A Passionate Leader Doing Her Best to Make a Difference! Meet YMCA Project Cornerstone Executive Director Ziem Nguyen Neubert

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Q: When you were 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?
ZN:
As a child, I loved learning new things and being in charge. I used to play “teacher” with my siblings back in Viet Nam. Being the youngest of six children, I got a kick out of being their teacher and telling them what to do. They used to irritate me as my “students” just to get a reaction out of me. At 10, besides spending time with friends, I was mostly interested in writing, drawing, playing the piano, singing, playing sports, and anything to do with learning. When I was 13, we had to pick a career to research in English, and I chose a university professor. 

Q: While attending high school, did you have an idea you would want to pursue a career in education?
ZN:
I considered education as well as other areas, such as law and music. My father wanted me to be a pharmacist like he was, or a doctor or lawyer. He said I would make a great lawyer because I liked arguing so much. He was probably right since I was always seeking fairness and saw things back then as black or white. In high school, I realized my love for language arts and music classes. I really enjoyed discussing open-ended questions and the meaning behind things. It felt natural to lean towards a liberal arts college when it was time to consider life after high school. 

After graduating with a B.A. in psychology and a minor in music from U.C. Santa Cruz, I considered pursuing a Master’s degree, as I knew I wanted to continue learning. I decided to apply to graduate school for a teaching credential and stayed at UCSC for another two years to get my K-12 Multiple Subject teaching credential. In retrospect, it was a natural next step, since I was already working with kids every summer at a day camp. I was also inspired by numerous amazing educators throughout my life, as well as a few horrible ones, who helped motivate me to be a positive and kind educator.

Q: Can you share with our audience, where your career took you after college?
ZN:
After graduate school, I immediately joined Oak Grove School District, where I stayed for 19 years. I taught 1st through 4th grade, but 1st grade was my favorite. It’s an amazing age group. The students were so eager to learn. It’s also when I received my first marriage proposal (from one of my first graders). 

Even while teaching I never lost my love for learning, ultimately pursuing a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership in Administration – motivated purely by my desire for continued education, with no intention of becoming an administrator. To my surprise, as I went through my courses, I grew inspired to become an administrator to make changes and create a positive impact in schools.

In 2002, I left the classroom and moved to the District Office to be a Coordinator of Educational Services. In this role, I led a variety of programs, including Promotion Retention Policy, Visual and Performing Arts, Safety Nets for at-risk students, After School, Homework Center, Gifted and Talented Education, and Summer School. Eventually, I transitioned to Assistant Principal. 

One of the things I am most grateful for in my career journey was the “gift” that my Superintendent at the time gave me. A lot of stress had been accumulating in my life, juggling my career with a newborn baby, postpartum depression, my mother’s death, and eventually, my father’s battle with cancer. By the time I was ready for a second child, I had experienced several miscarriages and a case of shingles. My Superintendent granted my request to work part-time, an uncommon arrangement for an administrator. 

When I was ready, I went back to full-time work as an Elementary School Principal where I built valuable relationships and developed leadership skills. Despite the joy of being back at work full time, the strain of balancing my career and family life began to affect my health. I remember the exact day I decided to leave the work force to focus on my young kids and family. I never looked back, and I am so happy that things happened the way they did. If I had not hit pause on my career, I would not have discovered YMCA Project Cornerstone, an initiative that ended up changing my life.

Q: You’ve been recently named Executive Director of YMCA’s Project Cornerstone. For those in our audience not familiar with Project Cornerstone, can you tell us about it?
ZN:
YMCA Project Cornerstone is a community initiative, led by YMCA of Silicon Valley, to create an environment where all adults support and value children and teenagers so they grow up to be healthy, caring, and responsible adults. 

Founded in 1999 by the Youth Alliance, a group of youth-focused nonprofits including YMCA of Santa Clara Valley, Project Cornerstone was structured around the 40 Developmental Assets established by researchers at the Search Institute in Minneapolis. These Developmental Assets outline the positive experiences, relationships, skills, and values that children and teens need to grow into thriving adults. Expanding on these 40 assets, the Silicon Valley community added asset 41, Positive Cultural Identity.

