After serving eight years as the city’s Commissioner of the Department of Youth and Community Development, Bill Chong is preparing to shift his focus and tackle projects of his own. The city agency recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, along with Chong’s leadership, closing his chapter with the department.
Under his leadership since 2014, the department’s budget increased to more than $1 billion – a marker of how many services the agency provides. Chong secured funding for a variety of initiatives including the popular Summer Youth Employment Program. During the pandemic, Chong, Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Meisha Porter created Summer Rising, the city’s free summer program for children in grades K-12 with combined aspects of summer camp and summer school.
City & State spoke with Chong about the agency’s work during the pandemic, what’s next for him, and the future of the department as it awaits the new mayoral administration.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What was the original purpose of the agency?
Our mission statement is very simple. It’s to invest in neighborhoods to alleviate the effects of poverty and help New Yorkers and families flourish. One of the things I'm most proud of is that we were the first city agency to integrate services, so people can connect to them and fight poverty.
We're now making it easier so you can either use an app, the Discover DYCD, find these programs and apply online, or go to one of our Healthy Neighborhood Family Programs, which is essentially a brick-and-mortar version of connecting people to multiple services. In every high-poverty neighborhood in the city, in July of next year, there will be a healthy families program. Whether it be somebody there who can not only connect you to DYCD funded programs but also other programs in that community.
Was it a smaller budget to start with?
The original budget was $77 million in 1996. It's a 1200% increase since 1996. When I became commissioner, we were just above $400 million and now we're at (more than a billion dollars) a 147% increase. All things considered, we’ve grown five times the rate of the city budget, which speaks to the administration and the council's commitment to young people into high-poverty communities.
How do you weather the pandemic? What were some of the lessons learned?
I have to credit our IT staff that we had installed all the new software two weeks before the start of the pandemic. We were actually ready to hit the ground running. We rolled out laptops to people who needed to work from home. We didn’t drop the beat. We were able to continue services. The success of this agency depends on the nonprofit partners we have and they have routinely made the impossible possible. They rose to the occasion, whether it was shifting to remote services, for afterschool programs. Whether it was keeping our homeless youth programs open in the middle of the height of the pandemic when we wanted to make sure that young people who are most vulnerable had access to services: 100,000 young people signed up for summer camp this year. It was the first time we used the Discover DYCD app. I think 98,000 people applied through the app. It was a pretty big test run of a new app, and it came through successfully.
What advice would you give to your successor?
Build on what we’ve accomplished because what I started was built under my predecessor. We focus on data because data is so important. It gives you direction on how to invest, where to invest. Listen to your partners in the nonprofit community, because their ears are to the ground. I would tell my successor to make the point that we're lean and mean. We punch above our weight. And we're making a difference in the communities that need the help the most.
The pandemic was especially hard on people of color, Black and brown communities. Did that impact the services at your agency? How are those communities set up to recover now as the pandemic subsides?
It really focused our efforts even more than prior to the pandemic. In the summer jobs program, 91% of the young people who got jobs were either communities of color or one of the neighborhoods most impacted by the pandemic. We doubled down and made an effort to make sure that those communities benefit the most. The other thing that we have done is revise our equity statement to make clear that DYCD, its goal is to become an antiracist organization. We understand government sometimes may make decisions that may impact access to resources. There's an assumption that the playing field is level, but the playing field has never been really level. We have to, in some ways, overcompensate for the fact that there is inequity in our society by focusing on the communities that have the greatest need.
You are retiring from this office. Is that the end for you in terms of public service?
No, I’m actually exploring volunteer opportunities in my neighborhood. I started as an activist in the Asian American community. I see this has the golden age for Asian Americans. One of the first things I worked on during my years in the Asian American community was creating council districts that would maximize the voting strength of Asian Americans. I worked with Councilwoman Margaret Chin when we worked with activists to create the Chinatown district. So not being in government gives me a certain freedom to do things that I perhaps couldn't do if I was in government.
In fact one of my projects, I hope to work on is to do an oral history of Asian American activism from 1965 to 1991. ‘65 is when the federal government opened the immigration status to unify families and that’s how many Asian Americans came to this country. And ‘91 is when we created the first Asian centered districts in Chinatown and Flushing.