—among ourselves as well as instilling this belief in those we serve.  But equally, and maybe more importantly, we need to find a way to expand access to people who promote aspirational thinking.

In 1931, writer and historian James Truslow Adams coined the terdream-the-impossible-seek-the-unknown-achieve-greatnessm “American Dream” which he defined by this statement: Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. I am convinced that it is not just those who have been left out of the American Dream who have internalized a sense of limitations.  I sometimes think it may be those of us who are doing the “serving” who also limit our aspirations for ourselves and for others.

In other words, whether we are talking about people with disabilities, people who have been subject to generational poverty, or the previously incarcerated, what “society” or “helpers” or schools believe shapes how we help and how hard we push those we serve and how we define potential. Those of us in the practice of helping, teaching, mentoring and supporting must examine our own beliefs, challenge them critically, and be ready to flip the orthodoxies we assume so that we, too, are willing and able to change. And, as our thinking changes and evolves, so will the systems with which we interact will begin to shift as well.

We all must fundamentally believe everyone can achieve greatness.  Greatness is not necessarily defined as something huge and momentous. Sometimes greatness and change can come incrementally but still yield seismic shifts. For example, the very act of having a college savings account—even less than 500.00—makes a child three times more likely to enroll and four times more likely to graduate from college?  Why? Because the savings account makes a young person believe that college might be possible and attainable.

I wonder what would happen if our helping systems were designed not as a safety net to catch–but as a trampoline to help people soar.  What if they were designed not merely to keep people from falling through the cracks—but to build a solid foundation for success— a legitimate pathway to greatness.  What if every system presumed and assumed greatness—for everyone?

What would that take?  What kind of rethinking, restructuring, re-imagining would be required?

What are your thoughts?  How can we shift the paradigm to assume greatness for everyone?


Making a Difference by Giving -and Saying- Thanks

In 2013, the John Templeton Foundation conducted a survey of 2000 people on the nature of gratitude. In the survey, the respondents suggested that they were least likely to express gratitude at work than anyplace else in their lives. And yet, 93% of respondents 12-2-14-gratitudesaid that “grateful bosses” were the most likely to succeed.  All of the respondents suggested that saying thank you to colleagues made them feel happier and more fulfilled, yet only 10% actually said thank you out loud.

I suspect there are many theories out there about why only 10% don’t express gratitude out loud, but I am going with the theory that gratitude is a good thing—it boosts morale—it makes people feel good about their effort—and it is the right thing to do.

In that spirit, and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I wish to express my thanks.

Every day, I have the privilege to interact with people who inspire me.   Our Board of Directors  are committed to our mission of manifesting the power of possible—the power of economic well-being—for the people we serve.   They each bring a unique perspective to our work.  I am challenged and inspired by them, and am grateful for their input, their dedication, and their leadership.  Thank you Fedcap Board of Directors.

And every day I have the privilege to interact with tremendously smart staff who challenge me, wrangle through issues with me, surprise me with their innovation and skill at problem-solving, and overwhelm me with their dedication to our mission.  Our staff is far and wide—and while I don’t get to see them every day, whenever I visit one of our sites, I am so proud of the quality and integrity of our work that is united under one clear vision. To the Fedcap staff—all of you—I offer my sincerest thanks for the work you do every single day—and often night—on behalf of those we serve.

To our funders—city, state and federal agencies, foundations, corporations, family anthanksgiving-cornucopiad individual donors—you know that we couldn’t do our work without your vision, your resources, and your remarkable philanthropy.   Without you, there are tens of thousands of people who would be living without hope, without a future, and without a healthy legacy to leave behind. Without you, we simply wouldn’t be. Thank you.

And, finally, I offer my thanks to the people we serve. Every day I am inspired by your courage, your perseverance, your resilience, and your spirit. If there are ever days when I am tired or overwhelmed, it only lasts a moment as I think of each and every one of you who has broken through barriers that have now become a fabric of your past. You are what keep us all—Board of Directors, staff, funders, and partners—coming to work every day, stirred by your remarkable willingness to seek and accept help—and to contribute to a greater society. Thank you for giving me a reason to get up every morning and to work hard to make a relevant, sustainable impact.

To all of you, I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving.

Thank you.


A Call to Thrive: Being Needed and Finding Connection

“If one lights a fire for others, it will also brighten one’s own way.”  13th c Buddhist saying

On November 4, the New York Times ran an article entitled Behind Our Anxiety, The Fear of Being Unneeded, co-authored by The Dalai Lama and Arthur C. Brooks, leader of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and author of The Conservative Heart.

In the article, the authors suggest that even though things are improving slowly for people in countries that have been shrouded in hunger and illiteracy, those living in the most industrialized countries—the U.S., Britain, and the countries of Europe—are experiencing levels of anxiety and hopelessness never before felt.

The authors posit that the root cause of this existential hunger is a failure for people to feel useful to others. Those who are giving something of themselves are more likely to feel happy, and, statistics show, to live longer.

Our experience here at Fedcap points to a similar finding. This concept of being needed and, ultimately, finding connection are parts of what drives our staff to keep working in the midst of fast deadlines and often overloaded workdays. We are lucky as we experience the gratification of being needed on a daily basis. And, as we support others in finding economic well-being, we are opening up ways for them to feel more secure, so that, in turn, their own hunger to be needed can be met.

The New York Times article sparked a lot of discussion among my colleagues. It gave us a new angle through which to consider the success of our programs. We talked specifically about our ReServe program, which directly addresses a sense of usefulness for individuals aged 55 and older who may have determined that they want to shift the pace of their workaday lives and focus on helping others. ReServe gives them a vehicle to serve, to feel useful, and to make connections—as dementia coaches for families with a loved one living with dementia, as success mentors, helping foster children get ready for jobs or higher education, or through working with at-risk students who need extra support as they go through school.

As I think about the ways that our organization—or any organization—can help its staff to feel useful, I am struck by one immutable fact: it is only through action and connecting directly with others that we will help satisfy the pangs of uselessness. Conversations are important to raise awareness, but action is where the cure comes. Action can be as subtle as paying really good attention to others—an act French philosopher Simone Weil called “the rarest and purest form of generosity,” or it can be as bold and direct as creating a system or policy or process or structure that brings people together to solve a problem.  In these days of increased social media and technology that allows us to work remotely, finding new ways to connect directly can be more of a challenge, but a challenge well worth solving.

Today I am thinking about the actions I can take that will support connection and usefulness in myself and on behalf of others. What will you do to inspire others’ usefulness? How will you recognize the gifts of others, as the article suggests?

As always, I welcome your thoughts and opinions.

Here is a link to the NYT November 4 article: