Local communities play a significant role in shaping policy, driving social change and determining the direction of public life in New York. So it’s no surprise that many public officials, nonprofit leaders, business executives, advocates and activists prioritize engaging and communicating with communities as a key component of their everyday work. Even as COVID-19 spread across the state, New York’s leaders continued to find ways to mobilize residents. Unprecedented need prompted philanthropic leaders, government officials and community members to launch new initiatives to help people and institutions throughout the health crisis. Activists continued to educate people and rally together – whether in person or over Zoom – on other pressing matters, from criminal justice reform to census outreach.
City & State’s first Community Engagement Power 50 recognizes an array of accomplished individuals who carry out this type of work day in and day out. Unlike other power lists, the Community Engagement Power 50 is unranked and is listed in alphabetical order, given the challenges associated with concretely evaluating one’s ability to engage with communities and comparing it across so many diverse sectors. This list – researched and written by City & State’s Kay Dervishi – features New Yorkers in government, nonprofits, businesses and other organizations that dedicate a great deal of time and energy to connecting with communities across the state.
Vanessa Agudelo got her start in local politics as an environmental organizer fighting against the expansion of a local pipeline. Then, in 2017, the Colombian American became the youngest person elected to Peekskill’s Common Council, a position she still holds while simultaneously leading immigration advocacy in the Hudson Valley for the New York Immigration Coalition. Agudelo spearheaded the organization’s campaign to get New York to set aside billions of dollars in aid for undocumented immigrants excluded from federal relief this year.
With nearly a decade of experience as a street vendor in New York City to inform his efforts, Mohamed Attia has advocated on behalf of more than 10,000 vendors in the city throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Attia championed legislation passed earlier this year by the New York City Council that expanded the number of permits available to street vendors. However, The Street Vendor Project’s fight isn’t over yet: It continues to push for the city to stop penalizing unlicensed vendors.
At the Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network, Angel Audiffred is responsible for numerous initiatives engaging with local communities in New York City and beyond. This past year, the nonprofit Spanish-language public broadcasting network supported transitioning key community events to the virtual realm and helped create a production studio at a Washington Heights public school. Audiffred, who previously worked in city and state government, also helped drive campaigns allaying fears about vaccination for COVID-19 and boosting census outreach.
Hester Street has community engagement baked into its approach to urban planning, design and development in New York. Under the leadership of Betsy MacLean and Nisha Baliga, the nonprofit coordinates with community-based organizations, government agencies and other institutions on projects that focus on community needs and input. Recent projects include helping The Pocantico Center engage with low-income communities in Westchester County and providing technical assistance to groups engaging in outreach for the 2020 census.
When New York City was looking to significantly cut funding last year to the Summer Youth Employment Program – which helps teenagers and young adults access paid jobs for the summer – members of Teens Take Charge pushed back. Kirsten Shyu, La’Toya Beecham and Kai-Lin Kwek-Rupp are three of the youth-led group’s members who took an active role in pushing for the city to restore funds. Their advocacy helped pressure the city into restoring some of the program’s funding for 2020.
Over the past three years that she has been at Google, Natalie Browne Holmes has sought to use technology to improve the lives of historically underrepresented communities. She played an instrumental role in supporting the company’s Code Next program, which provides computer science education instruction to Black and Latino high school students. Browne has supported the program’s planning, development and execution – including transitioning it to a virtual model – and managed relationships with community partners, educational organizations and schools.
Alena Casey serves as a public policy and community engagement manager at Facebook, where she has coordinated with the local community on initiatives creating economic opportunities and supporting education. Since last year, she has spearheaded the social media company’s COVID-19 relief efforts in New York. On top of her work at Facebook, Casey sits on the executive cabinet of the United Way of New York City.
Making a world-renowned place like Brooklyn even more exciting than it already is may seem difficult, but Varghese Chacko has risen to the occasion as one of New York City’s most active event organizers. He put his entrepreneurial skills to use as a founding partner and president of NYC Nightlife United, where he led efforts to connect workers and small businesses in the nightlife industry to financial support throughout the pandemic.
When Guillermo Chacón joined the Latino Commission on AIDS in 1995, a top priority was developing community engagement initiatives to reach Latinos living with HIV and AIDS. Chacón now oversees an expanded range of educational initiatives, prevention programs and other services in New York and beyond. He has also advised city and state officials on public health strategies in response to COVID-19 and advocated for a community-based approach to the public health crisis.
The North Star Fund doesn’t just provide financial support to grassroots social justice movements in New York City and the Hudson Valley. It also relies heavily on input from community organizers to determine how grants should be allocated. Jennifer Ching oversees the foundation’s work funding activist groups that have pushed for policies implemented this past year. These include recreational marijuana legalization, the repeal of the Section 50-a law related to police disciplinary records and increased education aid for schools statewide.
