Victoria Brewster, MSW

Victoria Brewster, MSW

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
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Interview with SJS’s newest Syndicate: Ysette Guevara from Minds on Fire

I personally am an avid reader, I blog professionally and I love to come across blogs of interest that I find inspiring. SJS’s newest syndicate is one of those must read blogs. Minds on Fire-Ysette Guevara’s mission, her goals, her passion come through her writing and that is rare. SJS is honored to bring her on board! Read below to learn more about her as an individual, but also to learn about the projects she is working on with youth.

Discuss your background, educational experience, current work experience-

Colleagues are often surprised when I tell them that I have an undergraduate degree in Latin American Studies and a doctorate in Spanish literature, because these days so many people (students, employers) view higher education as a glorified form of vocational training. I feel fortunate to have grown up during a time when young people were encouraged to pursue what lit them up intellectually, and to have graduated during an economic boom, when students of the humanities were highly sought after by employers for their critical thinking skills.

This will sound dramatic, but in graduate school I had a crisis that left me convinced that I had to leave academia if I wanted a truly fulfilling life. But when I tried to envision a new future for myself, all I saw before me was a huge, black abyss. This was, as you may imagine, absolutely terrifying, and I am grateful that by a stroke of serendipity (my husband’s involvement in a mentoring program) I became aware of the foster care system and found a social problem that I felt called to address.

Paradoxically enough, it is an advantage that my background is so different from everyone else in the field with training in social work, education, sociology, law, or public administration. Unlike most of the PhDs that I met at NYU, I’m fond of being a little bit out of my element. I see it as a way to learn and grow, and it also gives me the chance to bring something unique to the table.

I’ve written about how, precisely, my academic background informs my work here and here. Finding the internal and external resources I needed to pull off this transition was a profound life experience, and every day I make an effort to pass that lesson on to those around me.

Talk about Minds on Fire- What is it exactly and what programs and training do you offer to youth?

Minds On Fire is a phrase that describes what many teachers aim for: that moment when things really click for our students and they suddenly light up and can’t remain in their seats because they are so excited by an idea. My wish is for every young person to experience the joy of thinking deeply and reflectively, of making creative connections between ideas, because—much like meditation—it’s a source of bliss that doesn’t depend on one’s material circumstances. Once you develop the critical thinking skills to engage with the world, they will always be available to you—and not just to feed your curiosity, but to allow you to pursue self-determination. I suppose it falls along the lines of the old adage that your education is something no one can ever take away from you.

Organizationally, Minds On Fire is a fiction, in the sense that I haven’t yet incorporated my business. I operate as an independent consultant, not only because it’s the path of least resistance and I have a lot on my plate, but also because I’m still trying to figure out if I should go the non-profit route (in which case I would hope to find a fiscal sponsor first), or find a way of being a benefit corporation (a for-profit social enterprise whose mission is legally protected).

As a consultant, I adapt my material to the specific needs of my client organization and the interests of their youth. All my workshops help young people transition successfully into the adult world, either as individuals or as an organized group. I guide youth organizations in defining their mission and processes, and help their members strengthen their leadership and teambuilding skills. My work for individuals focuses on three broad areas: defining their goals for adulthood, doing deep identity work, and starting them down the path to a purpose-driven life, which I firmly believe is something everyone can pursue, regardless of their personal or material circumstances.

While my consultancy brings in an income, I really see Minds On Fire headed in the direction of longer programs where we can work with the same group of young people consistently over a period of several months. I’m engaged in two projects in parallel. The larger one is a youth development program I’m calling Multiple Paths to Adulthood, and it’s for 19 to 24-year olds transitioning out of foster care. The program progresses through my three main content areas: adulthood, identity, and social connection/career exploration. This is still under research and development, so it gives me great intellectual fulfillment.

My second program, Emerging Leaders, feeds the part of me that loves spending time in the company of young people and helping them pursue their dreams. I am very fortunate to know more than a handful of youth who are aging out or have recently aged out of care who wish to run their own youth-serving organization or social enterprise. I started gathering them informally so I could be efficient about funneling information and resources to them. We meet monthly to discuss their program ideas for child welfare reform and youth development, and also talk more generally about the skills and personal qualities necessary for social entrepreneurship. We plot out the concrete steps they need to take, educationally or otherwise, to bring them closer to their “hustle.” We’re also starting to take field trips to places around New York City that serve as resources to nonprofits and social entrepreneurs, such as the Foundation Center, the Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL), and co-working spaces for consultants and startups. Eventually I would like to bring in guest speakers to give my emerging leaders career advice, and to take them to panels and mixers around the city so they can plug into the growing community of social entrepreneurs.