YMCA of Silicon Valley assumed ownership and leadership of the Project Cornerstone initiative in 2007 - though Project Cornerstone continues to be a volunteer-driven community initiative. (In 2009, YMCA of Santa Clara and YMCA of the Mid-Peninsula merged to become YMCA of Silicon Valley.) With programs and services in 327 schools to date, YMCA Project Cornerstone trains and mobilizes teachers, adult volunteers, staff, and parents in how to empower, support, and value community youth. We also work with other nonprofits and government agencies to ensure that adults have the skills to help all youth thrive. The intention is to create safe, nurturing places for kids to learn and grow, giving them role models to emulate, and putting a stop to bullying in all forms. 

Q: What do you love most about YMCA’s Project Cornerstone and the work you all do?
ZN:
I love what YMCA Project Cornerstone stands for and how our work fits into YMCA of Silicon Valley’s cause of strengthening community, in the focus areas of youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility. Even though our work directly impacts youth, when we engage families too, it empowers the whole village and beyond. 

I never knew that it was possible to do what you love and love what you do. I am grateful to be surrounded by a team that intentionally and practices empathy, inclusion, and kindness every day – all inspired by the same mission of helping youth and families thrive. If you ever feel tired and unsure, come hang out with our staff or volunteers. Listen to their stories, and you will be quickly re-energized, as you wipe away tears of empathy and joy. In these tumultuous times, we can all use a dose of community.

Q: How has Project Cornerstone made a difference and what impact do you still wish to see made?
ZN:
Following our “Take It Personally” 6-week parent workshop series, one of the participants shared, “This was the single most important class I have ever taken. The relationships in my family began to change from our first meeting. Communication has improved and I have become a more confident parent.” Every year we are deepening the engagement and dedication of adults like this one, ensuring that youth thrive.

I am so fortunate to be able to see the impact YMCA Project Cornerstone makes. I‘ll never forget an encounter from a few years ago -- I had just finished a 2-hour training for a school district, engaging 240 adults ranging from front office staff, instructional assistants, bus drivers, maintenance workers, custodians, lunch service staff, and more. At the end of the session, a timid woman approached me and shook my hand. She explained that topics discussed today had never crossed her mind before. She didn’t know she could make such a big difference in kids’ lives with such small and simple actions. She ended by saying, “Thank you for changing my life!” That is why I do what I do; that is why our team and volunteers do what they do. It’s not me that changed her life; it’s our message and what we offer.

Over the last 20 years, we’ve reached an incredible number of people with our programs and services:

  • 327 school partners building caring and inclusive schools
  • 20,000 educators trained in the Developmental Assets framework
  • 7,400 adults practiced new skills and increased their commitment to youth through our six-week “Take It Personally” workshop series
  • 6,000 parent volunteers engaged in schools annually
  • 97,000 youth empowered annually

We strive to extend YMCA Project Cornerstone programs and services to 100% of public elementary schools in Silicon Valley and engage 100,000 youth by 2020. 

While we have a strong presence in elementary schools, I’m excited to expand our reach into Middle Schools. We just launched our Middle School Social and Emotional Learning Asset Builders Curriculum this fall, and it’s off to a fantastic start. My vision is to grow this and develop modules for grades 6-8 within the next year or two, before expanding into High Schools. 

In addition, I plan to explore bringing aspects of Project Cornerstone into businesses. Adults in all sectors can learn and practice empathy, inclusion, and kindness to strengthen their families, as well as their communities.

Overall, I intend to expand our partnerships, providing a safe environment for the community to come together to address issues that impact our youth, such as mental health and stress. Silicon Valley is an amazing area of opportunity, but as adults, we can do more to reduce stress and help families to attain balance. I’m excited to launch a youth advisory committee to grow the youth voices heard in our expansion planning. 

Q: What led to your decision to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector?
ZN:
After leaving education, I intentionally set out to volunteer at my son’s school. I wanted to give back to the community while using my teaching skills, so I volunteered as a Project Cornerstone ABC (Asset Building Champions) classroom reader. Little did I know that the network I was building would eventually draw me back to work.

