As an agency that focuses our work in the areas of health and wellness, education, arts and culture, and urbanism, we often work with clients who serve at-risk communities. We pride ourselves on doing good work for good people, and feel that through providing services to these organizations, we too are doing good work. When we build the online resource for Great Philly Schools to help parents navigate a complicated urban education system, we are doing good. When we develop software to help patients remember to take heart attack prevention medications, we are also doing good. But very rarely can we have as direct and tangible an impact as we can through Spark: a workplace mentorship program focused on placing middle schoolers in professional learning experiences that demonstrate both the value of staying in school, and potential career paths in which students have demonstrated interest.
How lucky we are that for the past several Tuesdays, three seventh graders from West Philly hop on a bus and troop all the way down to East Passyunk to work with myself and two coworkers for the last two hours of the day. Yes, it may have gotten off to a rocky start (we did find out the hard way that no, most 7th graders can absolutely not handle espresso), and yes, it does mean that those are two hours that we have to strategize around to catch up on any missed work. But it also means that these three students are being exposed to their potential in a way they otherwise might not. It means that for those two hours they are engaged in a positive and productive way that will fuel a bright future. They are being asked to show up, think hard, and prove that we should make the time for them.
Exposing our mentees to a different world - one where, as my mentee put it, she should “say hi and be nice to people, not listen to hear headphones and ignore people” - pulls them out of their comfort zone and into a place that challenges them. Part of the Spark mentorship program is about doing a project together that the mentee can present at Discovery Night, the culminating event of the program. At first, I struggled with how to engage my student in a challenging but fun way. I was really nervous about finding the right project for us to do together, and I was out of my comfort zone!
On the day that we first met, she was ecstatic that I worked with computers, which I quickly learned was founded in the expectation that she would get internet privileges and be able to play games during her time at the studio. She told me that she is good at math, and likes her “tech” class. We then talked about P’unk Ave, and what goes into designing and building websites and apps. Then when talking about our project, she said she’d like it to be something artistic. Something fun. Something that helps people. Something about clothes, maybe. Finally, we settled on an app that helps you pick out an outfit when you are just having one of those “I don’t know what to wear!?!?” kind of days.
Working with my coworker Priya and her mentee (who is also a fashionista), we spent one of our sessions designing mood boards to get a sense of the “look and feel” of their apps. We dug into our user experience resources and used magazine cut-outs to collage the visual identity of the apps. It was a fun experiment in how to translate the ideas behind design into something that would be relatable for middle schoolers, and in recapping our day together, I was excited to hear my mentee talking about having worked on the design of her app.
Yesterday, when our students were in the studio, we had a potential hire present some of her design work to the team. We brought our mentees to the meeting, not only to show them what an interview process might look like, but also to give them the opportunity to see some design work. I was floored, and excited, when my mentee raised her hand and asked the interviewee about her design process for a poster. She was engaged and focused, and willing to insert herself into a very adult conversation. I can tell from that experience, and many others, that she and I are both going to do really good work during her mentorship here at P’unk Ave.