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An interview with our Executive Director, Ann de Passos

January marks one year since the launch of our Resilient Futures programme, and what a year it has been! Despite – and perhaps because of – lockdown restrictions, the programme has gone from strength to strength and is already igniting brighter futures for young adults across South Africa.

The Resilient Futures programme equips people starting or progressing through their careers with the crucial skills and competencies that they need to identify work they are passionate about, and to lead and drive sustainable careers responsive to a changing world. Participants experience a mindset shift, seeing new possibilities in themselves and their surroundings. They graduate with enhanced inner resilience, ready for their futures, having learned how to be agile and adaptable to the nature and speed of emerging change in the context of the world of work.

The programme is extensive. It includes modules on ‘my competent self’ – nurturing self-confidence and a healthier approach to learning and performing, forming a systemic understanding of the global context and the pressures on the earth’s systems, developing a personal mission statement, networking with successful entrepreneurs, identifying opportunities around community regeneration and sustainable development, gaining experience in systems thinking, scenario planning, problem-solving, collaboration and ethical decision-making, and preparing for recruitment by creating a CV and a LinkedIn profile, and practicing interview techniques.

The result is an empowered, purposeful, and resilient workforce, with the skills, competencies, and strategies to build a brighter future for all.

Executive Director Ann de Passos has been ‘in the field’ for the last year, developing and delivering the programme alongside the team. We’ve taken the opportunity to catch up with her before she goes on maternity leave, to get her insider’s view on the programme, its impact, and what it means for our participants and our team.

Click on the plus sign next to each question to see the full response.

It has its roots in our Sygnature Award programme, in which we focus on sustainability education and understanding. After piloting the Sygnature Award with one of our clients, Afrika Tikkun Services, they asked us to expand and adapt it so it was suitable for those entering the world of work. So we assembled our team which cumulatively had over a hundred years of experience in leadership development, education, coaching, sustainability, and organisational development.

What we agreed on is:

We realised that it’s crucial to help these young people find their ‘best self’, where they know where they can add value, they enjoy who they are, they can work through their difficult moments, they have the skills to build their emotional intelligence, and they’re ready to contribute and make a difference.

Once they are ready, we want them to engage with the context and the bigger picture (sustainability education and systems thinking), so that they can start to make those key decisions about where they work, why they want to work there, and what options there are. Many grads don’t really know what they want to do – they just fall into something. We want to help them to actively choose their direction based on their passions and talents.

When they have started to identify the direction they want to take, there are the practicalities of getting ready for the world of work: CV writing, interview practice, and managing finances. We wanted to enhance that process by simulating real experience because so many people try to find work without any experience of what it’s like to be in a work environment. We have two simulated exercises in this section. The first is about becoming an entrepreneur: identifying the need in their communities and recognising the skills and resources they have that will allow them to solve that problem, as well as generate an income. The second exercise is about working in teams – in a social action project, the participants again identify the opportunities and then work in teams to work out and implement a solution.

These two exercises help the participants not only to understand themselves better but also gives them something to talk about in interviews and their CVs, demonstrating their readiness for the world of work.

The majority are early career seekers who have just left school or university and are deciding on what their next steps are. We also get some people who have done some work already but are still struggling to work out what they want to do. The commonality is that they want to prepare themselves so they are ready to take the next step, informed and empowered with the skills and mindsets they need to succeed.

As we created the programme, it was important to us that it was relevant for anyone, regardless of their background. The programme has been particularly helpful for people coming from low-income communities as they often don’t have exposure or access to the same networks or social capital that students from more privileged schools enjoy. The programme exposes them to facilitators from across the world via Zoom, and we organise networking events where the participants can meet and talk to local heroes who have started purpose-led organisations. This opens doors for them and allows them to see a different side of the world.

Meet some of our participants:

Lelo: Watch Now

Dumisa: Watch Now

Luzuko: Watch Now

It very much depends on the module. For the first one, which is about discovering your competent self, it is an immersion of self-discovery. The workshops help participants to discover their blind spots (strengths and limitations) and work out how to develop themselves and get to appreciate the diversity of the cohort.

