Community: Meet the Bureau of Fearless Ideas in Seattle, WA

Interviewer: Nandini Daga; August 5, 2020

Interviewee: Fath Eakin

The Bureau of Fearless Ideas is a non-profit learning organization where creative writing and storytelling empowers youth aged 6-18 to be the authors of their own future (Bureau of Fearless Ideas).

Could you tell us about yourself and your occupation? How does your occupation impact the local community?

My name is Faith Eakin, I use she/her pronouns, and my occupation is lead program manager at the Bureau of Fearless Ideas. A lot of my work involves making sure we are including social emotional learning, mindfulness, and growth mindsets in our programs, because we believe that's truly very important for students to develop holistically as kind human beings that can communicate with empathy and understanding. A big part of that work in order to build these solid relationships with kids, is also building solid relationships with their families and with our volunteers. So providing training for our volunteers, in person meetings with families every year, and throughout the year we have potlucks and community meetings. I would say that my work and the work of the organization supports bringing people in to feel seen and valued, and then working to create a diverse and welcoming community of people who feel confident in themselves and their ability to communicate with others. They really know themselves as a person that feels comfortable expressing themselves.

"[It's] truly very important for students to develop holistically as kind human beings that can communicate with empathy and understanding."

How has COVID-19 affected the functioning of your organization?

I manage after school programming for elementary through high school students. Pre-COVID that looked like running in-person after-school tutoring from around 3 pm until 8 pm Monday through Thursday. I also support the youth advisory board which is made up of high school students, and the other programs’ staff in running our other programs--so a lot of supervising and advising.

It [COVID-19] has definitely dramatically changed things, just like everyone else when we realized we had to close it happened really fast. We actually were a little pre-emptive on closing, we decided a few days before the schools decided to shut down to close down our programming. Really the day we shut down, we didn’t really know, the students really didn’t know the situation, so we didn’t really get to have a goodbye with them.

We very quickly, within a matter of weeks, transitioned online, and provided something we ended up calling communiTEA. That was based on an in person thing we used to do for our middle school and high school programs. We would provide mugs and tea and in the middle of each session we would come together for communiTEA, and drink tea together and talk and get to know each other. That was one of the ways we built community and trust with each other. And that was something that was presented by our students, created a program based on them.

When COVID happened we realized really quickly that the only way we were going to maintain communiTEA was to be creative in the ways we always had been. We created communiTEA which was an hour long session that met twice a week, which in real life it would be an elementary and middle school program--they had their own space in the classroom and the times would kind of overlap with each other, but for the most part they had their own tutors and their own space--but virtually we did have to come together. So that definitely changed the dynamic. It wasn’t a negative, it was just another change that students had to adjust to, being with older students and younger students all at once, and being with less tutors. In the virtual space we ended up bringing much fewer tutors in than we would in real life.

Virtual CommuniTEA session with students, grades 2-8, volunteers, and staff (Bureau of Fearless Ideas).

We would meet for an hour, and would do a lot of the same things we always did. Introductions with names and our pronouns, with lots of opportunities to share, because now we are in people’s homes and we wanted to utilize that. We would go on scavenger hunts, they would share pieces of their lives and their families with us, and we did a lot of writing and creativity. You know at first, and I mean it still is, it was a hard adjustment. But it was great, our community shone through! People that have been in school, so anyone your age and younger, have been like, ‘woah, this is very different from the experience I have online at school’ and ‘this feels really good, I get to see everyone’s faces, we are allowed to use the Zoom account.’ I know schools are not allowed to [use the Zoom accounts] but the benefit of Zoom is that you can see everybody at once. So some days we would have like, 36 people on a Zoom call from BFI. Many of the students have come for many, many years, so it is like family. Being able to see each other again, even virtually, felt really good. There were still opportunities to share, and do mindfulness, and move, and laugh together and be silly.

We even got to at the end of the year have a virtual potluck where we invited families, volunteers, and students to create family recipes and then share it virtually, and talk about why it was important to them. It was a magical experience! People felt really connected and happy, so I do feel really proud that we were able to translate a large part of what feels so good at BFI into a virtual setting.

"People felt really connected and happy, so I do feel really proud that we were able to translate a large part of what feels so good at BFI into a virtual setting."

Wow, that’s awesome! As someone who really loves tea and being able to see people during this time that sounds amazing. It’s great that you were able to find a lot of people to join.

Yeah! I would say for the most part for our afterschool middle school and elementary we retained over 80% of the students, they still continued coming. Which is pretty high, considering. There were definitely a few students that were ‘zoomed out’ but I’ve still been able to keep in touch with them through one-on-one phone calls with the families. But yeah, even the adults would say, ‘oh no, we need this,’ or ‘we changed our work schedule, daily schedule so that the kids could come and we could come’, because it felt so good for them.

Right, I see. So was communiTEA the main transition or were there other things like the potluck that you guys put on?

Well, we ended up transitioning our entire annual spring fundraiser online, so we did this virtual show online. We ended up fundraising more money than we did last year in person! So that was also a big success and a surprise. Our creative director, he really created something so magical that people really enjoyed participating in and watching. It was like we opened a time capsule and went back in time. We pulled up images of the past because we’ve been around for fifteen years, so it was a celebration of fifteen years. So it really showcased students, and volunteers, Kids and families really enjoyed that experience virtually, so that was another way that we’ve adapted.