In my first two years as a volunteer, I participated in Project Cornerstone’s “Take It Personally” workshop series. I loved the workshop so much, I signed up again the next year. The homework from the sessions felt meaningful and practical for myself and my kids. I started to think about Developmental Assets all the time, and I became a better person, parent, and educator as a result. If you don’t believe me, ask my kids! They lovingly mock me, saying, “Mom, Assets, Assets, Assets. That’s all you talk about!” If they catch me not acting calm or kind, they remind me, “Well, that’s not very Asset building, is it?” That’s when I think to myself, even my mistakes are teaching my kids about Assets. They are listening and paying attention to what I say and do, even when they pretend not to care or make jokes about it. As a parent, I know I’ve done my job!

I followed my passion for the program, deepening my involvement with the organization as a Co-Lead Volunteer at my son’s school and helping with the Annual Giving Campaign. When the position of Director of School Partnerships became available, I did some soul searching and decided that I was ready to take my passion beyond my children’s schools and my own family. That position led to the opportunity to become the Executive Director. And now here we are…

Q: What's the greatest fear you've had to overcome to get where you are today?  
ZN:
I’ve always had this underlying fear of failing, which is ironic since, in our parenting workshops, we talk about the importance of letting our kids “fail” and helping them work through it by having a growth mindset. Teaching it is one thing; doing it is another. But as a lifelong learner, I’m determined to have a growth mindset that I will get better at this!

Specifically, with Project Cornerstone, I had a fear of being able to stand in front of people and tell stories. I was used to public speaking in education, but this felt different. I’ve grown to love storytelling because the stories come naturally and authentically now. I’ve seen my own kids grow and learn, and I hear so many moving stories from our partners and community members the longer I’m involved in this organization. 

Q: Can you tell our audience one of the most memorable moments of your career?
ZN:
I vividly remember an experience as a keynote speaker at an adult graduation ceremony for a group of Spanish speaking parents. Having learned together for nine weeks, the class had grown to know each other well. Meanwhile, I didn’t know any of them, spoke no Spanish, and an interpreter was set to speak in between my phrases. Needless to say, I was concerned about how my message would be received. 

I decided to speak from the heart. I spoke of growing up with immigrant parents and shared my personal educational experience. My truth came through despite the many communication barriers. I will never forget looking into the audience and seeing tears. Afterward, a few people came up to say thank you, as they were able to connect with my experience. This experience stays with me as a reminder of how we are all connected even if we can’t speak the same language or assume we have different backgrounds. I carry this lesson with me in all that I do, as a reminder of the power of speaking from the heart.

Q: What’s one lesson you’ve learned in your career that you can share with our audience?
ZN:
I’ve learned that the term “teamwork” gets casually thrown around. “Let’s do some teamwork… I’m a team player…” However, it’s not that simple. It begs the question, do people really believe in it? It’s easy to enjoy team work when everyone agrees, which is natural. We prefer to be around people who agree with us.

While most people don’t enjoy conflict, it’s an important component of positive change, and it plays a critical role in true teamwork. It takes an open mind and an acceptance that conflict can produce better results by challenging us to think out of the box. I encourage everyone to find their balance of being pushed just out of your comfort zone to stay creative and solution-oriented while remaining inclusive and respectful of others.

Q: Which woman inspires you and why? 
ZN:
My mother continues to inspire me, even though she passed away 17 years ago. She was smart, resourceful, generous, resilient, and hard-working. I never knew or appreciated all that she did until I went away to college. She wasn’t perfect, but to me, she was my world. She was the glue that held our family together. I sometimes wonder what I would have done if I was in her shoes. I imagine being in my 50’s and leaving my country, my home, and all my belongings to go to a foreign place to start all over. She did not know any English, and together with my father, sacrificed so much to provide for six children. I can only imagine how humbling it was for them to go from a life of comfort and luxury to one of welfare, struggle, and uncertainty. Yet, I remember my mother demonstrating kindness, appreciation, and gratitude in her interactions in our new environment. She must have been so worried but never showed it. Each one of us siblings made her proud as much as we probably, at one time or another, gave her more gray hairs with our individual issues. I know for me personally, being the youngest, I assimilated the fastest into the American culture. While being proud of my accomplishments, my mother often was crushed as she saw me drift away from my roots. Yet, she remained kind, understanding, and patient with me. I wish she were still here to see my kids grow up and that I could thank her for everything she did for all of us. She truly was one of the strongest women I have ever known!