The second module is much more experiential: we want participants to experience ecosystems in action, discover their connectedness to nature, embrace community sustainability, and bring the Sustainable Development Goals to life.

In the work simulation module, participants have autonomy on the work that they do – they work out what they’re struggling with and are mentored and coached through those issues by the facilitators. The dynamic in this module changes from being taught to actively seeking experience and learning opportunities.

In the fourth and final module, which focuses on work readiness, the participants are mentored through writing their CVs, mock interviews, and setting budgets – so there is real ownership of their futures and their lives.

Perhaps the best illustration of how engaged our participants are is the fact that, even during the coronavirus lockdown when all our sessions went online, we still had an 80% engagement rate across the whole 14-week programme.

By the end of the programme, they all told us that they had gained so much self-awareness and confidence. A lot of the programme is about presenting their work and thoughts back to the class, so their voices are being heard and they are being seen: the facilitators constantly emphasise that they want to draw out strengths and capabilities. That is a huge boost for young people who might otherwise feel that their voices don’t matter.

The sheer variety of activities in the programme – group discussions, introspection and reflection, creative sessions, field trips - really helps to keep things fresh and the participants interested. We’ve structured the programme so that each of the modules and sessions build on one another; having started the programme with learning how to understand their emotions and how to learn, they feel more confident when they receive feedback as they can understand their emotions and how not to make inferences about the feedback they receive. The ability to confidently give and receive feedback gives them a more mature approach to competency development. This all means that the participants get stronger and more confident with each session, making the next sessions even more interesting.

One of our clients told us that, before they started including Resilient Futures in their work readiness programme, the participants would graduate wanting to be told what next steps to take and how to lead their lives. They noticed that the Resilient Futures graduates were more proactive, eager to start their own initiatives and happy to reach out to people to make that happen. This undoubtedly comes from a renewed confidence and stronger self-esteem, combined with a community mindset and a desire to contribute.

Want to hear from Resilient Futures graduates?

Want to hear from Resilient Futures graduates? Watch Now

When we start the sustainability module, there can be questions from the participants wondering why they need to know about nature, and how it’s going to help them find a job. One of the biggest ‘aha’ moments is when they understand a more holistic idea of sustainability, and the importance of their role in that, as well as in the economy and their community. The course helps place their job search in the context of the challenges that the world faces and the fact that there is a need – a valued need – for people to take action – and that allows for job opportunities. Looking at our feedback forms, so many of them talk about this new understanding and how much they want to contribute to their communities and to the planet.

I’ve definitely noticed since the start of the pandemic that more participants are questioning the way we treat the planet, and the reasons behind it.

Of course the pandemic has had a huge impact on how we operate from a practical perspective, as for so many others. We’ve taken our programmes online, so engaging in a physical immersion has not been possible. That’s been particularly challenging for us given that our pedagogical approach is centred around immersive journeys. As a result, we’ve had to get creative! But we have practiced what we preach, adapted and engaged both participants’ imaginations, and our own.

Having said that, we ran a pilot online for one of our clients and they liked it so much that they’ve asked us to train their trainers across five different centres, taking the programme to 1000 people a year! That showed us that our approach is still impactful enough that people want to scale our programmes.

Another happy consequence of the pandemic is that, having taken all our sessions online, we have been able to bring a much wider range of inspirational speakers to the participants from across the globe, so their horizons have paradoxically been broadened whilst they’ve been locked down at home. This also helps them to understand that there are different ways of seeing things, and that those views can and should co-exist.

We are building on the opportunities presented to us by online learning by partnering with The Virtulab, which will allow us to create virtual experiences such as river walks and games. Participants will be able to enter with their avatars and engage with people from across the world. The opportunity for involvement is unlimited, as we can reach people no matter where they are, all at the same time. It’s such an exciting development to have emerged from the challenges presented by the pandemic.

We definitely see greater awareness among the participants of their own passions and interests. The emphasis on presenting and sharing – on having your voice heard – gives a sense of agency and excitement to go out into the world. There’s a feeling of hope.

