March 17, 2021

The Power of Play and More with Shadae Mcdaniel

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #27

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Shadae McDaniel, Vice President and City Leader at the All Stars Project of New Jersey. Shadae is an impactful nonprofit leader and social entrepreneur who has spent more than 15 years in the local, state, and federal nonprofit sector. She provides innovative, community-based education to thousands of young people, their families, and underserved communities using performance-based approaches to human development. Shadae works with activists, corporations, philanthropists, youth, and community members to build environments for growth and social transformation.

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Shadae and 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci discussed several topics including: how employers miss out on a very eager and talented pool of applicants because poor young people are not included, how organizations and talent leaders can work to change that, and why the power of play is so important.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Shadae McDaniel shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “The first thing you have to recognize is that DEI just doesn’t go far enough. DEI are great tactics, but they’re not culture changers. There has to be a shift in culture for things like DEI to even work. It’s one thing to get a bunch of people in a room who look different, but it means nothing if they don’t know how to be together.”
  • “Education is not the silver bullet, it’s just not. That alone doesn’t cover a myriad of other issues that we have.”
  • “Internships have so many different avenues for growth and development, it’s not only the young people that develop from these internships but [they also] start to realize this is a part of their world, that these are places they can be.”
  • “Everybody is responsible for the future of work, and I’m not sure that everybody’s been invited yet.”


Sam: I wonder how well talent leaders do when thinking about all of their workers and where their workers go home to at night and what their experiences are when they consider different strategies and initiatives. What’s one thing you feel like you learned? 

Shadae: One thing I’ve learned for sure especially working in Newark, employers really miss out  on a very eager and talented pool of applicants because poor young people or poor people are just not included. It’s a huge talent pool of poor people in Newark that are overlooked, left out, shut out. If we can just really take a look at what it means to engage, support poor people, young people, to gain access, because one of the biggest issues isn’t that our young people or people growing up in Newark or growing up in inner cities, it’s not like they don’t want the opportunity. A lot of the time is that young people don’t know the opportunity even exists. When you talk to some of our kids, they literally talk about the people over there that wear the suits that go do that thing, and it’s two different worlds. They actually have no idea that there are opportunities outside of the radius they usually walk. At least the work that I do is really working on bringing them into the mainstream, giving them access so they see that possibilities exist because that’s the ‘gotcha.’ Everybody can put things in front of kids and be like, “you need to go to school. You need to go to college.” You put all these eye-opening opportunities in front of them, but if they don’t see them as opportunities, they’re not going to embark on them. I think employers are just missing out on a huge talent pool when it comes to poor people, working with young kids who are growing up poor. What’s needed is to give them support. Give young people and poor people the support to develop, and the capacity to see things beyond their own four-block radius.

Sam: A big part of your program is winning internships for your students. Why are internships so valuable? 

Shadae: I think that’s the game-changer for our young people. Internships have so many different avenues for growth and development, and it’s not only the young people that develop from these internships. Internships are of course opportunities for our young people to not necessarily learn how to produce something or produce an outcome for an employer, but for them to build intimate relationships with people who don’t look like them, for them to go outside of their comfort zone, go outside of their four-block radius into these skyscraper buildings, into the boardroom for the first time, and start to realize that this is a part of their world, that these are places they can be. They can start to see themselves in new ways and see people who don’t typically look like them or who don’t come from their neighborhood. That’s a game-changer for young people, but what it also does is connect some of our affluent counterparts or some people who may not have the opportunity to engage with young people from inner cities or people from inner cities period. It gives them an opportunity to widen their horizon and for them to develop new ways and new attitudes of what it means to work with different types of people and what it means to be inclusive. How do different people and different characters really impact the whole dynamic of the workplace and the team? It’s allowing people to get more intimate, which I think is what’s really needed to change the world in order to protect the culture of all this separatism that we see.  

Sam: One of the first events I came to All Stars for, I said, you’re master trainers. You know as somebody who coaches and develops people, I’m sitting here watching how your program brings so much out of young people and I think about performance and the power of play because you all have a lot of fun as you do it. And then I also think over on the other side, I talked to an HR director the other day who told me we don’t want this to be fun. This is work. And I guess I just wanna hear, maybe there’s some secret sauce that you can share with everybody out there today. Because you’re also working with the next generation of workers and this is their workforce. So any pieces of advice on that front? 

