Christy Zamani is an Executive Director at Day One and has worked there for the last 8 years. Day One strives to empower their youth by giving them opportunities to better themselves and the community around them.
Tell us about your work.
Zamani: So, the work we do at Day One, it’s a little bit of everything. Our overall mission is to advance public health. We do that by empowering the youth and by building vibrant communities. We work with communities to get everybody engaged in the process; we ask them what’s going on what they want us to work on, really. We really see ourselves as staffed to the community – in a nutshell.
You said that you empower students, how do you do that?
That’s a big part of what we do.
Do you reach out to high schools or colleges?
Both, really. The age we start at is 12, but the interesting this is: it never ends. I started here 8 years ago. Back then, the age limit used to be from 12 – 18; but so many of our students graduate and stay with us. A special tidbit about our program is we have about 5 of our graduates, or youth advocates, who went to college – graduated – and back working for us either at a full-time or part-time capacity. Which is exciting that we actually inspired them to go into careers that [make] them want to come back and help the community. It’s just really amazing to have them as part of our team.
What do you do at Day One? What sort of projects do you prioritize?
Everything health-based. I could break it out into a couple of components for you: one of them is Alcohol, Tobacco and Drug-Prevention; and that means just, getting kids and students engaged in positive, healthy activities so that boredom and curiosity doesn’t even rise in them. They’re so busy doing positive, healthy things for themselves, and the community, that they’re not really interested.
Another component is Active Communities, which helps students to think differently about nutrition and activity and breaking the cycle of soda. We do this “rethink your drink” education series that ask: “how much sugar is in your drink?” and “how do we make them healthy smoothies?” and “what are nutrients, and why do we need to put them in your body?” and Instead of taking the bus to work, how about biking instead? How can we support that?
So that brings up questions like, “I would bike to work, but I don’t feel safe, there aren’t any bike lanes.” Okay, so how do we advocate for bike lanes? So, we started working on the Pasadena Bike Plan with some students. It’s really a combination of whole health – from a holistic self standpoint – but at the same time, it’s an advocacy piece that teaches them “this is your community, you get to do something about it. If you don’t like this – if you don’t feel safe, you advocate to make yourself feel safe.” That’s really important to us.
How does your work make a positive difference to society? Why is this important to you?
It’s so many layers! One layer is environmental health. Let’s say you look at a community where the obesity rate is high; people who don’t know will say, “oh, they’re just irresponsible.” When they don’t realize that might be a highly gang-attacked community, where parents are saying, “When you come home from school, no playing outside. Stay inside,” and “We only get certain foods because of the food programs we’re on, so you’re going to have some not-so-healthy food.” It’s really looking at those factors that disenfranchise certain communities and say, “what can we do to improve it? How can we empower them?” It’s a big part of what we do.
Another part is the Youth-specific engagement piece. It’s the heart of everything to me. I remember going to city council meetings with some students and we were advocating for smoke-free outdoor dining areas. They were at councils until midnight with us, hearing the arguments for and against it. After the item passed, we went back to Paseo (in Pasadena) and we walked around and there were some people in tents near outdoor dining areas saying “No smoking permitted.” I looked at them and said, “You guys did that. You passed that law. It’s going to be here. From now on. Forever. You helped create that.”
That’s a really empowering piece. Sometimes you do a service, but it’s different when you’re leaving a legacy. You’re changing a community for the better. Not just for yourself, but for everyone, for generations to come. That’s a really huge part of our work, really teaching the students how this is their space. This is your community, you get to change it. Your voice really does matter. You have a say-so. That’s the most important piece for me.
How did you get in touch with your passion?
I always thought it was college, but I remember when I was about 4, there was a hunger strike and an arrest and I turned to my Dad and I was like, “Why? I don’t get it. If they’re hungry, why don’t they just eat?” But they were trying to make a point.
I think I was always pushed as a kid. If I didn’t think something was just, I was told to do something about it. That would be the normal response I’d get from my parents: So, what are you going to about it? “Why is that man homeless? It’s not fair!” “So what are you going to do about it?” And I think it stayed with me; all through elementary, middle and high school.
We have a group of staff members and we were all aspiring lawyers at one point, and then we realized: no, we don’t want to be lawyers. I would have never thought not going to law school and going into more of a community service/ public policy field that I would still be affecting laws, just from a different angle. It’s really social justice for the community and passing laws, community environmental law that are advancing public health in our neighborhoods. Which is way more exciting to me than if I was in court doing some law cases.
It’s amazing how life works out. There’s at least 4 of us in the office that had those aspirations at some point. It’s such meaningful work, having the chance to work with students and watching them grow and mentor them and see them move into their passion, to pass that along. To see families break poverty cycles and start building new traditions. The overall health of their whole families – not just their financial health, but their quality of life. The quality of life for a whole family to shift because one person’s changing from previous traditions. From not going to college, to going to college. You see everything start changing. Families start thinking differently. A student comes back and gets a high paying job, it makes their parents think differently. It’s an amazing transformation process.
You initially wanted to go to law school: what were you originally aiming for, and how did that change?
I wanted to a lawyer, and I majored in political science. My first real job out of college was working for the CalState University system. I worked with a different student government from all 23 schools on university affairs and legislative affairs, grass roots organizations and getting their voices to administration and liaising that. I did that for about 7 years, and then I found myself frustrated. When you work for a big system like that, you can have a lot of ideas but they’ll comeback at you with, “That’s a lot of liability. We can’t do that.” It really stumped my creativity. What I love most about working for Day One right now is just the creative freedom. During December, when the kids were like, “Let’s have a snow day!” “Okay, let’s buy snow. So let’s buy 5 tons of snow and do a snow day.” It’s awesome to be able to do that. Most of our families haven’t even been to the snow. It’s really a life experience. It’s exciting.