Their dreams are possible because they now know how to think through what needs to happen and quieten the voices of judgement and cynicism that normally stops them.

It’s wonderful to see how many people leave the programme with a greater awareness of their environment and their communities, and with a desire to contribute in a positive way. For me, the single greatest impact we have on our participants is restoring their hope. So many of our participants from under-resourced communities say that, before the programme, they had lost hope in their futures. On completing Resilient Futures, they feel optimistic that they can build a bright, purposeful future for themselves. The key is that they have hope, but with the skills to make their dreams a reality – there are no unattainable dreams here.

I think the real magic of the programme is that it ignites the greatness that already exists in each person, and ensures that it burns so brightly that they can follow it for the rest of their lives.

So much! Community gardening, upcycling, education and sustainable fashion, to name just a few. Over and over again I am blown away by the determination and initiative that our graduates show. One got a job in early child development, but realised that it wasn’t where her passion lay, so she actively sought out an internship at a retail company she was passionate about, and liaised with her new employer and the programme that was paying her salary to make that happen. Another raised money to ensure that children at the school she was teaching at would have a present to celebrate the end of the school year. A few of our participants got together as part of a Community Action Network in Cape Town, and have set up a WhatsApp group that provides Covid-19 updates to around 500 people living in a township, as well as explaining the social and environmental impacts and highlighting some of the good things that have emerged from the pandemic. This initiative draws on so much of what they learned with us – confidence, collaboration, identifying an issue and the solution – and we couldn’t be more impressed!

For me, it gives me such hope working with these young people, because they’ve shown me what incredible talent exists in the next generation. It has also shown me the power of a relatively small, short-term intervention and how it can transform people’s lives. These young people are talented, creative, resilient, determined – they just need a helping hand and a nudge in the right direction.

I’ve learned never to judge as talent comes in all forms, from any background and in so many different flavours.

And of course I love hearing from alumni about the work they’re doing, the initiatives they’ve set up and how they’re growing.

One person in our team left a corporate role to join Routes to Resilience: she says she will never look back, as facilitating the Resilient Futures programme is so rewarding - particularly watching the participants grow and develop their confidence and self-esteem. Another team member says, ‘Most importantly, the young people in our programme can say, with bold confidence and without fear of contradiction, their today is better than their yesterday, and they are sure that their tomorrow will be way better than their today… Thanks to this programme, their lives will never be the same again’.

The Resilient Futures programme has developed organically in response to the emerging needs of the individuals, corporations and civil society organisations with whom we have worked over the last half decade. Stemming from our original work with our founding collaborators, the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership in South Africa and the Impact Trust, this first level of the programme was developed to address the urgent need to prepare young graduates, new to the world of work, so that they would successfully transition into their professional futures. We are excited to be growing both through new partnerships with career development organisations, and by providing young people with the opportunity to engage directly with open access programmes in the new year - so watch this space!

We are also conscious of the need to reach young people at greater scale; this meant that a second priority during the year was to develop a programme to train trainers, enabling them to offer the programme to their stakeholders more broadly. We’re really looking forward to our first trainers coming online next year and expanding our reach through their capacity to engage over 1000 young people entering the world of work. And that’s just the beginning! We aim to grow that reach in both the UK and South Africa.

The Resilient Futures programme has captured the imagination and commitment to sustainability and resilience of the corporate sphere: we are very excited about the initiatives underway to expand our engagement in this respect. This will see us adapting Resilient Futures to the needs of emerging managers and career professionals who are looking to change their focus, and we will also deliver bespoke strategic engagements that address the unique, specific needs of leadership teams and companies in the rapidly changing world of work.

We are committed to a vision of meaningful work and resilient futures and are so appreciative of the partnerships and possibilities unfolding in 2021. While 2020 has been a hard year, it has also been a year that has shone a light on our universal need for collaboration, teamwork and the skills to build collective resilience for a sustainable future. Thank you to all who have walked with us - and to those who will walk with us in the future.

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