CG Grad is back to lead the next generation!

By Halima Flynn, Development Associate

Recent hire Crystal Fernandez is no stranger to Common Ground, she’s a 2005 alumnae who brings eleven years of non-profit community based experience working with youth. Her focus? Youth Leadership, Workforce Development, and Coaching. This year she returned to Common Ground as the Green Job Corps Program Manager. Crystal and I sat down and talked this summer about her time here as a student and returning as an adult.

Crystal was a former student at Norman Thomas High School in Midtown Manhattan where she was identified as an “at-risk” youth. “I started as a Freshman, but I was soon lost among thousands of students,” said Crystal of her time there. So, an aunt in New Haven who knew about Common Ground brought her to live with her in New Haven. “Now, I was a face, not a number.”

Crystal remembers that Common Ground gave her a sense of structure she was lacking in her previous school. Common Ground provided activities outside of academics, and her guidance teachers provided advice and mentorship. And soon an “at-risk” student became a self-described nerd: “I would get extra projects on evenings and weekends. People at CG became like a family to me.”

Crystal (center) with her four boys who stopped to visit Mom at work. From left to right: Joshua (age 5); Alexander (age 11); Cristian (age 6); Jeremiah (10 months).

“I discovered a lot at CG. I grew into myself, I was given leadership opportunities. And I developed healthy relationships with adults and communication skills.” Crystal says this all came from the Common Ground environment: from how classes were run by guidance teachers, and how instructors related to students as individuals. Common Ground provided structure and opportunities offsite too; Crystal also participated in a program a Yale.

When Crystal graduated, she started at the University of Connecticut (UCONN) pre-med program. At the time she thought it was what her father would have wanted. At UCONN Crystal began to participate in more community organizations and that she had more Afro-Latino experiences. “I felt like it was Divine Guidance that I reconnected with the field through the Urban Semester Program in Urban Studies at UCONN.” Crystal took an internship with the Urban Youth Empowerment Program at the Urban League of Hartford. She was subsequently hired as a part-time Youth Development Specialist at the Urban League. It was at this time that Crystal really felt the calling of her passion, to develop young people’s ability to succeed in the workforce, so she began a FT position at the Urban League and took classes part-time at UConn, ultimately transferring to Charter Oak where she graduated.

Crystal remained in contact with Common Ground through social media and applied when she learned that this position was available. When asked why, she stated that she felt it was the natural next step in her career. Not only that, but “when I remembered the support and experiences I had here as a student, I thought it would be like paying it forward.”

“It’s aligned with my personal mission to develop the future workforce.” That’s why she is our new Green Job Corps Program Manager. The Green Jobs program was designed to help Common Ground students achieve success in their careers and lives. The program fills an unmet need by helping youth get jobs where they are understood and can grow. Green Jobs Corps is a unique job training program, providing students with coaching, skill building, and academic support. Students receive pay for work and academic credit for participation. Corps members learn about time management, accountability and the importance of team building in workshops, and put the learning into practice through paid job placements. Meaningful jobs with environmental initiatives give students the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of their labor — a new garden bed at a New Haven School or smiling faces of participants at Solar Youth, and yield additional benefits of producing healthy food or improving a green space that will ultimately benefit their neighbors and the greater community.

It’s been a few years since Crystal graduated, and a lot has changed. I asked her what discoveries or re-discoveries she found since returning. “It’s been joyful that Common Ground evolved into something even greater than what it was. The size, the mission, the capacity. And student opportunities have expanded and at Common Ground that expands to all students not just higher performing ones.” There’s also a certain nostalgia that Crystal feels for the teachers who taught her who are still teaching and committed to a new student body.

That leaves a new challenge in that former teachers have become peers in the workplace. “They encouraged me as a student to express my thoughts and ideas about improving classes and programs. The change now is that I can help implement & maintain the changes in a greater way.” Even though she didn’t imagine coming back to work at CG, Crystal recognizes it as a great way to see clearer how it shaped her as a youth. “Now I’m excited to see how it will shape me professionally, challenge me, and continue to expand my world.”

Crystal also spoke about the social & environmental justice experiences now at CG. “Often people are reactive, but here it’s proactive, cutting it off at the pass. Everyone here looks at being agents of change instead of looking for only temporary solutions.”

Crystal encourages the young people she works with towards “embracing their true self and forgiving ‘mistakes.’” Her focus on being kind to self over disappointments comes from her own experience of being hypercritical to herself as a young person, refusing to take credit for her many accomplishments. She has a mantra that she shares with the young people she works with to encourage them to press through trials:

“You did great and you are enough. This one thing doesn’t define you.

Not your grades, neighborhood, family, or choices.

You can always redefine yourself. Without shame.”


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