Zenub Kakli

This week’s Gateway Cities Leader

Zenub Kakli is the Chief Program Officer for the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell.

Zenub Kakli is the Chief Program Officer for the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell.

Cities are shaped by their citizens. From New Bedford to Pittsfield, passionate young leaders are spearheading innovative efforts to reinvent their communities for a new generation. The Gateway Cities Leaders series profiles their work and introduces their ideas, visions, and aspirations to the wider Gateway City world. Is there a young leader in your city that we should spotlight? Please let us know.

When you started at UTEC, you were working as the Director of Evaluation and Learning. What drew you to your current role as Chief Program Officer?

I’ve been in my current role for three years, and it was a welcome change. I came to UTEC because I thought the first position was a great blend of my practitioner and research experience. When the opportunity presented itself to work directly with the programs and the staff who run them every day, I jumped at it. I missed the day-to-day work with young people and thinking about how to provide the best experience for them. In my previous role, I was more focused on how we were holding ourselves accountable and felt removed from the daily challenges and questions of “How do I work with this young person?” and “How do I respond to this crisis?” It was a real pleasure to go back to the direct service mindset while still thinking big picture. My current position is the perfect marriage between direct service and strategic thinking.

What have been some of your biggest accomplishments in those three years?

I started working at UTEC as they were wrapping up a theory of change process, which compels an organization to answer the question, “Who do we want to serve, for what purpose, and how?” Five years ago, we were mostly doing street outreach, and running our drop-in program. Young people were saying that what they really needed was a job, so UTEC developed a program for workforce development and job placement. In the last five years, we have seen it grow and now run four distinct social enterprises that help youth develop the skills they need in the workplace, earn money while doing so, and study for their high school credential if they don’t have one.

In the past couple of years, we’ve expanded our outreach in correctional facilities, working with young people right from when they leave prison and bringing them into the program. Once a young person is in our program, we work hard to help them succeed. If a person isn’t showing up at the program, we ask why. Do they need childcare? We’ll help them get childcare. Is it housing? We’ll help them with housing stability. Is it transit? We’ll get them a bus pass. Our coaches are really thinking about life holistically and the factors that contribute to or hinder success.

I would argue that a theory of change is never complete, never truly finished. Our team has gone deep about whom we want to serve and being intentional about how we serve youth who previously have been denied opportunities to flourish and thrive. The young people we work with have often dropped out or been pushed out of high school and maybe initially are not interested in a structured program like ours. We’re constantly becoming more intentional about the population we work with and what it takes for them to attain employment and education and reduce recidivism. I work with an incredibly dedicated, thoughtful and energetic team.

Are there upcoming projects you’re looking forward to taking on based on your reflection?

Yes! We’re going to be opening up our own early education center for participants who are parents. Childcare is a big barrier to people’s attendance in our program. We’re opening up a center next door to where all our programming happens. It’s a partnership with Imajine That based in Lawrence. We’ll be providing early education for the children and working with the parents on their professional development, financial health, and educational attainment. The parents will have a better understanding of their child’s development. The children will get to see their parents engage in programming that’s beneficial to the entire family. That’s a huge project that we’re really excited about. I started my career in education and early education, so this project is coming full circle for me as a professional. We’re hoping to open the doors in early 2016.

What are some of the benefits of working in Lowell?

The benefits are plentiful. We have such a strong partnership throughout the private and public sectors. I was recently at the annual meeting of the Greater Lowell Health Alliance, and it was heartening to see all of the agencies and partnerships in same room. The Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association was there next to the police department to learn about and discuss public health issues in Greater Lowell. I feel fortunate to live in a place where people and agencies are coming together to talk about difficult, important issues of a social justice nature. I also feel lucky to live in a city where the police department is genuinely interested in our [UTEC’s] success and in the success of young people who have had contact with the criminal justice system. We also enjoy great partnerships with state agencies, such as DYS, DTA, DOC and DCF – and county correctional facilities.

And some of the challenges?

The main challenge is that we’re not inside Route 128, which limits our funding because we’re not part of the Greater Boston area. Many funders are primarily interested in Boston and the Greater Boston area. That’s a challenge for us.

How do you see yourself in relation to the community, on a more personal level?

I moved to Lowell two years ago, and my husband and I are raising three children here. UTEC brought me to Lowell, but Lowell made me move to Lowell. It’s an incredibly dynamic city. It’s not just that I love being a professional here, but also that there’s a lot to do here as a parent with young children. It’s wonderful to have built a personal and professional investment in a place.

Do you have any spots in Lowell where you like to spend personal time?

I’m still discovering the city because I moved here when my twins, who just turned two, were two months old. So finding time to explore has been limited. I wouldn’t say I know all the great spots, but you’ll find me at Shedd Park a lot. I love walking by the canals and the river.

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