See It to Be It : Experiential Learning Coordinator (w/ Kathleen Badejo)

Amy chats with Kathleen Badejo, who worked as an experiential learning coordinator at Embarc at the time of this interview, about how she curated learning experiences by building partnerships and widening opportunities for young people.

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Amy: Kathleen, thank you so much for joining me today.

Kathleen: Of course. Thanks so much for having me, Amy. I appreciate it.

Amy: I appreciate you so much. And I want to jump right in because you’ve had so much going on lately, and I want to make sure we get to all of it. Can you tell our audience a little bit about your background in the education space, the non-profit and community service?

Kathleen: Sure, sure. So I’ll kind of start senior year of college. I had a quarter-life crisis. I was studying exercise science in college, I was looking to pursue a career in healthcare, and then had a friend tell me, “I don’t think you want to do this,” and I said, “Yes, I think you’re right.” She knew I was super passionate about education. I’m a child of immigrants, both of my parents immigrated to Canada for their education, and so that’s just always been something that’s been kind of a through line and really kind of a foundation for me, but I had never thought about, you know, pursuing or opening that door and trying to enter that sector until this friend helped kind of helped me see the light. And so essentially, I graduated college and entered an AmeriCorps program called City Year, and it was this perfect opportunity for me to enter, you know, the landscape of education. I wasn’t exactly sure if I want to be a teacher, but I wanted to be in the classroom to engage with young people and see if that was a space that I want to be a part of. And so City Year was this perfect, happy medium where I was able to step into the classroom, support a teacher, facilitate small groups, help build culture and climate at a school, and really, you know, kind of put my foot in the door within education. I did that for two years. Basically a year in I thought, “You know, teaching, it’s not for me,” and I’ll say never say never because I–who knows, you know what could happen, but I recognize–I applaud teachers, and they are, you know, our heroes, really, amongst us, but I was like, “I don’t quite want to do that, but I want to stay involved with young people. So I want to support them and, you know, be involved in some sort of program that works with young people and just support them in being, you know, their best selves. So that took me to Embarc where we do experiential learning, and so it has been such a privilege. We’re a non-profit, and we believe experiences matter. So we actually tap our city as a classroom. We believe that learning takes place beyond the four walls of the classroom. I think, you know, if we think about what we learned in physics or algebra in high school, I don’t think many of us are using the quadratic formula in our everyday lives. You know, we’re networking with people. We are–you know, just all these different socio-emotional skills that are just so necessary to be able to thrive and do well and kind of whatever path you choose in that post-secondary space. And so Embarc is an opportunity for young people to really to gain and grasp all that knowledge, to meet people, to see people who look like them doing things that they didn’t even know existed or was possible for them. And so it’s been really just a great privilege to be curating experiences for the past few years kind of being within that space.

Amy: That’s fantastic. And so with Embarc you were working with high school aged kids?

Kathleen: Yeah, high school students.

Amy: So tell me a little bit about–because I know you said it’s kind of like field trips on steroids, right? That’s how you described it to me before. So can you give us an example? Or tell us a story from one of those events?

Kathleen: Sure, sure. So one of the experiences, we took students to Digitas, which is an ad agency in downtown Chicago, and often times, when we are building these experiences, you know, we believe that learning can take place anywhere. And so, you know, we had a connection with somebody who worked at the ad agency and we thought, “Hey, would you be open to opening your doors, having some high school students walk in this building and learn about what you do in your day to day life to help them understand, you know, what a career kind of in the ad world looks like?” I mean, we all watch TV for the most part, we see commercials and, you know, laugh at them sometimes… or sometimes don’t laugh at them ’cause sometimes they’re not that great, but, you know, there’s a whole set of people who work and put those things together. And so it was great to build that experience, we brought a classroom of students to this downtown Chicago building, and we actually met with a woman who was actually from the neighborhood of where the students were coming from, and she had this just incredible story, something that we always try to do and experience is–you know, there’s the interactive part of students, you know, being able to learn about the career and participate in challenges to help them really understand what is it that these individuals do, but then we also make sure just to have some storytelling with the people that they’re working with and have them share, you know, how did they get here, and, you know, take advice and just do Q&A. And so this experience was just especially important to me because it was this really powerful moment where this woman who came, you know, from the same neighborhood that the students also come from, had a very similar story and background, and just was relatable to the students who looked like them, who had just very similar family backgrounds to them as well understood just the struggle that they sit in as students from their neighborhood and then was able to tell them, like, you know, “It wasn’t perfect, you know,” and was just very candid with them about, you know, the different steps, different challenges, drawbacks, she had to kind of get where she was at now. And, you know, told them, “Hey, if you want to talk more, I want to make that time, you know, available and space and be here for you as well.” And so those are always moments that I’m like, “Ah, yes, this is why we do what we do,” ’cause you don’t know what you don’t know, and so for students to step into that space where they felt like they–you know, it’s downtown Chicago. Many of them don’t go there super often. They feel like they don’t belong in spaces like that. ‘Cause, you know, we work with Black and brown students, and often times, you know, corporate America is very white, for the most part, so when you’re able to meet individuals who look like you and that you can actually relate to, that’s just incredibly powerful, and helping them kind of broaden just their world view of what’s possible for them.

