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City Tech Alumna Helps At-Risk Teenagers in East Flatbush
Photo credit: Derron Campbell
“What would you do with your life if you knew you could not fail?” That’s the question Ijana Nathaniel, 30, an alumna of New York City College of Technology (City Tech), asked herself well before she graduated last June.
Her answer was to start an East Flatbush-based non-profit youth organization called Dare 2 Dream Leaders (D2D) with the goal of encouraging teenagers to become community leaders. In just one year, Nathaniel, serving as president, assembled a five-member board of directors (including two City Tech alumni), partnered with the Cerebral Palsy Associations of New York State, set up a student internship program with City Tech and saw two local schools, I.S. 240 (Andries Hudde) and Erasmus High School for Services and Learning, adopt the D2D program.
Nathaniel recently helped coordinate Career Day at I.S. 240 for the entire 8th grade class and she also was a speaker at the event. “I had all of the students do ‘vision boards’ in which they explored their dreams and how to realize them. The event was a huge success!” she exclaims.
Additionally, D2D sponsored Jeans 4 Teens, a community-building clothing drive, in collaboration with Aéropostale clothing stores and Dosomething.org. Young volunteers helped to collect over 500 pairs of jeans for teens in shelters and orphanages. And, it also held its first fundraiser in mid-January, the proceeds of which are being used to fund the D2D programs.
D2D was born out of Nathaniel’s desire to help people, strengthened by a family tragedy. She started volunteering at the age of 12 and her commitment to giving back to her community was heightened when, in 2003, she lost an older brother to street violence.
“I felt that the streets raised him and other youths in East Flatbush, and I wanted to be a part of the solution,” she says. “I wanted to show teens that there is something more out there.”
The idea to start D2D percolated in Nathaniel’s mind for about five years, she says. “But it wasn’t until my final year in college that I began to really believe in my dream and myself,” she explains. “I was motivated by my City Tech professors, as well as my fellow students, who told me I had what it takes to make this happen.”
Nathaniel says she also drew inspiration from her mother. “My mom was a very strong, independent woman who always told me I could do and be whatever I wanted to be. She also taught me that if I wanted something I had to earn it.” Her mom passed away in 2009, but Nathaniel feels “she is watching over me and smiling down on me.”
Nathaniel describes D2D’s mission as “equipping our youth, ages 11 to 18, with life, self-sufficiency and entrepreneurial skills, and then linking them to the community for collaboration and community building.” She says D2D participants will leave the program with confidence, hands-on experience and knowledge of various topics, including financial literacy, business plan and résumé writing, mock interviewing, public speaking, self marketing, and workplace and general etiquette. “Our participants won’t only dream of what job they want to have when they grow up,” she remarks. “They will think beyond this personal goal to what types of jobs they will create in their communities.”
But as with any new endeavor, the D2D road has not been without challenges. Nathaniel describes the “toughest part” as “people who say they are interested in beginning to work with us and don’t do anything about it. In my network marketing class, I learned that ‘the fortune is in the follow up.’ You must always follow up to get what you want. When I finally get that ‘Yes, I will support you,’ I know it means I can do what I love, working with youth.”
Nathaniel says she is indebted to her City Tech curriculum that helped “to shape my entire program.” As she puts it, “I am living proof that the human services department at City Tech is the real deal. I learned true professionalism, but most of all, I learned about me, who I wanted to be and what I needed to do to get there.”
In particular, Nathaniel acknowledges Professor Marcia E. Powell. “While taking her class, I was going to school fulltime, working fulltime, being a fulltime mom and taking care of my mother who recently had had surgery. Professor Powell didn’t show me any mercy; she pushed me even harder. And I love her for that!”
Among the other special people in Nathaniel’s life are her eight-year-old son Jeremiah, her two older brothers – Drake in Massachusetts, and Kenya in New Jersey – and her father Rudolph, who she says “supports me in all I do and is always there for me.”
In addition to getting D2D off the ground, Nathaniel works fulltime as the leasing coordinator at the YWCA of Brooklyn. In this position for the past six years, she is responsible for helping single women acquire affordable housing and services. Her connection with the Y began as a summer camp counselor at age 15.
In her spare time, Nathaniel enjoys reading motivational books like Who Moved My Cheese by Dr. Spencer Johnson and loves “singing my heart out whenever I can” in karaoke lounges.
“I work on my D2D business on my lunch breaks, after work into the evening and on the weekends,” she explains. “I am always looking for new ideas that will allow my organization to grow. I am always networking, attending events and reaching out to people who should know about Dare 2 Dream Leaders. I live and breathe D2D.”
Nathaniel is proud of D2D’s early successes. She is seeking volunteers to work on the program at various levels and encourages those interested to visit her website: www.dare2dreamleaders.org.
“In five years, I hope to see the D2D leadership program integrated into the curriculum of public schools throughout Brooklyn and in other boroughs,” she says. She also would like to establish a charter school called Dare 2 Dream Leadership Academy. Now that’s daring to dream!