Yasmin Cornelius manages community relations for real estate development firm L+M Development Partners, where she works with local leaders, elected officials and residents. She put her community engagement skills to use soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began, coordinating with local nonprofits and government agencies to deliver more than 200,000 meals to low-income tenants. Before joining L+M and its property-management arm, C+C Apartment Management, Cornelius worked at Local Initiatives Support Corp. and for the state Senate Democrats.
Kathleen Daniel’s past work as an organizer comes in handy in her current role, in which she manages a team of more than 600 contact tracers and information gatherers tracking and mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Before heading to NYC Health + Hospitals, the city’s public hospital system, she served as a field director for New York City’s 2020 census outreach initiative and worked as outreach director for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. Daniel has also led demonstrations in New York on issues ranging from domestic violence to affordable housing.
Since 2018, Kathleen Digan and her team at the government relations firm Ostroff Associates have played a key role assisting the anti-gun violence organization Everytown for Gun Safety, along with its advocacy arm, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and the groups’ local chapters. Digan supported the organizations’ advocacy for policies preventing gun violence in New York, which has helped build support for state legislation banning bump stocks and allowed courts to remove guns from people flagged as an “extreme risk.”
Since Jonnel Doris became commissioner of the New York City Department of Small Business Services last year, he has prioritized launching new initiatives to help cash-strapped small businesses weather the economic downturn. Under Doris’ oversight, the agency has provided programs to help business owners apply for federal relief loans, awarded its own grants and loans and offered legal services for businesses needing help with issues related to commercial leases. Doris was previously the city’s first senior adviser and director of the Mayor’s Office of Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises.
This year marked the launch of New York City’s ranked-choice voting system, which put the onus on city government, nonprofits and other groups to ensure voters knew what to expect at the polls. As part of this effort, Rank the Vote NYC’s Sean Dugar led education and outreach efforts across the city. His organization ended up hosting more than 600 trainings, engaged in on-the-ground outreach to about 300,000 New Yorkers and sent out direct mail to inform people about the new system.
Erwin Figueroa started out as a frustrated bike commuter before coming to Transportation Alternatives. As the nonprofit’s director of organizing, Figueroa now leads its campaigns to help New York City’s pedestrians, cyclists and straphangers. This past year, Figueroa has been calling for the city to maintain and expand its Open Streets program that closes off some roads for pedestrians and other spaces, such as outdoor restaurant seating.
Since joining AARP in 1996, Beth Finkel has successfully lobbied for various reforms statewide, including passage of the CARE Act and the Secure Choice Savings Program, both of which are designed to support the elderly by expanding their caregiving and retirement savings options. Under her direction this past year, AARP New York pushed to improve the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and legislation reforming nursing home care – while also maintaining its robust outreach to the state’s seniors on everything from how to get vaccinated to how to stay fit.
Arc of Justice founder the Rev. Kirsten John Foy has long advocated against police brutality and systemic racism. Among the other causes he has advocated for over the past year, Foy has called for greater federal oversight of the Rochester Police Department and joined other civil rights leaders at a vigil for Daunte Wright, who was killed by police officers in Minnesota. Foy brings with him experience working alongside such influential New York City leaders as Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
As part of her role as executive director of the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, Renita Francois oversees its NeighborhoodStat initiative. The plan uses meetings with residents to develop projects addressing their priorities and gathers community input from public housing residents to help shape New York City’s approach to public safety and violence prevention. Francois previously served as deputy director at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice for three years, where she developed NeighborhoodStat and other initiatives.
The Pratt Center For Community Development, which is part of Pratt Institute, uses planning, architecture and public policy to create thriving and sustainable neighborhoods alongside community organizations, small businesses and other partners. Under Adam Friedman’s leadership, the organization has placed a strong emphasis on community engagement services, facilitating workshops and other activities to understand community needs before going forward with possible solutions. This includes its recent work with the New York City Housing Authority to engage residents on its climate and sustainability plans.
Public Works Partners CEO Celeste Frye – who is also a co-founder – leads the planning and consulting firm in its projects in the public and nonprofit sectors. The company places a strong emphasis on helping clients survey and engage with communities on their respective projects. For example, Public Works Partners has supported the New York City Department of Sanitation’s efforts to increase participation in its curbside organics collection program and facilitated meetings for the Empire Station Complex.
Daniel Prude’s death sparked a massive movement in Rochester to confront systemic racism, police brutality and the need for greater support and more effective strategies for people with mental health challenges. Ashley Gantt, who also works as an organizer with the Rochester region’s New York Civil Liberties Union chapter, has been spearheading Black Lives Matter demonstrations and pushing for change through her community activist group, Free the People Roc.