For me, having that creative freedom and making a difference, and giving people a wonderful experience and bringing people together – that’s really special to me.
How did you get snow? How did you create a snow day?
We just bought it. The things you learn working for a non-profit are just fascinating. You call an ice company and they bring out this ice shredder. We had 5 tons of snow on the lawn and the kids were playing in it and we’ve done it for 5 years now. The communities have become used to it, so everybody shows up, we give toys to families – the students actually help collect toys for families in need, or have lost their jobs and can’t afford gifts during the holiday season. We serve about 500 families every winter. It’s a fun service project for the kids.
Was there a time when you felt unfulfilled or disconnected in your work life?
Not here. I think the only time I feel like that is when we have to do all the administrative stuff, like all the billing, all the grant billing, all the paper work. Because they’ll give you a grant, but they don’t give you any extra money for admin support. It’s the not-so-fun part that comes with the job, but the positives definitely outweigh the negative. I would say, 90 percent to 10, in terms of fulfillingness.
As you became committed to a purposeful career, Did you have any doubts or obstacles that challenged you? What inspired you to move forward?
Absolutely! My doubt started on the first day I started this job!
I’ll tell you! I worked at the Chancellor’s office in Long Beach, at a Beachfront office that was designed by the same people who designed the Gettys’ center, so it’s gorgeous. I’d look out my window and see the beach. When I interviewed for Day One, my interview was at a law office in Old Town. On their website, they had a picture of City Hall, so I figured, “I’m getting a job at City Hall.”
I show up at City Hall on the first day of work, and they’re like: “No, you’re in the trailer across the street,” and I was like, “What? No. What? What trailer? What are you talking about?” “There’s a trailer in the park.” “Oh, I made a big mistake!”
My first series of meetings were…It was hard, I’ll be honest with you: all the meetings on my first day were in The Projects. As you go from higher education to The Projects…it was definitely a learning curve for me.
My background was not in alcohol and drugs, my background was in leadership development. I was like, “Wow, did I just make a huge mistake? I don’t know if I made a mistake…” I was really doubting my decision; but you know, I think staying here and giving it a couple of years to build trust with my board, which then allowed me to change the mission statement so it’s a lot more open-ended. When I started here, it focused on Alcohol, Tobacco and Drug-Prevention. And I was like, “That’s it?” When I first learnt about the community and what issues were going on, and I had built a lot of networks in the community, the board trusted me enough to let me change the mission statement.
It’s a lot broader now, and it’s more positive. When I started here, it was a staff of 3 of us. And now we’re like 18. It’s amazing, instead of just being in Pasadena, we’re in 3 other cities. It’s amazing to see growth.
So, I imagine you guys moved out of the trailer, then?
No, we’re still here. I love my trailer now! [laughs] I wouldn’t mind a new one, but I get it. It’s a good thing, you work with the community and sometimes the more humble you are, the more accessible the community feels to you. I think if we were in a big, intimidating building we probably wouldn’t have the traction we have.
They feel comfortable here, the kids feel comfortable here. They show up, and they just kick it on my couch and want to talk and it’s fine. This is for them. It’s perfect.
I think the yard – we have such a cool yard in front – that’s my imaginative play ground when I want to do events or when I want to do stuff for the community, so it’s really neat that we can transform it into anything. The first week of august, we turn it into a complete urban beach and we have different activities each day.
We’ve brought families together, and it’s really neat because these are families that otherwise would have never met each other. It’s really built that village of “This is my neighborhood.”
It’s like your own little community?
How did you find a balance between financial stability and a career that makes a difference?
[laughs] Still trying to figure that one out! Honestly, I think that when you start learning – this will lead to where I’ll answer your question: Let’s say you get a prevention grant around alcohol and drugs and they’re like, “You can have Youth meetings, but can’t spend the money to feed the kids.” Now, if you have ever worked with students, there’s no way they’re going to come here after school and you’re not going to want to give them some snacks. So, you’re stuck. “How do I do this if I don’t have a budget to feed the kids?” So then, here comes the nutrition grant, so you start being selective: “Okay, we’ll start each meeting with a food demo on behalf on this brand, and then we’ll do the training with the other grant.” And with each grant that comes in, hopefully I’m able to ensure that I’m able to pay my staff a livable wage. They’re worth it. They’re amazing people. It should be a career for life, it should be something that values them for their expertise and their heart. That is definitely the core of our organization. They’re such a passionate group of team members that really love it. We’re all in it. We all do everything together. It’s a strong team.
What advice do you have for those who want a career that benefits the common good? What makes you happy in your work?
Do it. I would say do it. My family, they came to this country and they started a small business and they’ve been in that forever. They don’t understand the words “non-profit.” They don’t get it. “Why would you do this? Why would you go into non-profit? I don’t understand.”
And I love it. That’s my answer, “I love it.” I come to work, and I believe in what I do. It can be exhausting. I could come home completely drained, but feel fulfilled at the same time. Completely fulfilled. It’s like profit with honor. It really is. It’s like you’re making a living doing what you love and making the world a better place, as cheesy as that sounds.
Every meeting I go to in the morning – I had 3 of them today, but at each one, you’re surrounded by people who want the same things you do. They really want to make the world a better place. They want to make the community a better place.
I have friends that are definitely making 6 figures and they say, “Oh but our jobs have no soul!” and I’m like, “My job has a lot of soul, but I don’t have your house.” [laughs] You’re surrounded by wonderful people. That’s the best part. You’re really surrounded by wonderful people. To see communities transform and really change, it’s not in your imagination, it’s really happening. It’s very exciting, you feel like you’re giving back in a really meaningful way that’s going to be here long after we’re gone. So that feels very good to me.