Blog right triangle Why Building a National Youth Apprenticeship Initiative is a lot like Improv – The CareerWise Network Retreat Round-Up
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Why Building a National Youth Apprenticeship Initiative is a lot like Improv – The CareerWise Network Retreat Round-Up

By Jill Armington, CareerWise director of national partnerships

I’ve heard a lot of people say “this work moves at the speed of trust.” I’ve also heard a lot of people say “vulnerability builds connection and trust.” All three—vulnerability, connection, and trust—were present during the recent CareerWise Network retreat.

Learning at a CareerWise Network Retreat SessionThere is infinite value in coming together to connect, swap learnings, and inspire new ideas. For many of us, it was the first time meeting our peers and colleagues from across the network. Things were off to a great start! Innovation share-outs, deep conversation about the design parameters, and a new bag of mindfulness tricks to wield against the stressors of our day-to-day work (hint: gratitude is a superpower, and two minutes of “box-breathing” can transform the other 1,438 minutes of your day.). 

But then things took a turn. Just after Drayton Boylston, Executive Mindfulness Coach finished encouraging each of us to practice saying “No” more often…the retreat agenda said we were off to…an Improv Class?! 

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking, “Um, could I practice saying no to this?”

Yet off we went to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) and spent the afternoon throwing ourselves out of our comfort zones. The experiences that came next made something clear for me: this national youth apprenticeship movement is a lot like improv. And no, it’s not because we’re all just making it up as we go along(!).

From the (slightly uncomfortable) improv exercises we did, we can draw many parallels with the work we do. I outline four lessons below.

  1. There are rules…and there are paradoxes. Sam Waters, our DCPA theater coach,  led our class, and started by introducing a set of norms. Top among them was the golden rule of improv: say “Yes, and…” then add a new idea to the situation at play. Instead of “blocking” newly improvised ideas from your collaborators, find agreement and move the scene forward.With forty people in the room, there are infinite unique ideas to say “yes, and” to. With our work, there are countless stakeholders and opinions to consider: employers, students, parents, legislators, educators, funders, fellow workforce partners.And if you’ve been paying attention, you see we received two pieces of advice that day that run counter to one another: (a) practice saying no more, and (b) say “yes, and…”.

    For our work, I’ll sum it up this way: as intermediaries, as leaders, we must know when to say no and when to say yes. Sometimes perspectives may conflict with one another, challenging us—the intermediaries—to mediate and figure out the next best step forward amidst the paradoxes that abound around us.


  2. Make room for joy and rest. “In a word, what do you love? What brings you joy?” Sam prompted the group. Family. Adventure. Skiing. Concerts. Salsa-dancing. Traveling. Friends. With each of us comforted by these moments of gratitude, we were more open to what came next: Suddenly we were each wiggling, shaking our extremities in time to Sam’s quickening count-downs: “five, four, three, two, one…threetwoone threetwone, twoonetwoonetwoone -twoone, oneoneoneone!” Just try not to laugh at that ridiculousness!How quickly we released our nerves about this whole improv thing and embraced joy. This reminded me of Drayton’s lessons earlier in the day: We cannot pour from empty cups. As leaders, we each must protect and preserve ourselves to avoid burnout and find joy amidst our daily routines. What self-care practices will enable you to keep doing the work you care deeply about? Wiggling out your nerves before the next Zoom call? Returning to gratitude a few moments per day? Making space for those one-word answers that bring you joy?
  3. Whatever the problem, be part of the solution, as Tina Fey suggests to budding improv-isers in her memoir: “Don’t just sit aroundCareerWise Retreat Improv Class raising questions and pointing out obstacles.” While we know part of our work requires us to reflect on what’s not working, the key message here is to not remain in that space. Move from the problem to a solution. In our improv class, we did a “statue” activity where we each had to join a human-created freeze-frame already in progress. We added what we saw to make the statue more complete instead of changing what came before us. Whether sharing extensive feedback on programmatic design parameters, or performing a story told one sentence at a time alongside twenty colleagues, we asked questions about what is possible and moved forward.
  4. This work takes a village, and a coordinated one at that. Sam next had us complete a “Zoom” activity that shockingly had nothing to do with our computers or remote work. We each were given an image that, in totality, told a story, and we needed to work together to find the order that created the most complete picture. Through this exercise, we learned about different perspectives and the impact in listening to all points of view. When starting the game, many of us were talking in frantic one-on-one conversations, then having to repeat ourselves over and over as we tried to get our message across to everyone in the group — and to heed their messages at the same time. It was only after we came together as a group to reset and form a coordinated plan that the complicated task became simpler. This activity was awash with applicable lessons for our work:
    • Go slow to go fast. Taking extra time at the start to get properly set can make the task itself simpler and more efficient. 
    • When we operate from our own silos, we can often miss the big picture.
    • While every one of us is critical in this movement and brings our own unique perspectives to the table, not one of us could go it alone.


So what?
The work we do to propel the American youth apprenticeship movement forward is collaborative—no one of us can create a cohesive scene without listening and reacting to each other. At the same time, this work is full of contradictions (say “no” to more/say “yes, and…”): while we must define strategies that make the most impact with our limited resources, we benefit by exploring new innovations and strategies from our peers.

Maybe the biggest takeaway from the improv class was the recognition that although our work may be unique, the way we must collaborate with and learn from one another isn’t. We will continue to strengthen our community—a community built upon vulnerability, connection, and trust. It is through this intentional community that the CareerWise Network and the broader American youth apprenticeship movement will advance.

And, scene!