Shadae:  I have so many conversations like this. We actually have a part of our business in changing and pivoting. We’ve had companies who’ve come to us and actually ask us about this. How can you help us support our DEI? How can you help us think about diversity and inclusion within our work with our employees and what we talk about in that same space? Well, we’re really good at creating and setting up environments where people can have hard conversations and build lasting relationships. We do that through performance, and I’ve literally had conversations where people are like “that seems pretty fluffy.” Don’t let the play fool you; there is a sense of serious play. There is a sense of building and creating with people. So that way, the burden of getting something right, really listening, really being in something to create—it’s a game. It makes a really good game that allows people to not be burdened with who’s right. Who’s wrong? What didn’t work? How did it work? It’s more about: What are we building together? What can be created out of this experience? If you play around with that and you play around with the concept, you play around with improv—which is this whole idea to build on with whatever you got—this works really well with young people who are growing up in disadvantaged environments when you have to improv your life every day. What would it mean to literally build with chaos? How do you create with crap? If people can take that into their work, employers can take that in too. 2020 gave us so much chaos to create with. So, how do you play? How do you really look at what it means to perform in new ways? Our secret sauce is your approach to it. The method to it is “yes, and…” Your method is fully, radically accepting something; accepting what somebody gave you, accepting the offer or finding the offer and what somebody gave you, which sometimes it’s not easy to see. What is the offer in this crisis? Well, I’m going to tell you. There’s been a bunch of offers that we’ve seen out of this crisis. One is we’re learning that geographically, we probably shouldn’t be limiting ourselves anymore in this new workspace. But if we didn’t want to play, if we didn’t want to improv this moment, we would have been stuck. We would have been stuck trying to do the same things we’ve been doing for 40 years in this crazy chaotic environment. So you have got to look at things in a playful manner—a serious playful manner around performance and improv. 

Sam: I don’t understand business leaders who don’t get the applicability of that. The value of it is almost like those hidden credentials that exist if you know how to tap into it the right way.

Shadae: That’s what we were talking about just now in terms of why it’s such an untapped talent pool. Young people who learn how to build with crap or build with chaos or build with obstacles that are beyond what they could have woken up this morning and think about. The capacity that takes, the capability that young people or your new workforce can have in solving your hardest problems or learning how to ask for support in particular ways. You can team up with people and solve some hard things. I think that’s the game changer in it.

Sam: You joined us for our Compete event, to your point on a future of work where it looks like everybody, how are we doing? What do we need to do better? 

Shadae: I think we still got some work to do. One of the phenomenons that I’ve been privy to, at least working at the All Stars, is everybody’s responsible for the future of work. It’s not an “okay, kids need to figure out what to do next,” or “the employers that have to figure out what to do next.” Part of our virtual internship program which is really cool is that we got people who are hitting us up and they’re saying: “Hey, I heard you guys did an internship program. We don’t even know how to do remote working, can you help? Can you help us just get there?” What I appreciate about this moment is that everyone is needed. Cross-sector, everyone is needed for the future of work, and I’m not sure that everybody’s been invited yet. I think we’re getting there. I think there are some things that are coming up. There are some really cool collaborations and really cool instances where you see different sectors saying, “hey, there’s something we got to do together to create a better way of living and to create better lives for everybody. Not just me, not just you, not just Black, not just brown, but for everybody. That comes up all the time. The New York Jets knocked on our door last year and were like, “hey, we want to work with y’all, and we want to work with you on social justice.” We need a lot of that to happen. A lot of out of the box, people coming together. You’ve got this national football organization who’s like “I think there are some things we can do together to help create a better way of living for everybody.” So when you talk about what is needed or what it should look like in the future, I think we have some ways to go in regards to having everybody see what’s possible. And have everybody being able to even act on those opportunities when they are possible. I think there are some employers, there are people like you, there are people that we work with on a daily basis. There are different types of collaborations with nonprofit people. There are people from the community who are all signing up to say we don’t have the answers. Let’s not even think about the solution today. Let’s help out, let’s just get together and start having some hard conversations that will point us in a direction so we can build and create with what we have. I think there is a lot of conversation I get, at least from my point of view, where people are like, “the number one answer is we should work towards this: Educate everybody. All young people need to be educated, the keys are education, and I love education to death.” I believe in it, but the key is not educational knowledge. Education is not the silver bullet, it’s just not. That alone doesn’t cover a myriad of other issues that we have. But development, people being more developed to be able to see and act possibilities, people being more developed and not talking about just the disenfranchised. I’m talking about employers, I’m talking about corporate America, I’m talking about everybody taking a moment and recognizing that they have more to give. Everybody has something to give to this. There’s a way to listen so you can build with one another. I think that’s gonna take us a lot further in not only the workforce but again a better America.

