[How We Hire] Paging people who can write, create, and commune with kids

Published on: Jun 18, 2019

826LA staff and students

At 826LA, the staff (nearly 30 strong) and volunteers (numbering 6,000) are dedicated to helping students (some 10,000 annually) improve their writing skills and express themselves creatively. With locations throughout Los Angeles, Executive Director Joel Arquillos works to preserve a vibrant, mutually supportive culture by switching up staff meeting spots and vetting new hires for their potential to fit with both the organization and the people they serve. “I was a public high school teacher for 8 years, which I liked a lot too, but I feel so lucky that I get to do this,” said Arquillos. “It’s a true community.”

Something people love about working here: Getting to work in a space with so many kids, caring volunteers, and families – our staff is all very motivated by that, and by the opportunity to connect with young people in very creative ways. Often we find ourselves helping them with regular homework, but we also get to do the fun stuff – helping kids use their imagination – that students don’t get to do as much in school these days.

Something I look for in a resume or cover letter: This is a writing organization, so we really value a well-written cover letter. I also appreciate some design savvy – not necessarily anything fancy, but a good sense of spacing and font choice. I like to see that someone knows how to make words look best on the page.

Something I listen for in an interview: Someone who is thoughtful, who takes a second or two to think about a question before responding, and who considers the bigger picture – not just as it relates to them, but to the organization. I like to see those layers.

How an interviewee knocked my socks off: One candidate showed up with ideas for making the position stronger. They had thought through a lot of the issues already, including things that I didn’t include in the job description, and had a vision for how the job could evolve.

How an interviewee failed spectacularly: One person would not stop talking. It was unbelievable: They barely took a pause in an answer that was 10 or 15 minutes long. The sad thing is that this person was very knowledgeable; we even had them come back because of their skill set. But there has to be a back and forth – being able to listen and support each other is a big part of our culture.

How we support our people: Over time, we’ve gotten a lot better at onboarding. We’ve developed a much deeper program that gives new staff the time to learn more about the job and the organization, and to sit down with staff members one-on-one. We want new hires to feel like they know folks, understand the culture, and can jump into the community.

How we prioritize staff diversity: Diversity, equity, and inclusion is something we consider very valuable to our organization. The community we serve is predominantly Latino – almost 90 percent – and we want folks who reflect that community. It’s important for young people to see folks in leadership positions who look like them. We also really need people who speak Spanish. We’re very clear about it as an organization, and it’s a vital part of our strategic plan as well – intentionally building an organization that holds those values dear in everything we do, in programs and communications as well as hiring.

Why our office is great: We have a few locations – one in Echo Park, one in Mara Vista, and others in schools – so it can be a challenge to maintain organizational culture. That’s why we’ve put a lot of emphasis on rotating locations for meetings, getting us all together in one place once a month, and creating opportunities throughout the month to work together. We also make sure we have strong enough wi-fi to meet online, using Google Chat and other tools. Our people are really into that – though we’re spread throughout a very large city, we feel that we’re all in it together.

826LA is a nonprofit writing center that offers tutoring, workshops, field trips, in-school support, and more to help students aged 6-18 strengthen their writing skills and discover their voices. You can learn more about 826LA through their website, or by following them on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter; you can also find out about the national 826 network here.