It gratifies me to notice that my emerging leaders are really starting to develop bonds with each other. They’ve started turning to one another for career advice, and on a more personal level, I am no longer the sole recipient of their hugs. They’ve started hugging each other as well! My wish is that they establish long-lasting relationships with each other for emotional and professional support. I am convinced that their generation has the capacity to transform the city’s child welfare system and really address the problem of young people regularly aging out of care with little to no access to housing, legal support, or meaningful educational and career development opportunities.

How does one find out about the programs or trainings?

The child welfare/youth development community in NYC is small enough that I’ve been able to get all my work through word of mouth referrals. Many people have suggested that I expand my trainings to adults in youth-serving positions, and it’s an idea that I continue to entertain, but I think everyone should pursue the work that speaks to her or his heart most loudly. In my case, that’s working with older youth.

How did you get involved in writing and blogging?

I’ve always enjoyed reading, not just for what it can teach me, but also for the pleasure of experiencing the music of language. I see writing as a way to tap into that enjoyment in an expressive way, and I’ve consistently written in private since I was little. Perhaps the seminal moment was winning first prize in my fifth grade poetry contest, which gave me the feeling that I had talent worth cultivating. I was also very fortunate to have had a steady stream of teachers from elementary through graduate school who reinforced the idea that writing was one of my strengths.

Whenever I was stuck on my dissertation I would start blogging about whatever pet topic I felt like researching. My blogs were invite-only because I was very reluctant to share anything that wasn’t polished or backed by research. My public blog owes its birth to my husband, who kept insisting that other people would appreciate my ideas on education and youth development.

It felt a bit scary putting myself out there at first, especially since I wasn’t really sure what the angle of my blog would be, who my audience was, and how to shift from my academic voice to something more accessible to a general reading public. Instead of trying to figure that out from outside in, I just kept writing about whatever interested me without any regard for external judgment. It helped having already built up a small but loyal readership among my friends. I didn’t actively seek out new readers until very recently, when Vikki Brewster from SJS approached me about guest posting and then syndication. Until then, I figured that those who were looking for a unique perspective on youth development would find my blog somehow. I cultivated an online presence not to broadcast my ideas (I really don’t relish the thought of having to “market” myself), but to share knowledge, make connections, and invite dialogue.

What is your passion when it comes to work?

I am a classic introvert. I need a lot of time alone to read, write, and reflect, just as much as I crave meaningful human connection. So my passion is double: I relish the intellectual challenge of designing a program and figuring out the logistics of bringing it to life, and delight in the long conversations I have with my young people and colleagues. In grad school it was exactly the same. I loved being in the zone while writing my dissertation, but I needed to come up for air to have coffee with friends. And during really bad weeks, teaching a class would always lift my spirits.

What advice can you offer to students today?

Be open to surprising yourself. I think it’s a mistake to tell young people to “be yourself” too early on, because how can they stay true to a self that is still (or should be) very much information? I encourage identity exploration in my workshops because young people in foster care are very susceptible to identity foreclosure. Because of external pressures, they don’t have the luxury of taking their twenties to “find themselves.” As a result, youth in care have a tough time letting go of self-concepts and habits that helped them survive in the past, but which will probably make life difficult for them in the future.

This is advice that I would dispense more generally to youth and adults alike. Back when I was dead set on becoming a tenured professor at a small liberal arts college in the northeast, I would have scoffed at the notion of being an entrepreneur who had to network to make a living. I thought I had my life figured out by my late twenties, and it was awful finding myself in a career transition. Being at the other end of that tunnel, however, I really cherish the lesson that you can find more fulfillment than you ever dared to imagine if you are able to be resourceful and step outside preconceived notions of yourself.

Ysette Guevara, Ph.D.

Thank you Ysette for agreeing to be interviewed and for joining SJS as a contributor!

By Victoria Brewster, MSW
Staff Writer

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