And now we are in summer programming, we just finished our third week of summer programming. We’re doing something called the Fearless Summer series, offering one for elementary and one for middle school. We have a cohort of about 24 elementary students, and 20 middle school students. They’re meeting each week for an hour to create, share, and build community. We’re bringing in guests, this week we had a guest illustrator come in and teach them how to draw themselves as superheroes and inventors. Next week we are bringing in an architect to design their superhero hideout, a cryptologist to teach them about codes, so we are able to bring in guests into the virtual world in a very engaging way for students.

We also are very aware, as most people in education are, that there are so many students without access to the internet in Seattle, so we want to figure out how to reach them. We are developing a printed activity book as a way to support students at home who are ‘zoomed-out’, and students that don’t have access [to the internet], and also support teachers and classrooms by providing an engaging creative writing curriculum.

I’m glad you guys are able to go beyond just Zoom. So, my next question is what do you see in store for the next school year? Do you see any future impacts in enrollment, curriculum?

Honestly we are kind of in the thick of planning, we know now that school will be virtual for at least a few months and I would assume it might be longer than that as sad as that is and how hard it is to wrap our heads around. We are going to look at being virtual for the whole year. We are trying to figure that out, we’ll probably provide something similar to communiTEA again because we saw how helpful and impactful that was for students.

What we think that what students will need the most is connection with their friends and space to talk about and process what’s been happening. We are all collectively experiencing trauma, right now. And if we don’t talk about it or acknowledge this trauma it's going to catch up to us. And so our hope is that our programs will provide that space for students to actually talk about and process through art and writing and dancing and laughter and movement what they’re feeling with their friends who are also feeling the same things. So I imagine we will not be doing a lot of tutoring, and that we will continue to provide a very fun way for students to connect, and just be kids.

"We are all collectively experiencing trauma, right now. And if we don’t talk about it or acknowledge this trauma it's going to catch up to us."

I think that the other thing that's interesting that we’ve learned is that while we are able to provide really engaging zoom experiences for kids, it does cause screen fatigue for us and the kids. That may mean that we are going to have less programming than we typically have in the past. It also means that in order to provide a quality Zoom experience you need at least two staff who know how to smoothly run and operate Zoom. We know that for every program we offer we are going to have at least two staff on it when historically in person, we would run programs with one program staff and volunteer support. It’s definitely impacted our capacity, and we’ve had to get really creative about how to approach capacity and volunteer engagement.

Okay, I see. So how would you say volunteers and tutors are affected?

That’s definitely something that we are struggling with right now. For communiTEA sessions in the spring it was open invitation, we invited any of my program volunteers to join CommuniTEA. They weren’t acting as volunteers anymore, they were suddenly participants. We are not sure yet how to train our volunteers to participate in the virtual programming. I think it was really fulfilling for them to write with students and talk about their feelings with us. It was good for our students to see their adult mentors modeling social emotional learning. That’s part of this planning process, figuring out how we engage and retain our volunteers so they are utilizing all their skills. I’ll be sending out a survey for volunteers to share their input because I know they’re going to have a lot of great ideas. Hopefully from their input we can create something that is good for everybody.

We also have a group of amazing teen interns who are acting as mentors in our summer workshops. They are also developing a Black Student Union for our Fearless Ideas students. BSU will be one of our new programs, thanks to our teen leaders.

In-person material bag pick-up for our virtual summer workshops (Bureau of Fearless Ideas).

How would you say the students are dealing with the changes?

They are so eager to join our classes, and to us that's an indication they like coming to our virtual space and that they miss that creativity and engagement. They have expressed that they are lonely and that they are struggling at home, because they don’t get to see friends. I think when you’re a teenager, you have a little more agency, right? You can go see your friends, do social distancing and be safe, you can drive. Younger kids don’t have that agency. Our students are expressing loneliness and are bored. It’s blown us away how excited they are to participate. Give them a writing challenge every week to work on and almost all of them are coming back with so much work and so many ideas to share! I think the level of engagement speaks to just how much they miss and need that interaction that they’re not getting anymore.

Oh okay, I’m glad they’re participating a lot more! What do you believe others can do to help ease problems encountered by your organization?

Our families have always been so appreciative and engaged in our programming, but I would say as we move into fall part of our work will be prioritizing the social emotional wellbeing of the kids. I could see parents really worried about their child’s academics. But if the child doesn't first feel safe and seen and loved and valued, they will struggle academically. And now we’re in this huge COVID and Racism pandemic. We need to focus on the emotional and social health of people. Being patient with kids if their behavior is changing, and being patient with us will be important. We hope that parents can understand that we are going to have to change our programming and what we’ve done for years can’t happen right now. We hope the community can understand that everything we do has been very intentional and thoughtfully done for the wellbeing of the students, and the wellbeing of the staff so that we can continue to provide quality programming for the community, virtually.

"We need to focus on the emotional and social health of people. Being patient with kids if their behavior is changing, and being patient with us will be important."

Awesome! Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

We all know how hard this has been. It's been such a light to be able to engage with our young people, families, and volunteers and hear their ideas. It’s been great to see all the creative ways staying connected and expressing themselves. There’s been a lot of sadness but there’s also been great joy in seeing how amazing our community is. There’s still a lot of hope!