Q: What are some of the challenges you feel women face today?
ZN:
This isn’t necessarily a new challenge, but I think it’s prevalent, especially in communities here in Silicon Valley. As women gain more choices – in education, career, family – it seems more challenging to maintain a healthy balance. I can only speak for myself, but I often catch myself striving to be that “Superwoman” who can do it all. Working full-time, whether it’s at home or outside the home, paid or unpaid, many women have to wear multiple hats, especially with kids in the picture. The fact that I am good at multi-tasking doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily good for me or my family. Yet, it’s so easy for me to shift into that automatic gear, always feeling rushed, doing laundry while cooking and helping my daughter with an occasional math problem, and oh yes, checking that all-important email on the phone. It just never ends. Then every once in a while, I remind myself that I am in charge of my life and I have choices. I need to live in the moment and enjoy it… and then the bell sound of the washing machine goes off to signal the cycle is done.

Q: What advice can you share for those women who may want to pursue a career in the Nonprofit sector?
ZN:
There are many nonprofit organizations out there. Which one is a good match for you? Start with some self-reflection. What is your calling, if you have one? What is your passion? Then do some research. What makes a particular organization stand out to you? Does it match your passion or calling? Network/connect with people. Perhaps volunteer first to see what it’s like and how things are run there. To me, I need to feel a sense of belonging at my workplace, to feel valued, respected and known. Yes, it’s the same mantra that we use from the Developmental Assets framework, but it makes sense!

Five Things about Ziem Nguyen Neubert 

1. If you could talk to one famous person past or present, who would it be and why?
I would love to have a conversation with Oprah Winfrey. Besides the obvious reasons of her being an amazing and wise person, a philanthropist, and a role model, she seems down to earth and fun. I try to surround myself with positive, inspiring people so I can harness that energy and be better as a person. I think Oprah Winfrey is as positive and inspiring as you can get.

2. What were you like as a student? 
I was an eager and very good student. I loved raising my hand to give an answer. In my early childhood and tween years, I was especially motivated to do well in order to prove myself. Being the only family of color in a small town in Iowa, I struggled with my ethnic and cultural identity. I didn’t like standing out because of my looks, background, and language, so I made up my mind at the age of 8 that I would stand out because of my brain and talents. I became an overachiever and nothing was good enough unless it was perfect. Of course, I eventually discovered that perfection wasn’t always achievable, but throughout my life, the desire to learn remained with me, no longer as a way to stand out, but instead as a form of growth.

3. What do you always pack in your suitcase?
What don’t I pack? I pack everything you can think of… way too much, I’m sure. Besides your basic items, I always bring either Baby Wipes or some kind of sanitizing wipes when I stay at hotels. I’m a bit obsessed with germs and have probably watched too many “20/20” or “Dateline” news shows where they go undercover and check out how truly clean hotels are. I also always pack a book with every intention of reading it on the plane or when I get to my destination. Most of the time, I end up falling asleep on the plane or doing other things on my trip.

4. Favorite food to cook?
When I have time, I love cooking Vietnamese “Pho” beef noodle soup because it’s delicious and makes me think of my mother and the love she used to put into all her dishes. When I have less time, I love to cook my mom’s easy Vietnamese ground beef and egg dish. It’s like a frittata without the cheese, served with steamed rice and veggies on the side.

5. Dream travel destination?
I would love to see Greece someday, revisit Australia, and spend some time in Viet Nam to see if our old houses still exist. A culinary trip throughout Viet Nam would be amazing. Can you tell I love to eat?

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