July 20, 2019
 
Anne Teschner Has Cracked the Code as ED at The Care Center

Anne Teschner: Allowing yourself as an organization to be bold is what really brings the oxygen in.
Anne Teschner went to work right after high school and saw firsthand the obstacles that young women face when they lack education. Now, as executive director of The Care Center in Holyoke, she’s helping more and more of them earn their high school equivalency degree and go to college.

Here is her story.

Growing up in a lower middle class neighborhood in Worcester I was aware of class distinctions around intelligence and found it to be annoying. Many people seemed to think that if you live in poverty you don’t need intellectual stimulation and, at the worst, don’t deserve it.

I graduated high school a year early and first did an internship in Worcester, an Outward Bound type experience, and then in 1975 went to work at a day care center that served abused and neglected children. It gave me insight into the challenges of women and children living in poverty.

After two years, I moved to New Hampshire and started a domestic violence program. When my children reached school age, I returned to Massachusetts and, at age 31, earned my BA from UMass.

In 1988, I helped establish the Teen Pregnancy Coalition to help reduce teenage births. A key ingredient was creation of the El Erco Iris art center in Holyoke. The basic idea was that if kids were going to access services, there needed to be a hook. We used performance, visual art, and music, and also provided counseling, health services, and tutoring.

I learned that the arts have a powerful impact on young people, particularly those at risk of feeling isolated. It’s also a nice way to bring people into the community. We saw a drastic decrease over the years in the teen birthrate, which showed us that if people have a reason to delay pregnancy, they will.

I left the Coalition in 1993 to work for the Mass. Cultural Council as the founding director of the YouthReach Initiative, a statewide art and youth intervention program. We funded an arts-based program for at-risk kids. I loved the job, but after five years I was ready to go back to work at the local level and apply what I learned.

Jane Sanders, the founder of The Care Center, had done a great job but was leaving. I applied for and got the position, and shortly after I got here we ran into a snag. The staff, like Holyoke, was bi-cultural, Anglo white and Puerto Rican, and was in conflict around race, culture, privilege. A lot of people felt disrespected.

I had to figure out how to manage a bi-cultural organization while being respectful of everyone, without being defined by the struggle. I brought people’s focus back to the work. If issues of race emerged, I said, we should discuss them but not let them define our day-to-day work. Instead, we should be defined by working with teens to help them go to college.

Everyone also needed to be clear about their roles, which had become blurred. It was my job to find the resources to make this work – to provide structure and enable people to do their jobs. It meant raising private money and paying people well. Within a year to a year and a half the atmosphere had shifted and the focus was on the work.

Welfare reform in early the 2000s put pressure on us to rapidly shift kids from a sixth- to a twelfth-grade reading level within a few years. We ended up raising the bar as high as we possibly could with the hope that it would spur people to achieve more – and it worked. We noticed that the arts and humanities was very central, which I had seen earlier in my life. We added athletics and adopted a prep school model and layered it on top of a GED program.

We joke that we cracked the code. A combination of high expectations—a matter-of-fact attitude toward success—and support works. We see the shift in the young women. It’s a posture change, a look in the eyes, an honest change in the way they look at the world. They go from “I’ll be here because I have to” to “I kind of like the photo class; I can do this.”

This all crystallized for me when I sent my daughter to Barnard College. I had a clear sense that the girls who came here and my daughter were the same, that beginnings don’t matter, that they all have internal gifts. I thought that if these girls got what my daughter got, they’d make the same contribution to the world. Now 75% to 80% of the girls we work with get their GED and go to college.

Knowing that you can change things is important. Allowing yourself as an organization to be bold and on the edge of discovery is what really brings the oxygen in. We’re not that huge. I don’t know if what we do can be sustained on a larger level, but would think so.

As told to Peter Lowy, February 2012. Learn more about The Care Center.

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