September 27, 2018
Staff Spotlight: Laura Jankstrom, Director of Civic Engagement Programs
It’s been eight years since Laura Jankstrom joined the CCC staff. She first joined as a YouthAction coordinator, where she managed programming designed to help New York City high school students develop skills in leadership, advocacy, and/or civic engagement. She has since worked her way up to lead all of CCC’s civic engagement programming with adults and youth. We sat down with her to learn more about what she does, why she does it, and what her reflections are on her near-decade serving NYC children and families at CCC.
I started at CCC in September 2010 (right after I got back from my honeymoon!) as the YouthAction Program Coordinator. I’d been doing youth development work for about five years, and like many in the direct service field became frustrated by the systemic challenges that were limiting opportunities and creating all kinds of barriers for the youth with whom I worked. I went back to school for an MSW and concentrated my studies on community organizing and public policy. Upon graduation, there was a part of me that was very excited to embark on this new trajectory, but I also felt a profound sadness at the prospect of giving up youth work, which is so rewarding (and let’s be honest, FUN!). So, you can imagine how excited I was to see the YouthAction coordinator position at CCC-a job where I would not only get to advocate for systemic change but to also empower young people to advocate for themselves. It really was a perfect fit, and I’ve never made a better choice.
This sometimes feels like a chicken or the egg question. Were students attracted to YouthAction because they had a natural interest in policy and advocacy, or did we inspire them to become more civically engaged? The answer is probably both, and it also depends on the student. What I can say is that the concrete skills they develop through the project-based approach we use have different types of real world applications. They learn to conduct hands-on research like site visits, interviews, and surveys. They learn to think critically about why disparities persist and are challenged to do innovative problem solving. They become more comfortable with public speaking and with speaking to legislators and other stakeholders. Many students do go on to major in political science, join civic-oriented clubs on campus, pursue careers in politics, etc. But I’ve see that even students who go on to do things in other fields report that what they learned here has prepared them for the “real world” in more ways than one.
For the YouthAction program, we’ve focused a lot on issues that impact teens. We’ve done a lot with juvenile justice, runaway and homeless youth, teen mental health, reproductive health, and youth employment. But over the last few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to coordinate the adult Community Leadership Course as well, and this has given me occasion to learn more about all of the issue areas. I find it all fascinating. Something we talk a lot about in both the youth and adult programs is that these issues do not exist in a vacuum. They all intersect in various ways, and it can sometimes feel impossible to talk about one issue area without going down the rabbit hole of another. Which I guess is the point here at CCC, right? We look at the whole child and family and understand that solutions need to be collective, comprehensive, sustainable, and responsive to the community.
I love that meeting new people is baked in to my role here. This is maybe selfish, but it keeps my job interesting and no two days are ever the same. I also love that these 2 programs are very unique and participants come away with knowledge, tools, and experiences that will shape their future civic participation and advocacy. We (and it is a TOTAL team effort) are painstaking in curating experiential learning opportunities that bring the issues to life and give participants a reason to travel to areas of the city they have never been, all while grounding these experiences in data, participatory research, and comprehensive background on the systems and policies that shape child well-being in NYC. It is a great privilege to be a part of something that changes people’s lives, opens their eyes, and motivates them to advocate on behalf of NYC’s children.
CCC is so special in that we have such an amazing community, a family really, of people united to make the city a better place for all children. I have learned so much from so many of our volunteers. I have been supported both personally and professionally through times of growth and great challenge. I have been pushed to do better in order to make them proud. I have been inspired by their dedication, generosity, and warmth. I love our volunteers and the many strengths they bring to bear on the work here.
This is the hardest question ever. There are so many. YouthAction Members MC’d a rally in Albany about summer jobs last year, and that was a very “proud mom” moment for me, but I have so many of those with the youth. I loved when one of the YAMs visited her state Assemblymember on Advocacy Day and when he found out she was a constituent he got up from his chair and made her sit in it and told her “this is your chair. I work for you.” I also get a lot of joy out of transforming the board room into a jazz salon for the CLC Social, or any time I can totally disrupt the office with music and decorations.