TeenSHARP Opening Ceremony Speech

Sharing the speech I gave at TeenSHARP’s opening ceremony last week:

Good afternoon! Thank you everyone for being here today, to celebrate such an impressive group of students. Before I discuss the plans for this year and all that we have in store, I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on why we are all here in the first place. Why does TeenSHARP exist and why is this organization such a necessity, not only for students, but for the community, the state, and ultimately the nation?

Primarily, TeenSHARP exists to combat “educational inequities” that affect students of color. For example, only 14% of high achieving high schoolers in Delaware are attending colleges that match their academic potential. Among those who are low income, 30% aren’t going anywhere after high school.

Directly correlated with this, are the economic reports that forecast by 2020, 30% percent of jobs in Delaware will require a Bachelor’s degree. But only 21% of African Americans and 15% of Latinos are currently equipped with such a credential. These barriers to quality education, and meaningful, high paying employment will persist if we don’t help our students gain admission into top universities that also meet 100% of financial need.

But this is half the battle. TeenSHARP also exists because we see the capabilities of young people being vastly underutilized. In our presentations and discussions, you’ve heard us talk about the importance of authentic youth empowerment. And when it comes to education policy, we know that young people are the biggest stakeholders and deserve a seat at the table. Part of our job is to encourage our students to think critically and question their surroundings, embrace leadership roles, utilize their voices and be unafraid to challenge the injustices they see.

Over the course of this year, we’ll talk extensively about racial injustice, in and outside the realm of education. We’ll discuss terms like “affirmative action” and “micro-aggressions”, terminology that is paramount to shaping your understanding of our current society.

The other day I argued with one of my friends because he had said that what America needs is a gradual revolution against racial inequality. I reject that claim because, as the black lives matter movement crescendos, in the thralls of police brutality, and as we continue to practice civil disobedience only to be met with inaction, “gradual” is not an option anymore.

In TeenSHARP, time is precious and we move with a sense of urgency. The stakes (in this case our students’ outcomes and their roles as future leaders) are too high to wait for policies and laws to tell us things need to change. President Johnson wrote in his commencement address at Howard University, that much of the black community “is buried under a blanket of history and circumstance. It is not a lasting solution to lift just one corner of that blanket. We must stand on all sides and raise the entire cover” if we are to be successful.

TeenSHARP is so much more than just a college prep program and we pledge to do our best to help lift every corner. But in no way do we do it alone. We may have grass roots but these roots are thriving and multiplying. As Tatiana mentioned, we have more volunteers than ever before and I’d like to take a moment to have TeenSHARP staff, instructors, mentors, advisors, tutors, and all other volunteers stand and be recognized.

Students, in addition to your parents, these are your advocates and your teammates. This year, all of us have worked together to provide you with the following opportunities:

-Admission officers from Wesleyan, Williams, Washington University, and several others will be coming to meet you as well as Governor Markell

-We will be hosting a panel on leading change in the community as well as one on careers in healthcare, pharmacy, and philanthropy

-We are organizing several days of service and an internship fair, and we have college tours planned for Lehigh University, Lafayette College, Haverford, UPenn, and a two-day trip to Boston U, Harvard, Tufts, and MIT

-Parents, we are also coordinating workshops for you throughout the year and we hope that you will participate in as many as you can


So this year, I challenge you to take full advantage of these opportunities and this network of champions available to you. Breach your comfort zones and inspire others in the process. And most of all know that everyone in this room is invested in your success.

Nothing is gradual about TeenSHARP, but we’re certainly revolutionary. And I am proud to be at the forefront with such impactful leaders.




Why Do Our Minds Race?

With the recent shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling still looming in our consciousness like humid air, making it hard to breathe, I find myself walking deliberately and forthrightly into the same wall with several peers who still refuse to believe that we have a problem.

“Just obey the cops and they won’t beat you up, it’s that simple.”

“So we should just ignore that he had a criminal record?”

Or better yet, the camera became dislodged so there’s no way to really know what happened.”

Each time I hear these objections I get this tightness in my chest, a mixture of revulsion, grief, and a growing sense of ominousness. Because when injustices get reduced to soundbites, humanity and irreverence become increasingly synonymous.