Amy: Well, you know, that’s a mission close to my heart, ’cause that’s what this whole interview series is about, helping people see what’s possible for them, you know, in the community, in the economy and in their careers, because so many of us don’t see all of these jobs every day, and it’s so hard to imagine something if you don’t know it exists, so I applaud you for that. I think that’s such a wonderful way to invest in your community, but I’m sure you were on a similar learning journey to your students in terms of seeing things that you maybe didn’t know existed or, you know, just building your own network, and that’s [?] as well.

Kathleen: Definitely, definitely. I mean, for me, obviously, what we do for the young people is awesome, right, but even just for myself, being part of the program and making connections, I’ve been able to see it. And I’m not from Chicago as well, so as somebody who, you know, didn’t grow up in the area, it is super important for me to really understand and listen to people who’ve been there and understand the story and what’s happened, you know, and just talk to real people. And so for me, and just in my own development, it’s been really important, as I’ve built connections and, you know, just gotten to know the city through just these various experiences. It’s been really powerful just even for myself and my own development.

Amy: That’s great. And I’m sure those skills have come in handy, because–so you worked with Embarc for a while, but you recently relocated out of Chicago, and you have the dubious honor of having conducted a job search during a global pandemic, and I would imagine that there are a number of our listeners who are in a similar situation where for whatever reason, you know, the economy’s changing anyway, a lot of people are finding themselves in transition right now. Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve learned and what the process looked like, interviewing without being able to leave the house, for example, or other struggles that you faced?

Kathleen: Sure. It has been a time. I never envisioned that I would be job hunting during the pandemic. When I say those words I’m like, “Wow, this is so interesting,” but really, and I’ll be so honest, there are times where it was just incredibly discouraging, because I had so many, you know, hopes and dreams and kind of what I thought it might look like as I relocated, and, you know, just different sectors I was interested in and, you know, so many sectors have just been so impacted by the pandemic and, you know, a lot of people are, you know, pausing hiring, and a lot of hiring freezes, and so, as a job seeker in this time, you’re like, “Okay, where does that leave me and kind of now what opportunities can I pursue?” And so really, I think there was a few weeks there where I was just pretty discouraged. And I kind of started just applying to anything and everything, because I just said, “Hey, I have bills, and, you know, need to just gather some sort of income.” But, you know, I actually took a break, which, you know, in kind of Job Seeking 101 I don’t think is probably encouraged to do so because it’s like, “You need to get a job, so send in your 100 applications each day and kind of keep on it,” but I gotten to a point where it was so, you know, demoralizing at a point where you’re just like, “I don’t know.” On top of just the mental health impacts of, you know, being stuck at home, and just, you know, all of that and navigating that as well, it was just a lot to manage. So I said, you know, “We’re just gonna take some time off, and, you know, there are things that I know where I can take care of myself and just step away from all the job applications and do that.” It provided a reset for me, because when I came back I thought, “Okay, Kathleen, what do you know how to do well?” And that’s building relationships. And so I got on LinkedIn and, you know, just stalked people on LinkedIn and was like, “Hey.” I had made a list of the different areas I was interested in, and so I started reaching out to people in those areas, whether they were in the area where I relocated to or just kind of anywhere from just kind of different networks, reaching out to friends and their networks, asking them to help me out. And so I just started having conversations with people, and that actually lifted my spirits, you know, and for me, I’m an extrovert. So I really enjoyed it, you know? Depending on who you are. You have to do things that make sense for who you are, but for me it was like a breath of fresh air. And, you know, lo and behold, I eventually, you know, started building connections here, in the city where I relocated, and people started saying, you know, “We’re gonna get you a job. I know the circumstances look really grim right now, but we’re gonna help you out. We’re gonna get you a job. You’ve communicated what you’re looking for, your preferences, and, you know, we’re going to help you out.” And, you know, so that’s been amazing and incredible, when you just are kind of, you know, put it out there, you know, and people receive that, and, you know, people are just–for the most part–very kind and want to help, you know, for the most part. That’s a big learning I’ve learned from this process is people want to help, and if they can help, they will help. And so it’s been through my connections that I’ve been sent different job opportunities that I didn’t even see just from, you know, my own job search engines that I’d been using, but they are kind of in the know about positions that were about to be posted and were able to send them my way. And so, you know, that’s led me to now. I’m currently interviewing for a position that was, you know, sent to me by somebody I connected with, and just yesterday, she actually said, “Hey, you know, I just emailed them at the employer, and, you know, wanted to just give them a good note about how great you are just ’cause,” and I thought, “What? I don’t even know you. Like, I’ve only talked to you for, you know, 45 minutes for one conversation.” But, you know, how do you leave just a really lasting impression with these individuals who you’re making connections with, and so that’s just been a really big, big learning is in this time of a lot of uncertainty and unprecedented times as, you know, we’re saying, fall back on what you know how to do well, and for me, I knew that was talking to people. So I used that, and it’s now you know, brought me to a place that, you know, despite the limited opportunity because of the crisis, I’m still, you know, in a much better place, and really looking forward to, you know, where I land in terms of opportunity-wise for my next chapter.