Teresa Gonzalez is a partner at the leading lobbying firm Bolton-St. Johns where she advises corporate, real estate and nonprofit clients. She’s also the co-founder and the New York City managing director of the government and community relations firm DalyGonzalez. The minority- and women-owned firm provides community engagement and stakeholder outreach support to organizations such as Civic Hall and RISE. Gonzalez’s experience and connections have helped build new partnerships between clients and community-based organizations.
Jasmine Gripper and her organization actively pushed to keep education funding prioritized during COVID-19. After contending with a pandemic-strained budget in Albany last year, state lawmakers approved a plan in April that would fulfill the Alliance for Quality Education’s long-sought goal to fully fund Foundation Aid, the main source of funding for New York’s public schools. “This victory shows the power of the people, the power of never giving up, the power of ‘we,’ and it belongs to all of us,” Gripper said after the funding was approved.
Undocumented immigrants and others excluded from federal COVID-19 relief aid made headlines this spring when they went on a 23-day hunger strike to demand assistance for workers left behind in New York. Make the Road New York’s Bianca Guerrero coordinated advocacy for the state’s new Excluded Workers Fund alongside numerous like-minded activists. Since their efforts resulted in lawmakers committing $2.1 billion in aid for undocumented workers in April, Guerrero has been keeping a close eye on how the fund will be rolled out.
Kerin Hempel has been guiding New York Road Runners throughout the COVID-19 pandemic since taking the helm late last year. She has overseen the organization’s efforts to ramp back up operations with marathons – most notably the New York City Marathon – as well as its community initiatives, including youth programs and community runs. Hempel previously served as the organization’s vice president of strategy and planning and interim head of finance.
Michelle Henry oversees a team dedicated to community engagement and partnerships in her role at the Office of Corporate Responsibility at JPMorgan Chase & Co. Henry brings with her experience in the philanthropic world, where she managed a national portfolio of investments into workforce development and supported leadership development for Black and Latino nonprofit professionals. Over the course of this past year, she and her team led the firm’s commitments to fund major racial equity initiatives and COVID-19 relief efforts.
José Hernandez can be found advocating greater support for people with disabilities everywhere from New York City Hall to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Since sustaining a spinal cord injury at the age of 15, Hernandez has been an active mentor for people in nursing homes and in rehabilitation centers. He currently serves as the NYC advocacy coordinator at the United Spinal Association as well as president of the organization’s New York City chapter. Hernandez also is a member of the city’s Civic Engagement Commission.
Princella Jamerson prepared to protect her neighbors at the Mill Brook Houses as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Bronx. As head of the residents association at Mill Brook for the past 13 years, Jamerson knew how to effectively manage distribution of masks, food and other supplies to tenants needing support throughout the crisis. “People in other places don’t go through what we do,” she told The New York Times last summer. “We’re people of color. We’re poor. … We’re last on the battlefield when everything is happening.”
An attorney with Capgemini North America, Lowell Kern chairs Manhattan Community Board 4, which encompasses the Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen neighborhoods. In that role, he has been an active voice on high-profile issues confronting the community. Kern has pushed for more measures to prevent suicides at the Vessel building in Hudson Yards earlier this year. He has also monitored development projects in the area, criticizing the Empire Station Complex plan for not including improvements to Penn Station and influencing measures to replace the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Downtown Alliance President Jessica Lappin has worked to ensure lower Manhattan’s survival and renewed success during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under her leadership, the business improvement district has spent this year launching new initiatives to support small businesses and revive the local arts and culture scene. Before helming the Downtown Alliance, Lappin served as a New York City Council member representing the Upper East Side, East Midtown and Roosevelt Island.
Since 2018, Nina Lemons has led the community engagement team at MetroPlus Health Plan and built partnerships with New York City nonprofits, corporations, schools, elected officials and other organizations. Lemons brings more than a decade of experience in community engagement, having previously served as senior manager of patient and community engagement at the Westchester Medical Center Health Network. While there, she developed and managed a multimillion-dollar project to engage with patients for the state’s Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment Program.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges among New Yorkers. As head of the Mental Health Association in New York State, Glenn Liebman raises awareness about mental health and advocates for policies providing greater support for the cause. The organization has provided resources to support students throughout the pandemic and backed a proposal to merge two state agencies into one dedicated to both mental health needs and substance-use disorders.
Melody Lopez’s journey to becoming the overseer of major statewide voter engagement projects as New York Civic Engagement Table’s executive director has been a long one. After starting her career as a political organizer for the Working Families Party, she went on to manage electoral campaigns and serve as Queens borough director for the New York City Department of Education. In her current role, she has been campaigning for changes to the redistricting process and voting rules in New York.