It’s easy to internalize that empathy is dying, camaraderie is inconvenient, and support is reckless. But the worst part is that the vilifying is so utterly misdirected. We are beleaguering ourselves with this carnage over crumbs as the system haughtily saunters away with the loaf of bread we could have shared.

Even though millions of us are exhausted by the binary rhetoric; it continues to infiltrate everything until the populism begets such division, we no longer remember the feeling of whole shoulders. We look on as Silence and Inaction continue to push Better Judgment aside, allowing Hate and Prejudice to commandeer the mic. And yet, despite my frustration with so many people who share my pigment, I’m still abundantly hopeful.

Earlier this year I listened to activist and writer Saun King speak at the University of Rochester’s Diversity Conference. He spoke about how, “the quality of our humanity, instead of looking like a steady growth chart, looks more like a roller coaster. Sometimes we, as a people, treat one another in beautiful ways. We address our core problems, we avoid war, and act like generally civilized creatures. At other points in human history, we appear to abandon all principle, and devolve into something altogether ugly. These periods, like the one we’re experiencing, are called dips.”


If you have never attended a social justice rally I suggest you find the closest one to you and sign up immediately. But sign up for something that you think has nothing to do with you:

-If you’re straight, stand for the LGBTQ community

-If you’re white, stand against racial inequality

-If you’re a citizen, fight for the rights of immigrants

The reason I say that is because rallies are rife with opportunity to connect to those with whom you might not normally interact. There’s a unique atmosphere, not unlike the unabashed friendliness of drunk strangers at parties.


Yesterday I walked in solidarity with Wilmington community members to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Everyone, (black/white/brown) was bolstered at the sight of so many unfamiliar faces lining up to link arms down the street in support of the same cause.

Too often we’re made to believe that hate and fear hold more power than empathy and unity. But that’s only because we’ve devoted too much time practicing the former and not honing the latter.

Rising from this dip begins with advocacy, and it’s sustained through exposure and education. Ignorance is not an excuse to be hateful, but it is still a symptom of a much larger issue that needs to be addressed. If you don’t think you’re brave enough just yet to physically stand for something, there are other ways you can help:

-If you hear a racist joke, don’t laugh along, call the person out.

-If someone hands you a petition, just sign it. I guarantee whatever they’re fighting for doesn’t cost you a thing to support.

-Make people question values that only serve to restrict others.

-Ask questions that encourage empathetic thinking.

-Share knowledge broadly and intently until exposure blankets any opportunity for misunderstanding.


Most importantly, be flexible in your approach, but unapologetic in your conviction. We may be in a dip, but it doesn’t have to be a plateau.



A Plea from Generations Y and Z

“Authentic Engagement”    “Youth Empowerment”

We like these words. Or at least you’d think we do, by the way politicians and professionals casually bandy them about; you’d think they were on par with phrases like “systemic reform” and “inequity.” But just like the latter concepts, these too have become marred and muddled by rhetoric, to the point where they are only ever brought up as a matter of good housekeeping. When it seems opportune, the phrase is placed on its pedestal, people are invited to come look, photographs are taken as proof of presence. Then, in the same manner, these words are quickly thrown into the back of the closet until the next time Skepticism and Disapproval come knocking.

This is nothing new. The notion that young people can be as powerful as any seasoned professional has become just that: a notion, a fun talking point at parties- not something many care to actualize. But as a millennial entering the workforce, as a political activist, and as a mentor to high school students, I feel it’s time we analyze how perception and fear allowed these terms to become such false dichotomies.


Ben Widdicombe’s article on millennials in the workplace suggests that much of what is hindering employers from capitalizing on the potential of young people is rooted in the way they are perceived. Our generation (circa 1980-2000) is often criticized for having a brazen sense of entitlement and narcissistic tendencies. Marry these traits with our constant craving for reinforcement and it’s no wonder employers are afraid to commit.

It’s not like we enjoy having these…idiosyncrasies. But it’s important for older generations to understand that they are bred out of an oppressive awareness of the instability we face. Where a Baby Boomer at 22 could earn a living wage and buy a house without a degree, today’s young people enter the workforce criminally indebted and barely able to afford rent. In the words of Malcolm X, “we been hoodwinked! Bamboozled! Led astray! Run amok!”

