How We Can Help Young People Pursue Paths That Celebrate Their Identities
Here’s something you may not expect the average career exploration organization to say: Your career should not make up your entire identity.
Your identity is a rich tapestry made up of the things you love, your hobbies, your beliefs, the communities you belong to, and endless other threads. Work is just one piece of that tapestry.
But… (…You knew that was coming.) Over the past 20 years of speaking to people about their careers for our public television series, we’ve heard again and again that the most fulfilling careers are the ones that encourage you to bring your whole self to work — careers that weave their way throughout your tapestry, and add color and life to other threads. Careers that actually encourage you to use your voice, give you space to embrace your identity, and even equip you to lift up others.
As we celebrate International Transgender Day of Visibility, we know that many marginalized communities and identities are under attack across the country. And that can make it scary for many young people to imagine bringing their full identity into the workplace someday — let alone using their career as a platform for community building and change.
So for teachers, parents, and caring adults striving to help young people find rewarding careers that celebrate their identities, we want to highlight the stories of two people who are part of the transgender community and have found ways to create more visibility and advocate for change through their work.
These two leaders have very different interests and skill sets — but both found careers that incorporate and celebrate their unique identities in meaningful ways.
“Each of us holds more than one identity. So I advocate for everybody. I want everybody to win.”
Tori Cooper remembers her first “radical” act: She had just moved out of her childhood home to go to college, and decided to get her ears pierced. “For me, that was radical! My parents weren’t with all that. It was an opportunity for me to experiment.” It was a small step, but it was one that put her on the path toward her life’s work.
As she continued to grow into her identity in the early 1990s, she started to hear a growing chorus of worries about how the HIV epidemic was affecting the LGBTQ+ community in cities across America. By the time the epidemic reached her town in Georgia, she knew she had to act.
30 years later, after volunteering and working at countless HIV and AIDS care organizations, she now serves as the director of community engagement at the Human Rights Campaign, where her work centers on organizing for the rights of trans people, Black people, and people living with HIV.
Despite being part of multiple intersectional marginalized communities, Tori recognizes that at this point in her life, she has accumulated a level of privilege through her college education and her work experiences.
But rather than prioritizing furthering her own career, she has used this privilege as another tool in her activism toolbox. She now speaks publicly on trans issues, serves on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, and ultimately fights to open up space for other marginalized people to join her in the world of activism — and get paid a fair wage for it.
“There’s nothing that says that I should’ve made it. But the fact that I’m succeeding? It’d be selfish of me to not use my privilege to help others succeed as well.”
“Who you are is not up for public debate. If you are sharing your story with somebody, it’s inarguable. It’s your story!”
Growing up in a homogenous town in Maine, Ian Harvie felt like he was different than other kids…but he didn’t yet have the words to articulate why. The tension between how he felt and his inability to fully express those feelings left him feeling isolated — until he took time to explore more of the country, and found his community.
After moving to a bigger city, he began his first career as a web developer, and realized that clients responded more positively when he was unapologetically himself, rather than trying to hide his identity as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
So after years of practicing comedy writing in private, he decided that being truly open and honest with himself meant pursuing his dreams of becoming a standup comedian.
He took a leap, and attended his first-ever open mic night, where his opening joke revolved around coming out to his parents. And unsurprisingly, the audience immediately connected with Ian’s openness and story. He found success as a standup, then as an actor on TV shows like “Transparent.”
He has since used his success to become a passionate advocate for the transgender community beyond the stage, including participating in an open letter to Hollywood demanding more trans representation onscreen and more equitable hiring and casting practices.
“It wasn’t about just making people laugh, and it wasn’t just about sharing my story, but it really was about changing people in this way—through laughter.”
These are just two of many unique paths and stories that we could share. So, with this peek into all of the possibilities in mind, how can we support and guide young people who are searching for a way to embrace their unique voices and find careers that celebrate and complement their identities?
If we want to support them in keeping who they are central to their future path, then it makes sense to start with exploring their interests and strengths — and mapping out all the different paths that affirm their purpose and identity from there.
Here’s how we could use these leaders’ stories to get young people thinking about and exploring different paths:
If you know a young person whose strength is in storytelling, you can help them explore careers that could put their story out into the world — just like Ian did. Are they a natural performer? Could they put their storytelling skills to use right now by creating video content that lets others see and understand their unique experience?
Do they love reading and writing? Or prefer being backstage rather than performing? Could they put on a play or write a short story that would help an audience build empathy for a group they belong to? Or become a sensitivity reader and use their experiences to help others better communicate stories and information about their identity?
It’s also important to note: Being a storyteller doesn’t mean they have to cater to helping others validate and understand their experience — it can be a path to community building and affirming people in their own community, too!
Maybe they could combine storytelling with tech, and build an online group or tool for sharing stories and experiences within their community. Storytelling can also be a key skill in fundraising, if they want to use their story to directly raise money for the cause or community they care about.
Speaking of fundraising, if Tori’s story speaks to a young person, maybe they’ll want to dedicate their careers to actively pushing for justice for a marginalized group or community. If they’re a leader in the classroom, they may have an inclination for organizing, activism, or even for politics.
If their talents lie more in doing research, or in showing up to do the hard work, you could point them toward legal work or social work — or toward the wealth of different careers within the nonprofit space.
Building an identity will be a lifelong, intensely personal process for the young people we care about — and right now, that process may feel more complex than ever.
But finding a career where you’re able and encouraged to bring your whole self to work can be worth it — and by providing help and guidance, we can connect this next generation to careers that celebrate their unique identities, and give them the tools to use their unique voices and perspectives for the better.