Amy: That is so wonderful. And I know last time we spoke I said I hope that you have multiple amazing offers to choose from, and it looks like yes, we’re gonna keep our fingers crossed, but it looks like that’s what’s happening right now. But no, I think it’s fantastic. And one of the things that you said, which I found to be true too, Kathleen, is, you know, you struggle, struggle, struggle, push, push, push, and then all you had to do was just stop and let the universe catch up with you and just allow yourself space to take a deep breath, right? It’s like if you feel like you’re drowning, right, and you start to panic, and you’re splashing and you’re going crazy in the water, you’re never going to get anywhere, right? But just take a deep breath, float on your back, you know, regain some strength, regain some energy, and it’ll look so much different when you come back. And so it’s just an interesting push and pull that I’m finding in the universe. It seems like not the harder I work, because I always work hard, but the harder I try the further away things seem to be, right? But if I work hard and I’m not trying so hard, like, I’m just in my flow and I’m doing my thing, like you said, what you’re good at, what comes naturally, it’s like the right things find you, and I’m so glad to hear that that’s happened for you, especially right now.

Kathleen: Yes, yes. Especially right now, yes. Yeah, I would agree.

Amy: Now, one other thing I wanted to talk to you about, you know, it’s been a tough news cycle for everybody around the world, but I want to make sure that we speak to how incredibly difficult the news cycles have been lately for Black folks in this country and the impact that that has. You know, you used the phrase “the compounding impact of news trauma,” and can we talk just a little bit about that and what that looks like from your perspective? And I know you said you’ve been in some dark places lately with us, and can you just sort of share with our listeners how this feels for you? I’m sure a lot of them will be able to relate. But also, how are you coping with this?