Success now orients itself solely around what we have already accomplished, not what we are capable of achieving. This is why we crave reinforcement; nothing is secure anymore, and these circumstances make even the most confident of young professionals wary of where they stand. We battle the urge to overcompensate because we literally can’t afford to be seen as incompetent.

So in terms of authentically empowering us, I’d like to offer a very simple formula:

Empowerment= Inspiration + Delegation

Manager of Davis Wright Tremaine’s  Diversity Initiatives Karen Russell asserts in her Tedx Talk that “people are your most important assets.” DWT conducted research to find out what factors determine the success of their younger colleagues and found that, almost unanimously, those who advanced faster and further had all benefited from a mentor. Young people who were able to chase a white rabbit could more confidently identify goals, take risks, and access beneficial networks.

Equally important is the ability to delegate more than menial tasks to us. London business school professor John Hunt notes that only 30 percent of managers think they can delegate well, and of those, only one in three is considered a good delegator by his or her subordinates. This means only about one manager in ten really knows how to empower others.

So while we are capable of advocating for ourselves, we need you to trust that we’ll take advantage of every opportunity you throw our way.

That’s if you really want us to…

I’ll explain. I’m currently an Americorps VISTA for TeenSHARP, a pivotal education nonprofit in Delaware, and I consider myself very fortunate to be working for an employer who possesses a keen sense of empathy. There’s a Musketeerian atmosphere in the office, with a fair balance of freedom and accountability, flexibility and structure. I have been hard pressed to find other environments like this in today’s modern workplace. Which leads me to question what could be preventing other professionals from seeing young people the way she does (i.e. full of potential and capability).

This is my hypothesis:


A couple of weeks ago I went with a group of high school juniors from TeenSHARP to the Annual Youth Delegation Conference in Dover. This is where the state invites 11th graders to propose a bill or campaign around relevant political issues and present them to presiding legislators. My students chose to discuss college affordability (or lack thereof) and spent two weeks researching, citing existing legislation, and drafting amendments. They learned how to structure a bill so that they could present it as if it had actually made it to the floor. This was not a homework assignment, this was not for recognition. This whole endeavor was to enact change and prove that high school students could offer substantive policy solutions.

The excitement in the room was palpable. Students from across the state came professionally dressed, briefcases in hands, business cards tucked in jacket pockets. The Senators and Congressman took the stage, seemingly undeterred by the sight of Skepticism and Disapproval lurking in the back of the room. Sure enough, the orations ensued, the youth were praised to high heavens for their achievements! Banners were flung! Photographers captured their best angles!

And before students could present their proposals…the legislators had slipped briskly out the back door.

But like I said, this is nothing new.

I could have told the students that none of their ideas would make it past the podium. I could have prepared them for the disappointment. Perhaps I should have. But when they asked me why no one stayed around to listen, I couldn’t answer. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it’s the same reason why most of the general public are denied an authentic seat at the table. And it’s the same reason why some professionals are afraid to grant millennials greater access to leadership roles.

For some, authentic empowerment translates to relinquishment of power, loss of authority, and potential exposure. Delegating means the possibility of mistakes being made. 

But I urge everyone to note the following:

We may need guidance, but we seek opportunity with entrepreneurial vigor.

We may make mistakes, but we are not as averse to criticism as is portrayed.

We may seem restless, but we are loyal to those who see our potential.

You may fear our clamor to challenge the status quo, but we’d rather be “empowered” in the way it was defined, not as a campaign catchphrase with as much substance as the smoke lingering in those private backrooms.

If this seems too much to ask, if the decisions being made are too precarious to withstand examination from “outsiders”, then be prepared to fault Generation Z for the same transgressions.

Walk Through the World As Windows

Martin Luther King Jr. said that “people hate each other because they fear each other, they fear each other because they don’t know each other. They do not know each other because they are separated from  each other.”

I want to explore this concept- fearing what we do not know. Because I think often, we only fear that which contradicts the things we think we know. “Truths” that we think provide us with security and assurance, but actually inhibit us from connecting with one another in a deeper and more profound way.