Sam: I’ve learned since working with organizations like All Stars and others here in Newark, even though it’s hard and you have to do hard stuff. I’ve even seen it in the last few months. You know, it’s obviously Black History Month, and we have a lot of companies we talked to who have talked to us about their new DEI initiatives and their new programs for the month. The concern about all these programs is that they’re check a box; they’re a one-and-done. They don’t have routes that go through the rest of the organization. I talked to someone the other day and they spent tens of thousands of dollars. Some of this training is super expensive depending on who you’re going with, and the CEO didn’t even show up to the training. There are a lot of people who don’t know how to take action that are in leadership roles. What advice do you have for them? People who are frozen by being unsure, it may be in the corporate culture where they don’t know how much they can do. What can you do? 

Shadae: The first thing you have to recognize is that DEI just doesn’t go far enough. DEI are great tactics, but they’re not culture changers. There has to be a shift in culture for things like DEI to even work. What I mean by that is it’s one thing to get a bunch of people in the room who looked different, but it means nothing if they don’t know how to be together. We got all the different colors with the colors of the rainbow. We got all different types of people in there, but when you put them together, how are they? How are they together? How do they connect? How do they talk? How do they create? How do they disagree? You can invite a bunch of people, so then you have the inclusion part. You invite everybody, but because you invited people doesn’t mean people feel like they belong or they feel ownership to it. DEI just by itself, they’re tactics.

What I’m really interested in—and as one of the leaders in this work in terms of bringing people together—it’s always been really important in creating growthful environments for people to be together in new ways. It’s not just you inviting all the white people in, all the Black people in, and all the poor people or the rich people. It can’t just be that; it has to be “okay, so when we get together, how do you and I relate to one another? How do you see me? How do I see myself? Who am I in this role? Who am I in this conversation? How do I build with what you just said, even though I don’t agree with it? And that’s where performance is the great equalizer. That’s why improv is so helpful. It’s not just this game. It really is a philosophy. It’s a method. When I hear something that somebody says that I don’t agree with, or I don’t like, you know what I do? I say: “Can you say more about that? I’m actually pretty curious about that,” or “that’s interesting, can you share with me a little bit more about how you came to that?” Because that performance of curiosity is going to allow us to get closer. It’s going to allow that person to say, “well, that’s interesting. I actually didn’t think about why I thought that,” or “I’m so happy you asked me why you thought that because my mother, my sister, my brother…” Then they give you an intimate recollection of why they came to that. Maybe both of you now have a new story to tell. There’s so many people in our organization, or partners who are on the opposite sides. We got cops, we got kids, we got Republicans, Democrats. We got the full gamut of people supporting the All Stars. That’s one of the most beautiful things, that’s the gem of our work, because at the crux of that, we found a way for everybody to give who they are and decide that they’re still growing and becoming by way of how they relate to one another. I’m going to give you everything I got but at the same time, as I grow my relationship with you, or whoever you are in the conversation today, I am also growing by way of that relationship. It’s very multifaceted. 

Sam: What do organizations tell you? You work with some pretty huge organizations in the New York area and in the Jersey area. What do they say after an intern from your program completes their internship with them? Are there any outcomes that are a justification for why everybody should be doing the work you’re doing?

