Emily Johnson

A Conversation with Project Hope Alliance

Last year, we wrote Project Hope Alliance that featured an organization interrupting the cycle of homelessness in Orange County—where roughly 28,000 children identified as experiencing homelessness. I got to reconnect with the project’s director over oysters and wine and we ended up discussing everything from news with the organization, to the value behind storytelling, to what truly creates change in the world.

Where is Project Hope now and what new advancements can we celebrate alongside of you?

Tracy, President & Chief Strategy Officer: We are in an expansion program for the fiscal year to two more schools in Orange County to round out our support so we will be district wide. From Kindergarten to age 24 we will be journeying with these students, beginning with the Bright Start Early elementary program into our Promotore Pathway.

Youth that don’t graduate from high school are 300% more likely to experience homelessness as an adult.

If a youth experiencing homelessness doesn’t graduate high school, then they are 300% more likely to experience homelessness as an adult. So if we can get them to graduation, there is a chance we will be able to break that cycle, especially for when they have kids.

So I like to call our team “Generational Disruptors” because it’s a sacred opportunity to journey alongside our kids, not to impose or keep them, but to disrupt the cycle their in.

What is the next step for the organization?

Tracy: We will be moving into two other, out of state, communities that have a blend of low-income and high number of youth experiencing homelessness.

We’ve actually developed a training for schools to teach them this model of care. So even though we might not be present everywhere, this is something we can package and take to train and equip them to handle on their own. I think a lot of teachers feel very isolated in their approach, so we really think there is an opportunity there.

What do you think is the value of storytelling for Project Hope?

Tracy: It’s huge. And it’s also incredibly challenging [because of] the nature of our work. What people cling to are stories. Sometimes you can fight and fight and fight for ‘what you believe in,’ but what will really hit you is the human story or approach to what you believe in, more than another research paper or possibly another stat.

It’s so much deeper than a marketing pitch.

And trust is what’s at the core of it. These people are somewhat used to being let down, or life not working out like they’d want, or the things they have to worry about are things we’ll never have to worry about, so we need to respect that journey. How to tell that is still a challenge. I’ve seen too many kids put in situations where they’re forced to tell their story and it does more damage than good.

So what are some ways you execute storytelling while also protecting the individuals?

Tracy: Very soon, we are starting a virtual reality training program that our workers and program managers can take along with them in training, allowing them to walk in the kid’s shoes and experience different scenarios they might face down the road while working with us. This is all very new, but we are trying to use it for our answer of ‘how do you learn an experience before actually experiencing it?’

This is one way to show [people] about the lives of our kids without a disruptive visit in their motel room while they’re trying to do homework. It will be a training model for community-based organizations and for schools so they can see what this child goes through, and could even be used as a “choose your own adventure” to help trainees figure out what to do in certain situations.

In our line of work you don’t find anything really sexy about it, and it’s hard to be innovative, but we feel we are looking at innovation deeply and differently.

We’re super excited because in our line of work you don’t find anything really sexy about it, and it’s hard to be innovative, but we feel we are looking at innovation deeply and differently, and we want to show that [to our supporters]. This is a vehicle where they can see experiences in a safe place, take the VR device off, and then talk about it.

What do you think creates real change through organizations such as your own?

Tracy: Deep awareness and education. It parallels with what I was saying earlier about finding that common, humanistic ground of what we all bring to the table, what perspectives we come from, and what drives us into this work.

We’re all products of our experiences, right? And that’s what I’m talking about: things that happened to you that shifted your path and tell why and who you are.

Ultimately, there are so many different angles you can take, but to me, it all comes back to that human reality that you can’t belittle peoples’ experience. So being able to strip people down a little bit and bring them back to what it was like being a kid, since we’re primarily dealing with kids, is what has the power to create real change for us.

I left this meeting with Project Hope feeling inspired. The discussion shared across the table attempted to answer some of my most itching questions about the dilemmas and solutions for trauma narratives. We do not take this lightly. We are always on an active search to better our own balance of this issue, with the hope of creating real change in the world. 

Thank you Project Hope Alliance for your work and for your words.