Human Courage - Jonna Wiersma

#HumanCourage: Jonna Wiersma

// posted 16-12-2021

Jonna thrives on connection. She believes that feeling connected, loved and valued are the most important aspects of human life. In her eyes, it’s what helps us embrace our fears, be courageous and become successful. It’s also what drives the work she does at JINC, where she supports children and adolescents from disadvantaged neighbourhoods to be successful in their educational and professional lives. Key to the approach is connecting them to individuals in business – and thus increase the feeling of connection for both sides.  

What shaped you in becoming the loving and passionate person you describe yourself to be? 
I’m the daughter of a passionate musician and fervent scientist. My mum shared her love for music with us and my dad always came home with bright eyes and exciting stories about his findings that day. Their energy was infectious and taught me to be passionate about the things I do in life. 

What’s your passion? 
Facilitating contact and connection between human beings. Specifically, between groups that are less likely to find one another. I primarily focus on youth growing up in socio-economically disadvantaged environments. I try to make a difference for these kids by putting them in contact with the network they need to kickstart a new chapter in their life.  

This is what you do at JINC, can you tell us more about the mission? 
JINC strives to give these kids a more equal start on the labour market. They experience hurdles and challenges that hinder their development as students and as future employees. The environment they grow up in has a large influence on their chances on the labour market; we see 2-4 times higher unemployment levels in these neighbourhoods. JINC provides the necessary tools and experiences for them to develop on a personal and professional level. By connecting them to people in business and teaching them the knowhow and skills needed for personal and professional success, they can blossom like the rest of us.  

How does that connect to your personal mission? 
I have two missions. On the one hand, I give presentations and talks to tell others about the opportunity gap for these children. I tell them about their lives and the lack of opportunity they experience at home and in their small networks. I usually present research and statistics showing that the average life expectancy in these specific neighbourhoods is six years shorter compared to the rest of the Netherlands. I tell them that the level of education is lower, and unemployment higher compared to other neighbourhoods. These data are shocking for a lot of people.  

On the other hand, I want our work to keep developing. I have a background in science and innovation and derive energy from conducting research and translating this into innovative solutions. Every time I learn something new about these children and their needs, I try to implement the learnings in new projects and initiatives to make a positive difference. 

You have also had a corporate career, why did you switch to a foundation like JINC? 
I had an amazing time at Unilever; I developed my skillset and saw many different places and work environments. All valuable experiences. But when I turned 40, I missed something. I wanted to use my knowledge and skills to help solve societal issues. I conducted research into social challenges and kickstarted my new career coaching adolescents in specific neighbourhoods. A fire started burning in me. That’s when I knew that creating solutions to tackle social challenges was that I wanted to do.  

What concrete actions are valuable for these specific youth groups? 
There are four factors that influence the opportunity gap, these are the elements of our impact model. At JINC we organise different programs focused on these factors:  

  1. Intrinsic motivation. How these kids perceive the world, themselves and their talents are extremely important. Often they feel insecure, so we need to convince them that they are welcome in society and in the labour market. They need to see different jobs and try them out. They need to talk to working professionals. This brings enormous positive power and intrinsic motivation. 

  2. Social capital; aka social network. Children need adults in their life that listen, give advice and help them find their way. At JINC we have such a network of volunteers from participating companies, they help the children on their way.    
  3. Cultural capital; the unwritten behavioural know-how. As children we learn from our surroundings how life works. We use others as an example and imitate their behaviour. Both personally and professionally. That’s how we decipher how to behave in a company, treat people in difficult situations or learn new skills. A common situation is that they need to ask for a day off, but simply don’t know how. As a result, they don’t show up and get fired from their internship or job. JINC helps them find the language and skills to know how to behave at work.  

  4. Skills – How do you apply for a job? How do you build your own network of people that will help you? You need to develop skills to find your way to work. 

What else drives and inspires you? 
Human contact and connection. When two individuals connect, find common ground, have fun and feel that spark, it makes my day. Not only when I experience it myself, but also when I see it happen between others. That genuine human connection inspires me.  

How do you define courage? 
I believe people are most courageous when they move forward when they are scared. I was very scared when I had to reintegrate in society after suffering from depression. I lost myself and had to rediscover who I was, whilst feeling completely shattered internally. I got out of bed. I sought out people that made me feel safe. Every day was a small step forward. 

What helps you keep going in moments of uncertainty? 
Now with the pandemic it’s very difficult to enjoy human connection with others. But the connections that I do make with my colleagues and with the kids that I coach, give me the energy I need to stay on track, to be positive and tackle the bumps in the road. I’d advise everyone to try it, it gives life meaning. 

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