With that in mind, what scares you? Or perhaps, more specifically, who scares you?

Who are the people you avert your eyes from on the street? What experiences have taught you this? Have you ever confronted it? Would you ever confront them?

I want to share the story of a man who so many Americans would fear if they saw him at an airport, or heard his name said aloud.  A man whose reputation in America is obstructed by exclusionary rhetoric and the espousal of fear.

I am going to wait to give you his name.

I first spoke with him through the crackling static of my cell phone. I placed one hand over my other ear to try and diffuse the noise and interpret his accent. “Allo? Allo? Ms. Thomas? I am…in the…at the corner of…are you here?”

“What? I’m sorry, I can’t..hello? I’m in a red scarf and a tan coat. Did you get that?” I enunciated into my screen. A car horn blared closeby which made me jump.

Then an older black car pulled up to the curb in front of me, the source of the horn. I waited cautiously, phone still at my ear, to see if this was who I was supposed to meet. The driver side door opened, a foot was placed gingerly on the ground. A pair of comfy looking Clarks protruded from underneath his khakis.

He looked to be about my dad’s age, his skin a mixture of olive and caramel. After pressing his hands together apologetically he reached out to shake mine, warmth spreading across his features as he smiled. “Hello, Ms. Thomas, good morning.”

“Hello,” I said sheepishly, breaking eye contact and looking at the ground as he transferred his hand to my bag and placed it in the trunk. I subconsciously blamed my standoffish response on the obscene time of day (if you can call 6:45am day time), but I knew there was something else that had hindered me from showing as much immediate kindness.

He opened the door to the back seat and I slid in, graciously welcoming the chance to mingle with just my coffee. Once he pulled onto the highway, we sat in silence for a while. Just two strangers, sharing any other mundane commute. Until I sneezed.

“Bless you” he said immediately.

“Thanks,” I replied. He grinned from ear to ear, looking inordinately pleased with himself. He must have caught the quizzical look I was giving him because his eyes found mine in the rear view mirror.

“I wasn’t sure if I said it right,” he said. A small invitation into his insecurities which lowered my guard.

“You did,” I laughed. “So, where are you from, uh, originally?” muffling the end of my sentence into my thermos to mask the awkward segue.

“Syria. I have been here in Colombus, in the US, for 10 months now…And you are from here?” he asked trying to continue the pleasantries.

“No I’m from Philadelphia.”

“Ah, the weather there, there are tornadoes and earthquakes and monsoons?” The innocence of the question struck me. Suddenly I found myself giving a geography lesson about the northeast.

“I would love to see New York City,” he mentioned as it came up in passing. “My children have always wanted to see it.”

“Yeah you should go with them at Christmas time! It’s magical.” But I wanted to take it back as soon as I saw a forlorn expression grow on his face.

“…Are they not here?”

“No. They are in Syria, with their mother, waiting.”

We’d reached a pivotal moment in this little black car.

With some effort, I changed the topic. “What did you do for work, before you came here?” Something told me there was more to this man than a career of chauffeuring.

“Computer programming. I studied at the University of Jordan. My company sent me all over the world: Paris, Dubai, London. But I was laid off. Not so easy to find the same job here…so I live with my brother in law now. This is his car service.”

“This must be very frustrating for you,” I said sympathetically, but worrying it came off as condescension.

He sat quietly for a moment. “It’s not so bad. I meet new people every day. I hear their stories. I see that many of our frustrations are the same. Lots of big dreams wasting away at small desks. At least I am surrounded by windows.”

We talked about London for a while. Turns out we had lived blocks from each other while I was working at the House of Commons and he at a large software firm. And here we were now, crossing each other again, at a much less exciting intersection of life.

We didn’t talk about war. We didn’t discuss politics or religion. Instead, we reveled in each other’s unfamiliar pasts, traversing with ease through a simple conversation some are too afraid to even begin.

As he dropped me off, I thought, here is a man who can speak four languages, several more if you include those in computer programming. A man who strives to persist in this world, only to be denied, uprooted, demoted by it. A man who cannot see his family. And yet there he sat, smiling into the early morning glare, wishing me a good day, the same way I imagine he would to his own children.

