By Lisa Farber Miller and Jeff Tiell
My participation in PresenTense Colorado has had a large impact on my Jewish identity. Before, I had little idea of any engagement for Jewish teens outside of my synagogue, and the only other Jewish kids I knew were from my B’nai Mitzvah class. PresenTense opened me up to a whole Jewish network I had never previously considered.
This sentiment from Emily Winn of last year’s PresenTense Colorado – UpStart (PTC-U) cohort reflects the deep impact the program has on participants’ lives. This six-month fellowship for Jewish high-school students sparks innovation through entrepreneurial training and mentorship. Fellows have the opportunity to develop and test an idea that makes an impact in the Denver/Boulder community, and beyond. UpStart is especially well suited to offer this experience as one of the leading national innovators in the Jewish community.
Each year, a new cohort of Jewish teenagers who are passionate about creating social change through enterprises they envision and create apply to be part of this program. Those selected engage in six months of learning and prototyping that blends Jewish values with the skills of design thinking, problem solving, and program implementation. The unique experience brings together teenagers from a variety of Jewish backgrounds to develop both personally and with professional ambitions in mind – all rooted in UpStart’s methodology of entrepreneurial leadership development.
“We attract ambitious teenagers who want to develop skills and want to challenge themselves,” says Emily Winograd, Innovation Lead, Design Services, with UpStart.” All of the concepts we teach are relevant to their lives now and what they aspire to do in the future, and we frame it all through a Jewish lens.”
As an example, when teaching about prototyping, PTC-U shared with the teens the concept of “na’aseh v’nishmah,” which references the biblical moment when the Jewish People accepted the Torah before fully understanding it. The idea, Emily explains, is that it’s ok, even necessary, to experience something even if it is not perfect. Failing can be a positive experience that can build grit and resilience. And the only way to get feedback on a program or idea is to test it—which is exactly what the Fellows do.
According to Hillel International research, 70% of Jewish teens seek to create entrepreneurial ventures so they can experiment and fail forward. PTC-U was designed to meet this interest. As alumni participant Avi Kaye says, “Before PTC-U, I was never good at accepting failure. After this experience, I learned that certain “failures” are just steps to something greater and more refined.”
Now in its third year and with 16 teens in the program, PTC-U has a central theme grounding its work in 2018: “Welcoming the Stranger.” Emily notes, “This one theme creates a holistic connection for the teens around all of their efforts. Teens are creating initiatives and programs addressing everything from refugees to foster care to autoimmune disorders.”
A Structure of Support, Learning, and Growth
Teens in PTC-U are supported and resourced in numerous ways to make their idea for social change a reality. They first are divided into “design teams” based on shared interests. A coach – a skilled young adult – works with each team to design and implement their idea by participating in teens’ meetings and by connecting them to relevant resources. Other support comes from adults who work in “community partner” organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League or Jewish Family Service. Their deep subject matter expertise in teens’ areas of interests complements the general knowledge and support of PTC-U’s staff and coaches. Along with speaking to peers, the teens also speak with these adults as part of their empathy interviews, a critical component of design thinking and an important vehicle for garnering information about stakeholders’ experience with an issue or challenge. Additionally, an alumni mentor works with the design teams to offer peer mentorship and their own insights from having been in the program themselves. All of this support helps create a learning environment in which the teens gain the skills and strategies to effectively design a program to address a communal problem.
One teen comments, “The thing I found most valuable or helpful in this seminar was realizing that in order to solve a problem, you must clearly identify the question, and then the solution is the easier part of the equation. I had never thought of this before. I also liked that we could physically diagram out our problem and all of the people involved.”
Relevant Learning Leads to Meaningful Projects
Teens, as studies show, are highly ambitious personally and want to create change where they see wrongs in society. PTC-U captures their passion and empowers them to think strategically, facilitating productive brainstorming and progress as teens bounce ideas off of one another and draw upon a pool of collective resources and experience. And, in 13 formal sessions together as cohort, teens learn skills they need to take their projects public. Teams throughout the year engage their peers outside of the program at a number of touchpoints, including through empathy interviews, a prototyping seminar, and, most importantly, their pilot tests of their project.
One teen reflected, “I thought that learning about how to do a proper business pitch was extremely helpful to my overall understanding of the process of designing and implementing a project.”
Most teams aim to raise awareness among their peers about an issue with which they may not have direct experience. One team, for example, focused on youth unemployment and ran a successful pilot test with 12 of their peers. The test gauged peers’ reaction to a website they created that provides resources on youth unemployment. In galvanizing their peers, all the teams hope to mobilize them to action as volunteers and advocates for the projects.
Impact Felt in Numerous Ways
PTC-U is positioned to show teens the many ways Jewish learning can positively influence and add value to their everyday lives and identity. Jess Miller, of the 2017 cohort, remarked, “By learning how to apply Jewish principles to my entrepreneurial endeavors, I believe I can be a more ethical businesswoman.”
Emily adds, “We hear from teens that this is the first meaningful Jewish peer group they’ve been a part of socially. It’s inspiring for them to be surrounded by Jews of different observance levels. Teens who are Jewishly connected learn from their peers the diversity of ways that one can engage with Jewish life. And less connected teens grow to understand so much about Jewish values, community, and life. All of these teens get to know each other in an environment infused with learning and growth.”
As more teens experience the program, the impact is amplified throughout the community as they in turn engage more teens in their projects. In January 2018, 16 alumni from last year’s cohort of Fellows submitted their final reports on their projects. Cumulatively, they estimated that they engaged approximately 400 people in their projects, including peers, volunteers, and other stakeholders.
Emily Winn of last year’s cohort shares how the program influenced both her Jewish identity and her outlook moving forward:
I never realized that Jewish values were so applicable to my life, and I loved being able to use them in forming a group that mattered to me. It ended up being a really moving process where I got to learn more about the Jewish community and meet Jewish teens in the Denver/Boulder area. I’m so thankful to have had this opportunity, and I know I will carry lessons from PresenTense for the rest of my life.
Our two foundations – Rose Community Foundation and Jim Joseph Foundation – are proud to support this Jewish teen social entrepreneurship fellowship, one of the first in the nation. We know there are more teens who can choose to opt in to Jewish life and we hope PTC-U will provide new avenues to engage them. PTC-U empowers teens to create social change inspired by Jewish values and to engage their Jewish peers in new ways.
PTC-U continues to be part of an expanding and exciting landscape of offerings in the Denver/Boulder area. The multi-faceted Denver/Boulder Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Initiative (Initiative) – one of the ten community initiatives in the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative – supported by Rose Community Foundation, Jim Joseph Foundation, and others, is involving more teens in Jewish life, offering them new programs they find relevant, and helping them develop leadership skills. The Initiative wants to make the greater Denver area’s Jewish life relevant and meaningful to young people both now and later in their lives, with teens serving as active partners together with their peers, adults, and community leaders in shaping their own Jewish journeys. Our ultimate goal is that every teen can answer the question: How can my Judaism inform, inspire and advance the good I seek to do in the world?’ We know that PTC-U Fellows can affirmatively answer this question.”
Lisa Farber Miller is Senior Program Officer – Jewish Life, Rose Community Foundation. Jeff Tiell is a Program Officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation.