I was hired for my first nonprofit job when I was twenty years-old. Yes, HIRED. It was a paid gig. AND it was a job in philanthropy to boot – and I still work for the same organization.
To this day I am still entirely humbled and grateful to Greg, my first boss, for hiring me. He took a risk and saw potential. And also, to this day, people continue to do a double take when they hear that I am in my twenties and work for a foundation in a lead program role. I still find myself saying at events and happy hours, “Yes, I am on staff and have been for three years.” It gets old after a while. Now in most settings I would expect that folks might be surprised to hear that a 23 year-old is the director of programs for a regional LGBT foundation, but the last place I’d expect to get pushback is at an event for young professionals. This has been a huge challenge for me.
When I landed what I call “the first job of my dreams”, I immediately started attending networking events, professional development seminars and of course “YP” events. Working in philanthropy I felt a little over my head at first. Everyone was older. Most everyone was white. Many had been seasoned nonprofit professionals before they arrived as program officers at a foundation.
I thought my one safe haven would be attending “YP” events. Think again. I suppose you could call what I encountered at these events, acute ageism. Sharing my age seemed to leave a bad taste in the mouths of people I thought to be peers. I continually had to assure my colleagues at these events that “No, I in fact, am not an intern. I am on staff.” I was shocked. These were supposed to be my people. We were supposed to band together about being younger in field dominated by folks 20 and 30 years older than us. Instead what I found was a general mistrust and disbelief.
Sometimes when I was not “out” about my age, I found my other young colleagues cracking jokes about “those twenty something’s” or ridiculing the work of their newest intern.
I started to keep quiet about my age. Clearly I had missed the memo about YP events. In this town YP or emerging leader seemed to mean mid to upper thirties, married, wanting to climb the ladder in your organization and entirely uninterested in cultivating next gen leadership for the field. I was, to say the least, perplexed.
(Please keep in mind there were, however, exceptions. People like Trista Harris and Adam Robbins became great colleagues that shared my passion for increasing younger leadership in the field.)
After some time being “undeclared” with my age at YP events I had a change of heart. I decided that I was not going to let bitterness get the best of me. I started sharing my age whenever it came up. I wanted to show folks that as one of “those twenty something’s” I added value to the sector, I was a player just as much as they were and that I wanted to see more folks in their twenties taking leadership in the field.
Sure, my “outness” about my age hasn’t shifted the sector, but it may, if for only a few minutes, change the way my peers in their thirties think about new grads and those of us in our twenties. Maybe, just maybe, my love of my age will transform into a little more love for other twenty-something’s.