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Meet Robin Petering of Lens Co in Arts District

Today we’d like to introduce you to Robin Petering.

So, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
Like most, my origin story is long and nonlinear. When I graduated from college, I took my first job as an outreach worker talking to young people experiencing homelessness in Oregon. I loved my job, but eventually got frustrated working inside a broken system. Early on, I understood that the root of homelessness in the United States was not at the individual level but rather very systemic. I was frustrated by a social injustice that was so painstakingly preventable. This frustration motivated me to move to Los Angeles to pursue graduate education. Today my core professional motivation is the same as it was ten years ago: to be part of the solution to end homelessness.

While I was earning my Masters of Social Work at UCLA, I came to realize that research was a critical component for making large-scale systems change. Data is essential for building understanding, conducting advocacy and guiding innovation. I spent seven years as an early-career academic while obtaining my Ph.D. at USC. During those years, I was always very community-engaged, often conflicted by how my time spent as an academic researcher was often behind a computer screen rather than working directly with people. However, I basically worked double-time and took every opportunity I could that allowed me to engage directly with people experiencing homelessness and with leaders of organizations that were doing direct service.

I became Dr. Robin Petering in 2017 and I found myself in a weird place. I had a lot of publications, some grant funding success, and a clear research path. I looked pretty good on paper to go the university tenure-track professor route. However, as I went through the job search process it became clear that my professional interests and assets didn’t fit well inside the traditional academic box. I would contribute this partially to my own choice and partially at the choice of others. I also encountered some experiences that made me critically question if the academic box was one that I wanted to fit into. I was confronted a lot of ego bruising, self-doubt and some real-life “what the fuck am I going to do next” mindgames.

This all led to taking some very intentional time to recalibrate. I needed to reassess my values. I did a lot of free writing exploring what kind of activities made me happy, fulfilled and effective professionally.I also made a list of women that I considered role models. None of them were academics or university professors. They were creatives and radicals. I identified a few core things that were important to me professionally and aligned with the personal life I wanted to lead: being community-engaged; working with people that inspire me; working on projects that I believe are innovative; and working on projects that value art, wellness, and creativity.

I had the privilege to take a risk, pave my own path, and form my own community-based research and implementation company, Lens Co. The name Lens Co is actually inspired by a Frank Ocean song. This was an initial step in creating a company that values authenticity and creativity. Personally, I find the design and outward aesthetic of the academic and nonprofit world really predictable and boring. Lens Co was going to be intentionally different. Music is a core part of my identity and important for interpersonal connection. I decided that when determining a name for any of my projects I would give nods to artists that inspire me. The actual lyrics of the song have nothing to do with research or social justice, but at the end of the song Frank sings “Lionel got a lens, Janet got a lens, Matthew got a lens, Cleve got a lens, Kevin got a lens.” Lens Co represents the acknowledgment that we all have a unique perspective on the world and on each other. Through intentional and informed collaboration, we can see a little bit clearer.

Has it been a smooth road?
At Lens Co, we are determined to make our own path. A recent struggle has been identifying a few words to define what that is and what we do. My colleague and I often joke that “it’s a vibe,“ but I believe this has some truth to it. Lens Co does a lot of different things. We are promoting community collaboration, learning, and advocacy in homelessness services and that can manifest in a lot of different activities- from big research projects to organizing happy hours. Our haters would call us “unfocused” with too broad of a scope but I’m learning to embrace our range activities as an asset and not a liability.

Another persistent struggle is starting an “outside-the-box” company in an industry that is highly institutional, deeply ingrained with unspoken formalities. But I want people to decide to work with Lens Co because we are extremely qualified AND we are authentic, approachable and fun. Our competition is often referred to as “the ivory tower.” There are certainly other research and advocacy companies that don’t embody that, but Lens Co is truly the opposite of the ivory tower. We don’t have access to the same level of resources as a university. We don’t have institutional prestige or brand recognition (yet). We are a little bit scrappy. I believe this makes us relatable. We are also millennials (¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ). This often receives criticism, but it gives us a unique advantage in our field. For example, we seek out and embrace new technologies. I spent a year at Lens Co by myself doing the work of 3 to 4 people because I learned how to use new technologies and platforms to automate or subcontract out time-consuming tasks.

We are constantly seeking partnerships, pursuing grants and contracts. The grind mentality is exhausting and learning how to trust the process is a huge struggle for me. Right now, things feel secure and sustainable, but as the CEO, I am thinking about three years down the line. I’m constantly having moments of doubt. However, I’m slowly getting better at reflecting and taking time to acknowledge what Lens Co has already accomplished. Additionally, as the CEO, I am committed to investing in amazing people and creating an organization that values equity and opportunity. It’s something I take very seriously and it also terrifies me. Since we are a startup, I’m scared of the potential of setting someone up for failure and not supporting them through own career development. I have to remind myself that this is a learning process. I’ve never done this before. I’m allowed to make mistakes.

