A Responsible Adult: Miguel Vierya

imageMiguel Vierya had the good fortune/misfortune to live on the same block of P Street as a number of my friends, and when they moved out of Shaw, we osmosed him into our group of friends. Among his many good qualities, Miguel is kind, conscientious, and infinitely patient, essential traits in a person who puts up with us and especially in a social worker employed by the federal government. He’s also an expert planner of terrible bar crawls that end with tearing doors off hinges and/or comparing wingspans after last call, so he throws a great party. In honor of his recent move from U Street to Baltimore, I asked him about being a responsible adult.

Name, age, location: Miguel Vieyra, 36, Baltimore very recently, via DC.

What is your job?

I’m a social worker by training, but I work for the federal government and my clients are state child welfare agencies. My colleagues are lawyers, data analysts and computer programmers. Together, our shared goal is to improve the lives of youth aging out of foster care through collecting better data on the services states deliver to youth and the outcomes these young people experience. To achieve this goal, I manage a mandatory federal reporting system that collects longitudinal outcomes data on youth in foster care and conduct audits of state child welfare programs to assess the quality of their services. A few years ago, I began a program to hire and train youth formerly in foster care to help conduct these audits. Because a significant portion of my work involves compliance and enforcement, my job often is to deliver bad news to people who do good. Insider tip: if you do it right, they thank you for it. 🙂

Why did you accept your current job?

I had two job offers out of grad school: go work for the federal government or help launch a small non-profit in Missouri. I made the “safe” choice, or so I thought at the time. I had worked in small community non-profits before and recalled all too well how we were always one grant or donation away from no longer existing. But federal work has its own perils – shutdowns, budget cuts, the snail’s pace of change. What has kept me in my position for a decade is almost too cliché to print: an abiding sense of patriotism and civic duty, a belief that children are our future, and that good old fashioned customer service still matters.

Tell me about work you’ve done, in this job or a past one, that made you proud.

Out of college, I got my first job by answering an ad in a newspaper – yes, I’m that old. It was a tiny non-profit that ran a couple of bilingual preschool programs for the working poor in an immigrant community in Indiana. I was dirt poor, worked a night job to pay bills, had no friends. And I absolutely loved it. I did a little bit of everything – grantwriting and fundraising, program evaluation, bookkeeping and helping the organization receive national accreditation as a preschool program. But more than anything I did, I just remember the sense of connection and acceptance I felt in that community having gotten to know so many families so well and after watching these young children grow and develop little personalities. Perhaps it was my youth, but I went to work every day thinking nothing else was more important.

Tell me about a time when you were unhappy at work. What did you do to get through it?

I suspect that even among people who love their jobs, there are parts of the job that you loathe. My philosophy always has been “like the job, love the work”. Social work is one of those professions that allows (often, compels) you to practice at many different levels, settings, and with vastly different populations. So you need to feel comfortable crossing or even living between those boundaries to make an impact. It took me about eight years of misery and discomfort trying to stake out a single role and area of expertise in my job before I realized that my job was not to specialize but to find connections between all the different programs that we operate to find new ways to pay for and deliver better services to young people in foster care. Giving myself permission to say “I don’t know” often while taking responsibility for consulting people who know – that opened up more opportunities to learn, collaborate and solve problems far beyond what I could do alone.

How do you define success? Do you consider yourself successful?

Striving to understand people’s strengths so that you can empower them to heal – themselves, their families, their organization, their communities – and never losing a sense of wonder about it. You’d be surprised by how little work this takes sometimes. And sometimes, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.

What is the opposite of success, or what does it mean to you to not be successful?

Two things always seem to accompany my failures: a lack of curiosity and not asking for/accepting help. Those happen to be my worst professional shortcoming (I’m not a “big ideas” guy) and my worst personal trait (I’m fiercely stubborn). Any success I have had in my career came from realizing that I needed to surround myself with people who think big and differently than me and who are generous with their knowledge. I take credit only for bringing together a good team and helping to implement their ideas.

Do you have any side gigs? What are they and why do you do them?

To battle my restlessness, I practice yoga several times a week and meditate every morning (but only for 10 minutes). To feel rooted in my community, I volunteer as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). CASAs are assigned to a youth in foster care to help advocate for their needs with their caseworkers, foster parents and judges.

To feed my wanderlust, I have annual goal of crossing at least two borders. I also am trying to visit all 59 national parks by age 59. It’s an ambitious goal, but doable. Finally, I think it’s important to master the art of doing nothing. I make time for it – sitting in silence in a park with no phone and no plan creates space to think about things I often don’t want to think about but should. So I do.

What would you do tomorrow if your job disappeared?

I’d find a way to work with my hands by learning a trade. Or else I’d move out to Nebraska and help my cousin farm.


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