Kathleen: Sure, sure. Thanks for asking, Amy. So it’s a lot. And I’ve kind of–sitting in where are we at in this pandemic, I see everything now as there’s pre-corona world, and then the world we live in now. Um, and I often think about that time of life before, kind of is really how I see it sometimes, and life now, I mean, just even going to work is draining sometimes, and going to work is, you know, coming to sit at my desk in my basement and attend meetings for work and do that, but just that alone just can be exhausting at times because of the nature of, you know, being home for the extended amount of time that we have. So someone like me who, you know, I really thrive off of my relationships with others, and, you know, enjoy seeing people and hang out with people, you know, social media, I actually–when the pandemic happens, or at least, you know, on quarantine and lockdown, I turned off social media just because I was like, “This is too much. I can’t handle this,” but then I found myself being isolated and I was like, “I need to see something,” so I hopped back on and tried to kind of find boundaries of “Okay, how much time do I allow myself to be on here and do this?” But then as we all know, image and video, one after the other of the, you know, unjust killings of people who look like me, of Black men and women, of trans Black men and women as well, and it makes me think. I’m like, “Okay, well, in a pre-COVID world, there was almost a way for me to kind of escape and numb a little bit of the pain and the grief,” when, you know, that news came out, because there was always kind of somewhere to go. I either had to go to work or–you know, there were ways to escape it, which also is not healthy, so there’s that. And I’m a big proponent and huge advocate of therapy and counseling, and that’s something I personally invest in, but now when when you’re in this world where there is nowhere to go and so you’re sitting at home with just you and your thoughts, a dark place is, like you’ve mentioned, where I’ve gone because I’m not entirely sure how to cope when, you know, being in a pandemic is something none of us have really gone through, so what kind of–you know, often times when you go through experiences, I feel like we build up kind of toolkits of how to navigate said situation, but when you’re in a brand new one and you’re like, “What transferable skills, like, how can–” You know, and you’re kind of coming up empty. And then on top of that, you see these lynchings happen. It’s a lot to swallow. Honestly, I’m incapable of, you know, digesting the information, and then I look at my calendar and I have some tasks to work on. Nothing seems to matter. Everything is kind of meaningless because another person has been lynched, and other Black man, another Black woman has been lynched, and I don’t know how to deal or how to cope. And I’m trying to figure out how to cope. I’m a person of faith, and so I thank God for another just day of life, but then I’m like, “Okay, well, now what do I do? I’m not entirely sure,” and kind of grasping for answers. Yeah, I don’t think I have it figured out. I think today I told myself, “I need to call my therapist.” I haven’t talked to her in quite some time… actually really throughout this entire pandemic time I haven’t been in therapy sessions because it’s something I had stopped, but I’m really feeling like I need to reach out for support and for help, and so, for me, I know that’s one way I hope to cope with this. And I’m a verbal processor, so I know I can’t hold all of this in because it’s just not healthy. So that is one step that I hope to do and will take kind of very, very soon if not today, but it’s a lot to sit with, and really I plead with, kind of, if you are a supervisor, you know, listening, or boss, and things like this happen, checking in with your staff to see “How are you doing?” Because it’s like–you can’t ask me to, you know, submit or work on this thing when my mental capacity is just not going to be there. It really is not, and so I really plead that, you know, people are aware of kind of what’s going on, especially if you’re a non-Black person and you have Black folks in your life. What are we asking of them? Of me, you know, and of us in this time, and to be aware of mindful of that. But yeah, I don’t quite have an answer on how to deal because I’m still right now trying to figure that out, but it’s been especially difficult, especially difficult to navigate in the midst of kind of just everything, everything going on and navigating a pandemic.

Amy: Yeah. I appreciate your use of the word lynching, and it’s a historically significant and accurate depiction of what’s going on. You know, one of the things that you touched on is the role of video, and in that I see such a double edged sword because these videos are traumatic, they are violent. I mean, there are videos of people being killed, right, circulating on social media, which I think is horrific. And so, you know, it’s traumatic for me to see, I’m sure it’s even more traumatic when, you know, you more closely identify with the victims of these crimes. But then by the same token if the videos didn’t exist the perpetrators wouldn’t be held to account, and what a horrible, horrible, you know, juxtaposition of facts that is.

Kathleen: Yeah, and I’ve been getting louder and louder on social media to say, like, “The videos of the lynchings can’t circulate because it’s–” Yeah, like you said, traumatic, but in the Amy Cooper case, if we didn’t have that video, you know, I don’t know if–I know now we all know she’s been let go, fired from her job, and I think her dog was taken away, and, you know, that sort of thing, and, you know, would that have happened if the video wasn’t there? Her video is interesting because, you know, nobody’s getting killed in that video per se, but it still is this double edged sword where it’s like–the video should not have to exist, right, for people to believe or to understand. That’s just–you know, we shouldn’t live in a world where you have to see somebody getting lynched to feel for them, or, you know, be moved to take action or anything.

