Finding Her Place In Education, Nonprofits, and the Writing Life
Allison Jones, Editor, Idealist.org
Allison Jones always wanted to work in education – and for most of her younger years, that meant teaching. So, like many aspiring and idealistic teachers, Allison applied to Teach for America during her senior year in college. But after making it through the first round of interviews, she made a startling discovery: “I realized I just wasn’t ready to be a teacher,” she recalls. “I was too apprehensive. I was too unsettled by it.”
When she withdrew her application, she remembers the anxiety setting in; how does someone who’s spent years preparing for a teaching career all of a sudden shift gears on the cusp of success? “What the hell else am I going to do?” she thought.
Finding yourself in those around you…halfway around the world
Allison had never been the type to shy away from unfamiliar situations. Her junior year was spent in South Africa, helping disadvantaged youth produce radio broadcasts about Apartheid. It was while conducting workshops and editing interviews between her young students and the adults around them, starting conversations about how to move from an Apartheid-era South Africa into a new and better country, that something clicked.
“It was so inspirational to be around a lot of young, black, African students - the energy is infectious. Conversations centered around how can we make things better?”
When the school year ended, Allison had a new group of friends, a new worldview, and $14 in her pocket. With so little money, her only move was to leave Capetown and head home to Brooklyn. It wasn’t without regret. “I left abruptly,” she says, “right when I was starting to get in touch with my own racial and political identity.”
Along with that $14, Allison took her Capetown lessons home with her. “I found myself becoming more involved, being more plugged into my community and trying to learn more about what was going on in Brooklyn...I wanted to be part of the future of my community and my country.”
“When I got home it was great - I had a party,” says Allison. “Then reality set in.”
Sometimes the best next step is putting one foot in front of the other
After a couple of weeks crashing with mom, Allison returned to school to finish her senior year of college. Like many of her peers, she spent the year wondering what to do after graduation. Having spent so much time studying education, applying for Teach for Americaseemed like the logical choice. But Allison’s exploration into youth leadership and community involvement had given her a crash course in education that shed a different light on the traditional classroom role.
By the time graduation day rolled around, “I caught myself being less excited and less intrigued by teaching,” she says. Although deciding to withdraw her TFA application, she knew she didn’t want to leave education altogether. So instead she took an internship at the acclaimed Harlem Children’s Zone then managed a leadership program for teens in Philadelphia.
Finally, Allison settled into a fundraising role at an inner city Catholic school in New York. Her tenure there lasted two years, when she moved into marketing and fundraising strategy for Explore Schools, a nonprofit organization running charter schools in Brooklyn. She was finally finding her place: immersed in the world of education, making the most of her community service and youth leadership background, and it was working.
“I had a really good job,” she says of Explore Schools. “They were really supportive. But on the side…I’d been blogging.”
Throwing easy answers out the window
“It’s weird,” Allison says. “Some people accuse me of not being loyal to companies and always looking around.” It’s a typical Millennial trait, right? Bouncing around from one thing to the next, never really committing. But a close look at Allison’s career busts that myth wide open, because as she was building her skills in the nonprofit sector, she found herself consistently coming back to one thing: blogging.
“It’s easy to feel like I’m writing to figure out how I feel about things myself...I was always talking about the nonprofit sector, but my older posts also talk a lot about relationships, about race and identity.” Blogging, in other words, represents the culmination of her experiences: South Africa, Brooklyn, education, nonprofit strategy, personal connection, reaching out, sharing knowledge.
“When I started getting emails from students and recent grads asking about careers in the nonprofit sector, I knew I was onto something. There was a need out there: people were excited, curious about the sector. But some people are a little lost, and they need something to help them figure it all out.”
Allison knows that feeling well, because she’s been there. After struggling with the realization that teaching wasn’t for her, after discovering her affinity for educational nonprofits, and after years of blogging about her experiences in her spare time, she made a decision: “I said to myself, I really want to do this work full time.” So she put a stake in the ground, and told some colleagues she was looking to transition to something new.
“It was a big jump to go from education to doing this on my own - there are a lot of questions. Can I really do this? Is this the right move?”
Ironically, the answer came from her readers. “Through blogging, I’ve gotten advice from a lot of people older than me, and they say ‘your career is self-driven.’” A month after spreading the word that she was looking for a job writing about nonprofits, a colleague left her editorial position at the blog of the popular nonprofit website Idealist.org. Allison applied to fill her position – and was offered the job.
Despite the inevitable risks and uncertainty of doing what she loves – or perhaps because of them - Allison has come to believe that “ultimately, you have to set your own vision and not be afraid to go for it.”
- A closed mouth doesn’t get fed: “If you need something,” says Allison, “you need to tell people you need something. If you need a job, you need to tell people you are looking for a job. And you need to tell them what kind of job you are looking for and why you are qualified for that line of work. When I’m open about what I’m looking for people are more than willing to help.”
- Approach the nonprofit sector like you would the for-profit sector: “The nonprofit sector is huge. Nonprofit is just a tax status, so it includes Ivy League universities and your local soup kitchen. That means there is a place for everyone. Where do you fit in? What are you good at? What are your non-negotiables? This doesn’t mean there aren’t differences between the sectors, but when it comes to job searching, you need to figure out what’s important to you. If you have loans and you can’t afford to live on the salary offered, then don’t take the job.”
- When communicating about issues that are important to you, you need to meet people where they are: “When you are involved with a cause, you get absorbed by it and then you think everyone feels just as strongly as you do. I mean, we’re talking about children’s lives. But now, I’m more exposed to different points of view. And I realize a lot of people are thinking, ‘I just want to send my kid to a good school.’ So I need to meet people where they are.”
- Evaluate what else you’ll get out of that entry-level job: “When I moved to New York for my first job, I was paid $36,000. For me, what was most important at the time was not just the salary but what kind of freedom and flexibility I would be given in my role. Even though it was an entry level position, I pretty much ran the entire fundraising and fellowship program at the school. So I learned so much, and l was able to leverage that to my next (higher-paying) position.”