For the past year and a half, YOU Boston has been placing youth into career cohorts. In these cohorts— like Baking and Pastry Arts, Barista/Customer Service, Graphic Design, Health and Wellness,  Media Arts, and more— youth learn skills and techniques from an industry professional. However, this all wouldn’t be possible without our Career Cohort Leads. Each cohort has a Career Cohort Lead who works directly with participants to make sure they are well supported and ready to learn. The Leads handle everything participant questions, facilitation of group activities, and daily attendance, and check-ins with youth. Each of our Career Cohort Leads brings a unique perspective and set of skills to YOU Boston!

To better appreciate what the Career Cohort Leads do for the participants and the agency, we interviewed Keia Williams, the Career Cohort Lead for the Senior Peer Leaders. This summer, the Senior Peer Leaders have been working with Keia to develop their professional and leadership skills: writing newsletters,  preparing and delivering presentations, leading group discussions, and planning and hosting the end of summer event. This isn’t the first cohort Keia has led, and her experience has really helped the Senior Peer Leader cohort thrive this summer.

Keia and some Senior Peer Leaders at Tree Top Adventures

Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you end up where you are now?

I’ve been employed with YOU since January, but before, I lived in North Carolina, working in workforce development. I’d been employed there for three years and loved what I did— love what I do, still. But I wanted to find work related to what I was doing, in career development and really building rapport with students and young people who are trying to figure out what they want to do in life. That’s what I was doing prior, but when I learned about YOU, I got really excited because my intent was to move back home to Boston. I knew that I was ready for a transition, but it became very evident once getting this position that moving back to Boston was the best option. I’m finishing my Master’s now, and finding the opportunity to work for YOU was wonderful. I was excited to have the opportunity to continue working with YOU for the summer, and I love so far what I’m learning and hopefully contributing to those who I work with right now. 

Why did you decide to become a Career Cohort Lead this summer?

First of all, I thought it was very interesting to have a position that was solely virtual. For me, I was like “How is this going to work?” I know that jobs are going in that virtual direction because of the pandemic, but I didn’t realize how much of an effect the program could still have on the population that YOU serves. So, one reason was to take on a new challenge, and to see if that was something I could even do. But I also wanted to because it really tied well into what I was doing. My Master’s is in School Guidance, and I’ve wanted to be a high school guidance counselor for some time now. A lot of people judge me for the age selection of who I want to work with (laughs). But I love this age group. In my opinion, it’s the most thriving part of life! 

I just definitely knew that the age population I was serving back in North Carolina correlated very well to the age that we’re serving here. And that was just an automatic yes for me: working with at-risk youth, working with youth that aren’t really given many chances and many opportunities, and really just wanting to be back in my community. I’m originally from Roxbury, and so this was just another opportunity for me to contribute back in some form because I never knew that this was a program that was offered in the area. It’s important to have a program that allows these young people to gain a sense of employment, learn how to become independent, and know their self worth. 

What skills did you have that you thought were really important as a Career Cohort Lead?

In the very beginning when I learned of the cohorts, I was like “Oh, baking and pastry!” Because while in North Carolina, I stepped away from my Master’s program for a bit, and I have this education mindset where I always need to be in school for something. My family just laughs at me because I’m always in school. I’ve never not been in school (laughs). So, I obtained a certification in baking and pastry. And for YOU I highlighted those qualities about myself, not knowing I would be placed in the Health and Wellness(cohort)…twice! So, you know, it was a bummer after showing everything I knew. But that was a skill set I felt that I brought (laughs). 

But not only that, I feel like an important one for me is the way to gain the young people’s interest, especially with the age group that we serve because you can lose it really fast. They’re hard to keep in that attention span. So, for me, it was about the engagement and my personality. So far I’ve been fortunate enough to build rapports with the young people. But knowing when to be very personable and very serious, setting a professional standard for them, is important. Having that capability made it easier for me to adapt to the population that we work with. Also, I have the typical responses of organization and just making sure that I can exude professionalism to them while actually being a professional myself. For me, I feel like that’s a definite skill set that I adhere to and have. It was just seeing the opportunity too. I had never witnessed such a program that offered so many opportunities to young people, where you’re able to work and get a paycheck each week. They have a sense of living, a sense of independence, and also they can learn how to adapt to changes and be a team player. It’s important!

