In late February I had the great pleasure of volunteering with United Way of Massachusetts for Youth Venture Professional Development Day. In this program teens from across the state work on projects that will benefit their schools, families and communities. The event was a check-in for students to present their project developments and get feedback from mentors and judges to continue the completion of their projects.
On that Saturday I was also asked to do a short presentation about using social media for project promotion. I tell you, speaking to teenagers about best practices for Twitter is more nerve-racking than addressing million-making company CEOs on the matter. The whole day was wonderful, with no glitches, plenty of questions and a lot, a lot, of inspiration.
In the first half of our day we heard students present their projects for feedback. Two of the projects we heard from were from Lynn, Massachusetts. The first working to have a second Dance Jam where professional breakdancers and choreographers could join a dance party to promote healthy living through art and dance while increasing teen's confidence. There was a lot of meaning behind what could be deemed as just another party. The student group had hosted the event in 2014 and in 2015 their goal was to raise enough funds to secure a dance class at the Lynn YMCA and show that looks or outfits don't matter on a dancefloor.
The second group also turned to their YMCA, but for a different purpose. The students wanted to create a support group for homeless teens in Lynn. Their personal experiences and research showed that Lynn has one of the highest teen homelessness rates in the state. Three other judges and I were floored after hearing this. The students explained that these teens never fit in, they pretend their lives are alright because they are embarrassed to admit their homelessness but this defense mechanism never allows them to create real friendships. Their support group would pair a homeless teen with a teen who has a home to talk about feelings, TV shows, life goals, teen love, anything at all, to give homeless teens a place where to belong. When asked why the group decided to tackle this issue, the seeming leader, "Eddy," said that his grandma asks him frequently, "have you made someone smile today?" and he wanted to make the homeless teens he knows and sees at school smile.
"Have you made someone smile today?" Osayaba, aka "Eddy," whose @speakunited project is to help homeless teens in Lynn.
Eddy's intention stuck with me. An outspoken young man with a fiery spirit, he wore a dress shirt and bowtie to look his very best, despite being from a city with a 21.9 percent poverty rate. Perhaps his family, too, has dealt weathered through tough financial times, or perhaps not. But by making the choice to present himself in the best way possible and share his desire to make others see the very best in themselves as well, I was given a perfect example of dignity and humility. Eddy left me wondering, do I make someone smile everyday?
The last project we heard from tackled colorism. It was from students in East Boston who wanted to talk about people discriminating against each other because of their skin color being darker or lighter, despite coming from the same race. This was a politically charged and societally needed project, which stemmed from Michael Brown's shooting in Ferguson, Mo. As a Mexican-American I was marvelled at the willingness these high-school students have to address subjects my own parent or grandparents feel uncomfortable talking about.
Once the presentations were over I hosted other students for a branding and social media for business presentation. Again, the questions from the young-adults and their capacity to grasp new concepts, when explained a little more in detail, blew me out of the ballpark. Two sisters behind the project of a "Grateful Wall" approached me to ask for more social media guidance for their idea. They want to build a website where people worldwide can post a message of gratefulness for 10 cents, and choose a charity for the dime to be donated.
Have you heard these kind of ideas, using movement or events or art or outreach or education or crowdsourcing to accomplish a goal, from ANYONE in your office lately? After the event I felt guilty.
Guilty because I, like many others, have doubted Generation Z. The news reports of teen bullying, sense of entitlement, lack of skills due to over-digitization and so much more, truly blindfolded me. I've volunteered to help fellow, younger millennials, or pre-high school students because of my biased thinking, "teenagers nowadays just don't care." Boy am I, and are we wrong.
Generation Z has incredible potential. The next generation of employees will be hyper-digitized, globalized and politicized. It is up to everyone 25 and older to help them focus their skills and knowledge into positive work. Let's face it, the teens of today will not live through another Y2K or Facebook launch or first Black elected president.
For the most part our civilization is set as we know it, but Generation Z will experience the changes and consequences of environment, new civil rights, and even terrorism-related happenings. If we want our businesses and corporations to have a legacy, we need to think about adjusting our business models beyond millennial lifestyles. We need to start thinking of more than digital offices, we need multilingual work environments, community involvement, a plan for global impact, increased education and travel work benefits and real, acted-upon, values.
I've been asked more than a dozen times, "what do millennials want to stay in a job?!" The answer is easy, we want to see a clear path of growth if we're to stay in one single company for more than 2-years. I think Generation Z will want more than that, they will want to understand how the work of one person can affect the whole company and the world. While there are some millennials who think like this now, the mindset will expand.
Be inspired and afraid and, like me, get your blindfold off. Today's teens are ready to make changes.
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