Shadae: My favorite feedback from most of our partners, we have partners that are at RBC and PSEG, right here in Newark. We have partners at Broadridge,  JP Morgan, and Ernst & Young and these wonderful Fortune 500 companies. We also have wonderful boutique partners or different organizations like that. One of the biggest surprises they have is how much they grow. That’s number one; the biggest thing I hear from our employers or their supervisors is “I thought that I was here to impact their life, but little did I know I’m the person who ended up changing. I’m the person who ended up having a different outlook.” Because our work with them is not about skill building for our kids, which most internships are about. And don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful when people’s skills get built, but we get to intersect ideas and issues and concerns that come up in people’s everyday lives that they never have, they don’t have time or the support to get through. When you have a kid that’s coming late every day, your first inclination in a professional space is: “Well, maybe they don’t really want to be here. Maybe they’re not motivated.” You have all these assumptions and then they come and call me or they call somebody that’s a part of the program and they’re like, I don’t think it is working out here. He doesn’t come, he doesn’t come to school, come to work every day, and then when you start talking to her about, how did you get to that assumption? Well, let’s have a conversation with Jesse who takes care of his niece. His brother takes his mom that works first. Jesse has a life of a 30 or 40-year-old. Before he comes to the internship and you start saying, wow, my biases, my assumptions took me for a loop. It took me way beyond what I thought was needed at this moment. So I’ve had people tell us again that it’s helped them grow and develop as a person and how they want to be in their life. On the flip side, a lot of feedback we get from our young people or about our young people is their eagerness. A lot of our employers want to hire our kids as a part of their pipeline. I have organizations that have now embedded the All Stars Project internship program as a part of the talent pipeline. Like Lowenstein Sandler, for instance. They’ve adopted our methods as a part of the way they recruit new hires. I think that people are learning that it’s not always the skills. It’s not always about skills, especially with our young people. Our young people who are coming from these particular areas, especially now when everybody’s out of work and people are being laid off and things like that, it can’t only be about skillset because everybody’s got skills. I think what’s needed in the future of work, or when we return to work, our kids need to make sure that they have deep, long-lasting relationships of a larger network. They need to be connected to people outside of their comfort zone. It’s going to be more than ever who you know versus what you know when we return to work and our kids are already disadvantaged in that space. They’re already isolated, our poor Black and brown kids don’t have families and things like that or who are in these particular places where they don’t have access to the mainstream. It’s our job to connect them as much as we can to different types of people, different industries. Now they’re not geographically limited. They’re more interested in the fact that this person was able to create this for us or push us along in this way. Now more than ever, I think that we’re going to see that skills are not the number one determining factor for hiring young people, especially young people from poor backgrounds.

Sam: You mentioned people that are out of work or looking for the next opportunity. Obviously COVID decimated certain industries and future of work trends accelerated. What advice do you have to any young people that might be listening who are at home? And as you mentioned now you have virtual internships opportunities. You can almost meet people anywhere now a little bit easier. Any advice you have for any young people out there who are thinking, “what should I be doing?” 

Shadae: You can meet people anywhere, but the truth is young people still need access. My biggest advice is to connect with coaches and mentors and all different types of people. I don’t want to just talk about us, but we have this amazing development coaching program that got created because of what you’re saying right now; kids saying to us, “we need support to continue meeting new people.” That’s going to take us to new places with them. We were like how are we going to do that? Well, we’re all locked inside our houses. So we created this amazing program that spans across the entire nation. In fact, it’s even international. We have people from Canada and a person from Paris who have signed on to be coaches to our kids who have one-on-one interfaces with them virtually once a week for about an hour, for about six weeks. They are literally working on whatever. It can be working on something that’s work-related, it can be working on something that’s social and emotional, but the truth is what makes this particular partnership so important is that it’s not really only just for the adult to mentor the young person. We’re not a mentoring agency. We actually are development agencies. What we’re looking for is for both sets of two-way development. What’s happening is coaches who are adults who want to get more intimate and understand more about what’s going on in the world become more worldly. They sign up for this program to get to know people and by way of that, they learn and meet with a couple of young people and young adults from across the nation and young people get to work with these wonderful partners and adults and getting to know them, getting to know how their life was like, their background, how they get to where they’re at and so on. At the end of it, they create this relationship that will definitely support young people and networking,shd and being a part of the workforce. It also allows our adults to learn more about what it’s like to grow up in different places, so I think that’s important. The other thing is, you get internships, you get to do volunteer work, get involved where you can in terms of getting experiences that are unlike any ones that you have ever had. I think kids sometimes get bogged down thinking that they know exactly what they want to do. They might know at 12 that “I want to do this.” That doesn’t mean that all those other options and opportunities and things that are far outside your comfort zone aren’t going to help you build towards the thing you think you really want to do at 12. 

Sam: Totally Shadae. That was great. Thank you for making time. It’s always a pleasure. 

Topics discussed: leadership, future of work, internships

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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