A Non-Traditional Advocate: Saskia DeVries

By LIFT on May 1, 2015

Categories: Real Stories

If you take a look around any LIFT office in any of our six regions, you’ll notice the majority of our Advocates are college students. That is because the majority of our Advocates come from the area colleges and universities that have partnered with LIFT, to provide their students with a hands-on social service experience and an opportunity to get involved in their communities. Occasionally, LIFT also gets inquiries from prospective Advocates we call “non-traditional.” These groups of potential LIFTers are “non-traditional,” only in the sense that they are not attending school during their time with LIFT. Most, like LIFT-DC’s Advocate Saskia DeVries, who you are about to meet, have already spent years pursuing their careers, while some others have worked on issues related to poverty in other capacities. Whatever the path that leads them to LIFT, these “non-traditional” Advocates have a unique impact on LIFT’s work in the community.

Saskia was drawn to Washington, D.C. during her junior year at Brown University. “It was right after the 2008 elections, so it seemed like an exciting place to be,” she says. After graduating from Brown in 2009, where she studied sociology and applied math, she finally moved to D.C. and began working with the US Census Bureau as a Statistician. Saskia and a team of other technical advisors traveled to various different countries, where they assisted each country to gather their own census information. In the five years she worked as a Statistician, Saskia has traveled to 11 countries including Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt, Nepal, and Armenia.

After five years at the Census Bureau however, Saskia decided it was time to figure out what else she wanted to do with her life. The one thing she was certain of was her desire to get re-connected to the social issues she had been studying back in college. So, without hesitation, she quit her job at the Census Bureau, and decided to take a gap year. She knew she wanted to do something community based, perhaps working with grass-roots solutions, so when her friends told her about LIFT, she decided to apply to be an Advocate.

Before coming to LIFT-DC, Saskia says she had very little direct experience working with people living in poverty. When asked what her first impression of LIFT-DC had been, Saskia immediately points out how surprised she was to find that the office was “calm and orderly, and [that] people were taking their time to set a calming environment.” Having never seen a Member service meeting before, and knowing only a little bit about social service and non-profit agencies, she admits she had expected the office to be completely understaffed and overworked. As she points out, “it’s great because that means the [Members] also feel that way when they come for their meetings.” But mostly, she was excited to finally have the opportunity to be involved with the kind of community work she had been looking for. She says, “it had always frustrated me in my college sociology classes to be reading papers about social mobility and poverty related issues without ever having experienced the decisions that people have to make when they’re living in poverty.”

When it comes to working with Members, Saskia relies on the active listening skills she developed working at the Census Bureau. She’s found that no matter how much time she spends prepping for her Member meetings, Members may decide to take the meeting in an unexpected direction. And when this happens, she says, “You have to be ready to roll with it.”

As an Advocate, Saskia believes her role is to try to keep Members at ease as much as possible. She says she’s learned that the goal isn’t to try to get as many job applications done as she can in an hour, but to make sure that the Member she is meeting with is feeling better about what they can do at that moment, than they did waking up that morning. She adds that her experience has shown her that “most people walking in know what they need, they just need support finding the resources that can help them get there.”

This fall, Saskia is planning to go to graduate school, with plans to study Public Policy and Data Science. While in graduate school, she hopes to do work related to poverty programs and poverty related policy. She says her year at LIFT-DC has been invaluable in giving her the kind of first-hand experiences that she needed to affirm her desire to work at the community level. Whatever the future holds for her, Saskia hopes to continue to have a foot in the kind of community focused work that she experienced at LIFT.