As a Career Cohort Lead, what is your main goal? What do you want to do for the young people you work with?

I’ve always kind of given myself one goal with every area that I’ve worked in— and that’s not to set the same standard for everyone— but it’s just to see some form of success, whether it be just one or whether it be a handful. I know that not every single person I work with is going to have a successful moment, and that’s okay. Choices get made. It may just not be for them at this moment. And then they may decide later that they want to retry. Absolutely. Absolutely, I’m with that. 

My hope is just always to— even if it’s just the smallest success— is to see them strive in some manner between the time of us beginning and ending. And that could just be having reached a goal of attendance, or, in this case with the virtual setting, maintaining the professionalism of keeping the camera on. Maybe they started off as a shy or timid person in the beginning, but they got themselves comfortable enough to maintain some form of conversation with their peers or with me. I think these are all important steps just to see some growth in each individual. Even the smallest of growth to the largest is something that I hope to gain from each of them while working with them. 

All of the Senior Peer Leaders are really dedicated young people in the program, and you do a lot for them. But what have you learned from them? What have they taught you? 

This group has been, first off, phenomenal. I really have headstrong, dedicated young people who are just ready. And again, not everyone originally had that same personality to where they’re all just able. Some of them you do need to nudge a little. But, I don’t even know! (laughs) They’re just so independent that they’ve almost taught me to let them have it, you know? Let them take the lead and let them guide me. For example, earlier this week I was at an appointment, so I had my camera off. And I had to ask for one of my Senior Peer Leaders to step in and take the lead in a session. We didn’t even know what we were coming into because we were assigned to do a presentation for the other cohorts, not knowing this prior. So I just said, “Hey, Syann, do you mind leading the groups and organizing how the presentation should look?” And she immediately came in and organized everything and assigned everyone tasks. It was just so precise that I was like “Gosh!” Just to see the work that we’ve been doing applied and see how well she handled the pressure of taking on that responsibility so quickly was phenomenal. So I just monitored and let her take the lead, and she did a wonderful job. So I’m very proud of them, and it just kind of teaches me that once you’ve taught the lesson, you can watch and see how it plays out. Let them show you that they’ve actually been listening. Let them show you that they’ve been receptive to everything that you’ve taught. It’s been a great ride so far. 

Since you lead the Senior Peer Leader group, it’s a bit different from being a Career Cohort Lead for the other cohorts because there’s no virtual instructor teaching them industry-specific skills as well. So, how do you plan out what you want to do with the youth?

So the fortunate thing is that in the beginning I had to come up with a whole 8-week lesson plan of what things would look like. And that was a really helpful start for me to navigate what I hoped to see this position look like and what I hoped to have the Senior Peer Leaders gain from it. It was really just defining and looking at the role of a leader and breaking it down into the finest of detail. And so each week, we just work on a part of what that role looks like. We do icebreakers that correlate with it, or we’ll watch TEDTalks, or we’ll do activities or breakout sessions, along with all the requirements they’re obligated to fulfill per YOU. And I also just incorporate getting their mindsets and what interests them. Because having been on the non-instructor side, I’ve really seen that even if we go straight off of a plan, it still deviates sometimes and that’s okay. Being flexible about it and knowing that this might not be something they want to talk about, lets me tweak it a little bit. So long as it relates to the topic at hand, we can always tweak it and find other ways to incorporate that very valuable information. Getting their insight has been so important because that’s the way to keep them engaged. 

You’ve said a lot of great things about the Senior Peer Leaders, and they’re an amazing group of youth. But have there been any challenges leading them? After all, not everything can be perfect all the time. 

Absolutely! (laughs) You’re absolutely right. Again, it’s still about learning the position for them and knowing whether or not it’s something they’re capable of. I’ve found that sometimes there might be a couple young people that are fearful of speaking up or presenting. And so I’ve always explained to them that we are here as a team to support each other. It’s safe. There’s no judgement. We’re not here to look down on anyone. From the very beginning, we’ve been given the okay to support each other. There may be times where there’s a struggle to get someone to present or just be more vocal. And it can be hard, but I keep saying this over and over because it’s so important to know: we’ve got to be uncomfortable to be comfortable. So, I’m getting them uncomfortable, and I’m trying to keep them working hard on those areas that they feel they’re incapable of, because I don’t want anyone to ever feel that they’re incapable. Everyone’s capable. You just have to work hard to get there.   

On the other side of that though, they really are great kids to work with. So, what have been the best parts of working with the youth?

It was really nice to see how they were selected because they were all chosen by prior cohort leads and instructors. It almost surprises me how much they have in common with each other, more than they even realize they do. Most of them didn’t know each other well or at all prior to this cohort, but they’re all so similar and have so many skill sets that have brought them together now. And I think it’s just phenomenal to watch them when they’re interacting with each other. They bring on their own creativity. They bring on their own organizational skills. And they’ve been able to be very honest and open in having personal conversations about how they see themselves, what they want to work on, and ways that they can try to apply it. And I just respect that because they’ve only known me for a few weeks. I think it’s phenomenal that they not only feel comfortable enough to share these things, but to say them out loud. I don’t know many young people their age who have that mentality and that skill set so early. 

You don’t just work with the youth either though. We have lots of cohorts this summer, each with a different Lead. What is it like working with all of the other Career Cohort Leads?

Being a career cohort lead in Health and Wellness prior, I felt like I had more of a personal relationship with the other cohort leads. Now, being the Peer Leader Coordinator, I feel as though I’m kind of by myself, but not in a bad way. I definitely give my input on my experiences and help the career cohort leads who are just arriving. But it’s been cool because just like with the Senior Peer Leaders, the other cohort leads have been learning how to be more independent in their role. I’m their supervisor, but they have themselves and their team to really work with and depend on. I know I have a great support system. I know if I need anything that I can reach out to anyone, but now I’ve reached that level of independence where I know I’ll be fine. So, it’s different, but so long as I feel like I can still support everyone else in any way, then I’m good. The cohort leads have definitely been asking questions, and they’ve been really helpful too, like giving really good icebreakers. It’s been helpful to hear everyone’s thoughts and how everyone else works too. 

What is your favorite part about being a part of YOU Boston?

I said this from day one before I even moved here and got back to Boston: having such a supportive group is awesome. As far as communication, as far as being responsive and quick, YOU is great. For me, having a group that’s really in tune with all their employees just made me feel like an equal, and I can really appreciate that. Then, arriving here and being hands-on with supply drop-offs and getting to meet a few of the staff was awesome. It’s been a great ride, and I feel that I’ve been here much longer than 7 months. I feel like I’ve been here for years and have known these people forever (laughs). But I haven’t! I haven’t even met half of them in person, but the relationships almost immediately establish themselves. And I think that’s awesome. When you can really grow and build with each other in a company, I think that makes for a very very effective team. This is why I continue to hope to do the best I can in the positions I’m given at YOU.

Is there anything else you want to share about your experience being a Career Cohort Lead at YOU Boston?

I guess we all think about what’s to come and how things are going to look. Obviously we want to be mindful of the safety of ourselves and the young people, but it kind of just gets to me because September is coming soon; we’re almost nearing the fall again. I just wonder, will we ever be back to a sense of normalcy where we can have some in-person time and get a different perspective maybe? Because I’m just interested in seeing how the in-person experience looks and how much more interaction I can get with the young people. I would love to eventually, hopefully, see the full light of what YOU can do in person, even if it’s partially. 



Interview and article by Elizabeth Si