But what if all I had said to you in the beginning was that I had gotten into a car with a man named Assad?

So I’ll ask you again: Who are the people you avert your eyes from on the street? What experiences have taught you this? Have you ever confronted it? Would you ever confront them?

We cannot afford to fear what we do not know. Alternatively, we cannot be afraid of revealing ourselves to others. We all share the commonality of being human. We all have big dreams, and we can all choose to walk through the world as windows.












On Volunteer Recruitment, Engagement, and Retention

For those who manage a team of volunteers, or any group of individuals for that matter, a big issue we face is not necessarily just recruiting talent but retaining it. High caliber, motivated people require constant opportunities for growth and empowerment. As a Talent Development Coordinator with TeenSHARP, I am learning the importance of prioritizing the team and implementing capacity building strategies.


Successful retainment begins when an organization creates job requirements which effectively advance the goals it is trying to achieve, and combines this with the ability to tailor the experience to individuals’ interests. While it is tempting to accept anyone who expresses interest in volunteering, this method often results in a high turnover rate and an inadequate program. With TeenSHARP, it has been essential for us to recruit leaders who are deeply connected to our organization’s values (e.g. college access inequities, community involvement, mentorship, and human development) but who are also equipped to effectively train this next generation of leaders.

Tip: When interviewing potential staff members, try to incorporate questions which gauge an individuals’ values to find areas of alignment. We also suggest using the Clifton StrengthsFinder test to determine where a person’s greatest strengths lie (Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building, Strategic Thinking, etc.). This will also give you insight into how to create a well rounded team. 

One person cannot successfully recruit a well rounded team alone though, so set aside time to meet other stakeholders in the community who have direct connections to contacts and marketing platforms.

Tip: Present your opportunity as a privilege, not just a call for volunteers. Adjust the email subject line depending on which group you are reaching out to and use the word “partnership” when possible. Using existing PR outlets is an easy way to access a wider network  and develop connections/partnerships. Also, preparation is key; guidelines, expectations, and a calendar of events/deadlines must be discussed and understood well before an invitation is extended to potential applicants.


Designing the perfect opportunity for volunteers requires extensive research into their needs and interests, flexible scheduling, and project work tailored to these factors.You may already know the demographics of the community and the niche whose needs you are addressing. But what are areas of professional development that can help your staff prepare them for work within the community while also helping them grow individually? What incentives can you use to attract quality applicants? How can you empower them to become a fully engaged and contributing team?

In the world of recruiting and retaining volunteers, I’ve come to understand that the relationship between volunteer and organization should be considered an exchange where both parties grow and benefit. So in order to attract loyal volunteers, it is important to learn why they want to be involved in the first place; though most volunteers usually have an altruistic desire to serve others, it does not exclude other motivations such as personal growth, making connections, and recognition.

Tip: Tap into these other values/motivations and find ways to incorporate them into their general responsibilities.

Meaningful involvement begins when passion meets purpose and people are empowered to take ownership. Empowering volunteers to problem solve and make decisions freely changes the dynamic from leader/volunteer to teammate/colleague. It shifts accountability to them, thereby increasing their level of engagement and commitment. I consider assigning tasks to be a very antiquated form of leadership, especially if volunteers do not understand the “why” behind what they are doing. Let’s say, for example, someone wants to be an instructor for TeenSHARP because they want to be a high school teacher. Providing teaching techniques is not enough. While we do provide training, we also encourage volunteers to conduct research and present their findings on an issue, document his/her experiences, and arrange a time to meet with guidance counselors and current teachers. None of these suggestions came at any cost to us, and yet we are able to serve as a pipeline for other opportunities.

Tip: Collaborate, don’t compete with other volunteer organizations. Sharing resources is vital in the nonprofit world.


You cannot ask for commitment before proving your own dedication to the team. One of my core values is open communication and availability. I do my best to work with instructors’ schedules because I understand that life throws up obstacles that must be approached with empathy and not discipline.

Tip: Devote time after or during work to be available to volunteers and consider it an investment opportunity. People need to know that their leader is there to coach and inspire, and having an open door policy is one way to contribute to that relationship.

