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Continuing excellence: Sandee Kastrul and IC Stars
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Liz Baudler
2017-11-28

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In the north part of the Loop, 20 people will commit to being in an office space from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, for four months, forming a cohort ready to absorb the latest the tech world has to offer.

By the end of their time at IC Stars, they will have amassed 1,000 hours of IT training—what a visiting industry professional called the equivalent of a master's in IT—while being paid a small stipend to solve a current technological program for an actual corporation. CEOs want to hang out with them and interrogate them about their developing skills. These individuals come from all sorts of backgrounds generally considered underserved: all of the members of this current cohort are people of color.

IC Stars has been around since 1999, and is renowned for its longevity as much as for its rigor and consistently high-quality graduates. "We might not serve a large number of people, but the depth of service that we're able to provide is unique," said development associate Thom Arnold.

With a master's in social work, Arnold has a specific perspective on nonprofit work. " Having worked directly with people in social services settings, I knew that there's a lot that you can do, but if you're not having that holistic vision and aiming for that holistic impact, it can be frustrating. It can be piecemeal rather than actually aiding someone to realize their own potential."

Sandee Kastul, IC Stars' founder, says that the program's rigor is influenced by her experiences. "My background is education and I firsthand know how we lower the bar for folks," she said. I" believe with every fiber in my being that you got to raise the bar every day, and the best lessons we learn are the ones that were hard fought."

Kastrul's background is both in diversity training and acting, experience she used to craft IC Stars.

"The creative process is the same thing as the development process is the same thing as the lean start up," Kastrul said. There's lots of different words and terms for it, but at its center, it's about understanding who we are and the power of transformation."

It may seem odd to connect an underserved population to technology careers—after all, many come in with wildly varying tech knowledge. But both Arnold and Kastrul see it as oddly perfect.

"If you know the coding and you know how to make a project happen or you know how to solve a problem in technology, that's really what matters," explained Arnold. "It's being able to do that and work well with a team. And the tech community, they want to be progressive and they want to be on what's new and best for people."

"I love technology because it's creative," Kastrul said. "It really doesn't matter what you look like, and that there's all this beautiful process and systems thinking that's embedded in it. At the end of the day, technology's about solving problems and building solutions."

Kastrul's plan has never been focused solely on just educating one individual. "Just teach people technology and have them go get good jobs—you could go to DeVry," she said. "To me what was really compelling about it was solutioning. Sure, get folks great jobs, teach technology, shift from being consumers to makers, all that good stuff, but then at the end of the day, how do we take that back to the community and use that as a mean to solve these problems that our communities face?"

Kastrul wants her trainees to have the tools to solve their community's often grandiose problems. "Just as important as the technology training is to figure out how we're going to architect our community leadership, starting with the question of, can you lead where you don't live, and what community do you claim? Does it claim you? And what does it mean to claim each other?" she said.

The last question is something that she particularly thinks about when it comes to the many-segmented LGBTQ community, which Kastrul describes as "a rainbow within a rainbow."

"I think the thing that I'm really passionate about when it comes to LGBTQ issues is poverty," Kastrul said. "I've devoted my life to working on poverty. I think that is really what can unify us in really powerful ways. What if we all claimed each other and we all stood up for each other and we all worked on poverty?"

Kastrul's intersectional identity—she's gay, Black and Jewish—has taught her why being adaptable is important.

"I'm moving between groups and communities and cultures in ways that sometimes people don't expect," she explained. She ties that flexibility to the idea of thinking about how one claims community, but also to how adversity might teach resilience.

"The more we've walked that path of adversity, the more we've had to adapt to different environments, deal with different people," Kastrul said. Adaptation, she believes, is the hallmark of the best software engineers.

"If people have done things for you, you've never had to build up resiliency, everything is sort of designed for you, you never learn how to use that muscle or how to adapt, or how to really empathize and listen and figure out what somebody else needs." she said. "That is an absolute transferable skill if we're talking about a global economy. It's not going to be everything run by the good old boy's club. Moreover, if you're building things for customers that you don't know, you're going to build crappy stuff, and so as software engineers it's critical that you can imagine the end user from an authentic place."

Resilience is something that IC Star's thorough application process—current interns say they had to write 7-8 essays and do a group interview to be considered—is designed to reveal. Yet the program is also creating a safe environment for its participants to repeatedly fail and bounce back.

"Every business class right now is teaching a lesson on how to fail fast, and failure is so good," said Kastrul "Well, look: If you're coming from a vulnerable community, failure means certain death. There's all kinds of reasons why we are very risk averse when we come from communities that are vulnerable, and so it's really critical to create a safe space to actually examine these things, examine who were are, what makes up our perspective on the world."

IC Stars emerged at a time when diversity of thought was becoming essential to corporations. "We would hear this mantra like 'We need people who can think out of the box,'" Kastrul said. And with a nearly 20-year-run, the program too has changed.

"The poetic irony here is that we're teaching change agency and we too have to adapt," Kastrul said. "But on a real practical level, I think what I've learned is the art of transformation is for everybody."

High Tea, at 4-5 p.m. each workday, is both a necessary break for the interns and a chance for industry leaders and potential employers to advise and connect with the cohort. Both sides feel it goes beyond mere networking.

"The truth is that our folks are the transformers," said Kastrul. " I think a lot of people come in thinking, "we're gonna hang with the youth" and then they leave saying, "wow, they ask better questions than my management team".

While the program does tend to skew younger, there's no longer an age limit, and Arnold wants to do more outreach to the LGBTQ community.

"Anyone who's overcome adversity of any kind is a candidate," he said. "The adversity of family, society, whatever those barriers might be. Being a person who can speak to that as a part of your story, and how you've been able to drive your own success is, I think, vital. I think anyone who's in the LGBTQ community can speak to that."

At least two members of the current cohort identify as LGBTQ: both are also Black women. Aalivia Taylor was job-searching on Craigslist when she saw an ad for free IT training. Taylor, whose background is music and who taught herself audio engineering, stopped by the IC info session, and found more than a just a better job.

"I just left the info session really inspired to do something else with my life," said Taylor, who, halfway through the program, is considering a career in music data analysis.

Felecia Wilkins got here after nannying for an IC Stars alumnia, and feels like the program's focus on soft skills has changed her the most. She said she's gone from being a class-clown to desiring leadership.

"It helps you unleash a certain kind of power within yourself that you didn't know you had," Wilkins said.


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