Lastly, the most important struggle for me is acknowledging and continuously examining the power and privilege that I hold. I know that my privilege as a white straight cis woman from a stable socioeconomic background has allowed me to take risks and seek opportunities when others can’t. I never want to ignore that. I’m learning how to reconcile with it and leverage it to create opportunities for others.

Please tell us about Lens Co.
Lens Co is a community-based research and implementation enterprise that specializes in using data and research to empower change for an equitable society. We partner with nonprofits and government institutions to evaluate the effectiveness of their programs. We conduct point in time community needs assessments. We also facilitate community collaboration, learning, and advocacy. We specialize in homelessness experienced by young people and have a range of partnerships including many in our home community of Los Angeles as well as nationally. We have several ongoing evaluations, research and data projects that we are managing. We also are facilitating coalition building. We host a biannual service provider convening for folks on the west coast in homelessness services. Over 100 individuals consistently attend this event that happens in a new west coast city every six months. We also do that on a smaller scale building coalitions and collaborative connections among young people experiencing homelessness.

We are currently facilitating a youth advocacy group that will be creating a podcast. We are in the works of launching a Youth Research Assistant Incubator, providing a space for young people to be formally trained in on-the-ground research and data collection skills. It will also serve as a hub for young people to be employed by ongoing projects, within Lens Co or other research organizations. We also use data, research, and theory to inform new types of programs. One thing that I’m most excited about is we’ve recently conducted a pilot of an intervention that uses mindfulness and yoga as a tool for strengthening homelessness systems and long term outcomes. For ten years, a good friend/colleague and I, have been bubbling around the idea of using mindfulness and yoga as a tool to strategically and effectively improve the lives of people experiencing homelessness as well as other groups that are historically marginalized. We were inspired by their own lived experiences and informed by a robust empirical evidence base, so we developed and piloted MyPath: Mindfulness and Yoga Peer Ambassador Training for Health.

I’m really passionate about using radical self-care and inclusive wellness programming as a tool in creating large-scale change. I believe it’s possible if done right– mainly if it is community empowering, contextually and culturally appropriate, inclusive and accessible. MyPath is a program that identifies potential Mindfulness and Yoga Peer Ambassadors and invites them to participate in an intensive 3-hour mindfulness and yoga retreat that relates the two practices to the impact of violence. The retreat is followed by weekly 1-hour trainer-facilitated mindfulness and yoga classes that are open for attendance of non-peer ambassadors as well. The MyPath Pilot was implemented in partnership with Safe Place for Youth (SPY) and results from our research study confirm that MyPath reduced violence in the network or young people and increased practice of mindfulness and yoga programming.

Lens Co is actively working for MyPath to go beyond the research world and creating pathways for anyone to get involved. We are launching our first 12-hr inclusive yoga and mindfulness facilitator training this September. It’s designed for social workers, yoga teachers, mental health professionals, educators, activists, or anyone who is interested in promoting radical wellness as tools for health and empowerment in non-traditional communities. We are continuously writing grants and working with no profits to integrate MyPath into their programming. We also launched our first social purpose product, the #MyPath50 KeepCup. We recognize there is a spectrum of involvement for people to be engaged in this type of work. All of it is important. We want to give people opportunities to get involved in a way that reflects their individual capacity. The #MyPath50 KeepCup allows folks to be an advocate for inclusive wellness programming for people experiencing homelessness for $20. Plus there is an extra benefit that the reusable coffee cup offsets personal carbon emissions. All the profits go to support bringing mindfulness and yoga to young people experiencing homelessness as well as generating scholarships for youth to become mindfulness and yoga certified teachers.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
Where I would like to see it go is to a place that genuinely promotes inclusion, collaboration, and authenticity. I recently realized that somewhere in the past few years I lost touch with my authentic self- what makes me me. I was so focused on obtaining a specific career and succeeding at a path that had been outlined for me. When you prepare to graduate with a PhD, you are implicitly (sometimes explicitly) told that this is success and that isn’t. And I drank the kool-aid. As a result, I got so hung up on achieving some sort of status and prestige. I often felt like I was playing a part of someone else, especially in professional settings with a massive power imbalance. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I sacrificed and compartmentalized things that were an important part of my identity and lost focus on some important relationships. When I pivoted formally out of academia, I intentionally embraced my unique identity and incorporated it into my brand. I also redefined my own professional boundaries. Today, I invest time in flexing my artistic side DJing, dancing, painting, and creative writing. I’m often most comfortable when I dress in streetwear to my office and not afraid to wear my biggest gold hoops to board meetings. If you follow me online you’ll see that I geek out about Kanye West, Ariana Grande, Lil Nas X and obscure comedy podcasts. I purposely don’t hide the dynamic aspects of my personality because I want to be an example for folks that are thinking about getting into research and show them that you don’t have to fit into a certain mold. Be yourself, with all your assets and liabilities.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Martha Kirby

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