People also need to feel that their contributions are valued by the team. Providing recognition for jobs done well is vital for team building as it lets the team know that you appreciate them and what they are accomplishing on behalf of the organization. Whether it’s a shout out in a meeting, a certificate, or an awards ceremony, there are always ways we can express gratitude. Often leaders find this to be a difficult task. I suggest researching the difference between Fixed and Growth Mindset praise. 

Tip: Proliferate these values and act on them every day, and your team will take notice and adopt the same approach. Ask open ended questions to help volunteers problem solve. Show them that your time is not constrained to a set work schedule and you will find that volunteers will quickly offer that same level of support. Teach volunteers how to build confidence through positivity and appreciation, and they will know that their efforts are being recognized and capitalized upon.

Let me know what other strategies work for you!

About Me

Gabrielle. It sounds…chewy. Like trying to speak with Werther’s in your mouth.

I share these posts with you to encourage self-reflection, to cultivate empathy, and to highlight the everyday moments of sonder that serve to enrich the plot line of our lives, albeit unknowingly. Travel, coffee mugs, bookstores, lutalica. Humanity, hiking, photography, the weight of words.

Sometimes it’s advice about areas I actually have some insight on, mainly it’s musings.

Because I know less with every moment I learn more. Because I fear that everything has already been done. Because we’re all just gabbing, in the end.

Level One: Beginner

I admire the people who are able to finish what they start. The people who can bridge the gap between vision and realization. The “Finishers” of the world who look at something they want and somehow seem to always get it.

Because I sit here time and again, sifting through all of these unfinished drafts, plans, and dreams crammed into a folder on my screen. I flinch as they stare at me like bitter teammates constantly relegated to the sidelines, huddling together for validation.

I envy these people. Because my thought process is a string of Untitled Documents, to-do’s and haphazard notes scribbled on the backs of business cards dug up from the depths of my Mary Poppins purse. Cards given to me by people who actually have their shit together. I too have cards. They’re nestled nicely in their box, commiserating with the folders piled high on my desk.

If only I could credit their success to experience and age acquired wisdom. But people are out there changing the world and winning Nobel prizes at 17.

Do you know what I was doing at 17?



…It must be about priorities. The Finishers must wake up with a purpose each day, envisioning every moment sprawling out in front of them, forecasting how everything will eventually fall into place. They’re the kind of people with agendas who stick to their initial deadlines. The goal setters and the time managers, who always seem to see the bigger  picture and know the right people. Seriously, find me these connections because I don’t think I’m doing it right.

Finishers, lend me your collective mind for a day, because I imagine it to be a kind of sophisticated machinery that my brain just can’t rival. Mine is too busy failing at installing upgrades because any storage space I had is saturated with useless data.

Lend me your mind, because I feel like no matter how many steps I take in any direction, no matter how many obstacles I blunder through or changes I implement, I never level up.

I am a cemented Beginner.

It’s like I need those little magic pills from Limitless to kickstart all of the ideas floating around up here: the business plans, the goals of running for office and reforming education, the ability to navigate the realm of real estate, hell, even the notion I once seriously entertained about becoming an early riser.

In the meantime, I dabble. I peruse. I fixate. I imagine.

Maybe, for us Beginners, getting what we want just isn’t good enough. We are never content, always restless, never “finished.” We are fervently swept up into new adventures until something more intriguing comes along. We want to indulge in every passion and opportunity but find ourselves tempered by responsibility and choice.

Heart vs. Brain

Beginning is convenient. We haven’t failed yet. We are hungry but not yet constrained. We abate routine before it feels like settling.

We want to believe that our futures are limitless but ooze frustration when a solid path evades us. I appreciate those who finish what they start because, from an outsider’s perspective at least, they seem to have an outline of their life story already written, ready to draft. They know when it’s time to end a rich, plot thickening chapter and turn the page.

Or maybe they don’t. Maybe circumstance befalls us all and chapters close whether we like them to or not. Either way, I challenge us to astound ourselves. To follow through with our commitments and observe the ripples. To write it all down. Take stock. Keep moving.

Finish each chapter, but only once it’s done contributing to your greater adventure.