Amy: Yeah, but let’s be clear, in the Amy Cooper video–because, you know, you talked about “no one was getting killed in that video,” you know, Amy Cooper watches the same news we all watch, right? Amy Cooper has seen numerous incidents of Black men being shot first and questions asked later for minor offenses like, you know, wearing a hooded sweatshirt or, you know, playing with a toy gun in a park or, you know, standing in Walmart, or sleeping in their own bed, and while the outcome of that particular video was that no Black person was killed, certainly she knew by picking up the phone that that was a possible outcome of her actions. And, you know, there’s no escaping that in this world, right? There’s no way she could plead ignorance on that point. And, you know, I think the violence is there. I mean, the fear that I would feel if I knew that somebody could murder me with absolute immunity and watch somebody call in that hit on me or attempt to, right? Because that’s what’s happened. And, you know, the same day in the news we see, you know, exactly that happen, right? We saw the murder of a man by the police. And so I just don’t think that any person in this country can plead ignorance about the possibilities of what can happen when police are unnecessarily called to a scene involving a racial incident. I want to put a point on that because–and here’s the thing that I’ve learned, Kathleen, is white people won’t hear it if a white person doesn’t say it, and I want my voice to be heard saying, like, “This is not okay. We know better. We know what happens.” You know, it’s not enough for us to pretend it doesn’t exist or to look the other way or to not engage in it. We have to actively dismantle this, because if we don’t actively dismantle it, if we white folks don’t actively dismantle it, we are perpetuating it. And this cannot continue.

Kathleen: Totally. And I think my thoughts too around that is just that, you know, Amy Cooper, I think there’s some stuff going on that she was quote-unquote liberal, and so there’s, like, this whole thing about party lines and then that whole thing as well, but, you know, Amy Coopers who just allow just white supremacy and that, you know, lead to Black death. That’s just ultimately kind of, you know, what that gets to, and so it has to be called out and said, you know, for what it is and what happened. But it’s–yeah, just, there’s a lot there. There’s a lot. That’s a lot.

Amy: Yeah. 400 years of unchecked racism and white supremacy. You know, these are not isolated incidents. They’re a pattern. They’re an inevitable pattern of the sins of our past until we reckon with them. We’re just going to have to do better. I mean, we just have to. I don’t want to belabor the point, but I know that that’s something that’s on a lot of people’s minds, and you had spoken so from the heart about that, and I wanted to be sure to touch on that because it is top of mind for so many people and, you know, in particular, you know, in communities of color. And I’m just so sorry.

Kathleen: Yeah, yeah. And I’ll say even just in Black communities, right, I think it’s important. I think there’s this sometimes notion–and I try to always push back, you know, using people of color jargon sometimes or using that–and of course, you know, people of color, we all face various injustices and things, but I think specifically in these instances with Amy Cooper and, you know, what happened with George and with everybody else, right, it’s affecting Black bodies, so it’s affecting Black communities. So just being sort of–making that very distinct.

Amy: Thank you, and I was thinking–even as I said it, I was thinking, “No, I meant to use the word Black.” You know, Hispanic and Latino communities have their own issues with, you know, threats of deportation and things like that. So it’s a different policing and a different mechanism of control, but the root of the racism is very much the same. Oh, my goodness. Well, Kathleen, thank you so much for your time today. I know we got really deep and we didn’t really end on a really high note, but, you know, I know that it is a lot, right, to deal with all of the news and all of the pandemic and the job search and the relocation, AND, if I may share, you had wedding plans for this fall that you’ve had to change as well. But the wedding’s still on.

Kathleen: Yeah. The wedding is still on, it just will most likely look very different from what we originally planned, but that is–and the pandemic is such this mix of emotions that, you know, just on the spectrum, and, you know, it’s tough. If you had told me that, “Oh, no, you probably aren’t going to throw the huge party that you thought,” I’d be thinking, “Absolutely not.” Like, “I’ve always wanted the big party and whatever,” but, you know, this time with my thoughts has made me just recognize what’s actually most important here, and that’s what needs to get done, and so now I’m, you know, most likely throwing this, like, small, intimate affair that I never knew I needed. But, you know, it’s happening, and I wouldn’t, you know, have come to that realization if it were not for the current circumstance that we’re in, which is, you know, I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s where we sit now. So, yeah, you know, love is not canceled. That’s the hashtag I’ve seen going around.

Amy: Oh, I love that. Well, Kathleen, congratulations on the culmination of your job search. I’m so thrilled for you, and I look forward to great things from you in the future.

Kathleen: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me on.

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