Arts and cultural institutions were particularly hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. To help their colleagues, three leaders of the arts world – National Black Theatre CEO Sade Lythcott, Queens Theatre Executive Director Taryn Sacramone and New Yorkers for Culture & Arts Executive Director Lucy Sexton – dedicated significant time to make sure as many of them as possible could weather the crisis. The trio jointly led daily phone calls – dubbed Culture@3 – where New York City museums, performing arts organizations and other groups could trade tips on getting federal relief, transitioning to the virtual realm and voice their concerns.
The Bronx Mutual Aid Network is one of a number of mutual aid organizations that formed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to both help New Yorkers in need and engage in political advocacy and education. Thahitun Mariam, a Bangladeshi American community organizer, founded her Bronx nonprofit in March 2020, working with volunteers to deliver food and cash assistance to Bronxites seeking support. “It’s very direct-action oriented, versus having some of this red tape that might exist in some nonprofits or city government,” she told City & State last year
Melva Miller joined the Association for a Better New York (now celebrating its 50th anniversary) in 2018 to lead its initiatives on the 2020 census. This includes coordinating with corporate partners, nonprofits and labor unions to drive response rates for the decennial count. Under her leadership, the organization led communications campaigns for community-based organizations, gathered data to improve messaging around the census and hosted events and webinars to support the effort. A year ago, Miller was promoted to be ABNY’s CEO after serving as the organization’s executive vice president.
Carlene Pinto is the founder of NYC Action Lab, a collective of organizers that supports organizations via political consulting, campaign management and other services. The group works with nonprofits, unions and other institutions across New York, such as the Arab American Association of New York and Union Theological Seminary. Over the past year, Pinto has been active in Black Lives Matter demonstrations as well as responding to concerns that then-President Donald Trump would not accept last year’s election results.
With 34 years of service, Liz Roberts is the leader of the nation’s largest victim services nonprofit, Safe Horizon. She started her career as a domestic violence hotline worker, eventually rising to a deputy commissioner position with the New York City Administration for Children’s Services. As CEO, Roberts currently oversees her organization’s projects to support survivors of crime and abuse. She recently advocated for the passage of the Adult Survivors Act, which would allow adult sexual abuse survivors to pursue civil lawsuits regardless of when the abuse occurred.
New York City voters approved a charter amendment in 2018 that created the Civic Engagement Commission, which aims to promote civic participation in the five boroughs. Sarah Sayeed oversees the commission’s work, which includes partnering with community organizations to promote city services and running a participatory budgeting program that allows the public to offer insight on funding local projects. Sayeed previously served as senior adviser in the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, where she focused on promoting civic engagement with Muslim New Yorkers.
Ichor Strategies puts a strong emphasis on helping its clients engage with communities and neighborhoods they want to become involved with. That “community-first” approach helps communities shape projects according to their needs, while also helping businesses garner greater support – a core component of Veronica Smith’s role at the advisory and research firm. Before joining Ichor last year, the Brooklynite served as a key community engagement liaison for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.
An urban planner with extensive experience in community development, Preeti Sodhi currently serves as the director of community engagement for the organization. She manages the High Line, a popular public park built on an old raised freight rail line on the West Side of Manhattan. Before joining Friends of the High Line, Sodhi worked as a consultant on community development and civic engagement projects with clients such as HECTOR and Urbane Development.
Marcella Tillett is dedicated to ensuring the Brooklyn Community Foundation’s charitable funding is aligned with community priorities. Since taking on her current position at the foundation in 2019, Tillett has led the creation of standing community advisory councils made up of local Brooklynites to help offer insight on how grants should be distributed locally. She has also played a key role in ensuring that the foundation’s resources are distributed equitably, taking into account the diversity of organizations' leadership and the size of their budgets.
Maria Viera started her career at RiseBoro Community Partnership nearly a quarter century ago as a senior case manager. Now, as the nonprofit’s vice president of community affairs, she makes sure its wide range of programs and social services are integrated into local communities. Viera also serves on Brooklyn Community Board 1 and is a board member at Somos, a nonprofit focused on supporting the needs of the Latino population across New York state.
When Nancy Wackstein joined the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service in 2016, she brought with her years of experience working for government and nonprofits. Throughout her time as the school’s director of community engagement and partnerships, she launched new partnerships to support students, including a new scholarship program created alongside Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York. Wackstein announced her retirement in July, but still has plans to supervise a pair of the school’s students interning in the New York City Mayor’s Office next year.
Susan Warner has spent her career working in communications and corporate social responsibility. In 2014, three years after she joined Mastercard, she launched a new initiative to educate girls worldwide in science, technology, engineering and mathematics through the Westchester-based financial services company. Mastercard’s Girls4Tech program reached 1 million girls in 30 countries as of last year and has set a new goal to educate 5 million girls by 2025.
As director of organizing at VOCAL-NY, Jawanza Williams has been rallying support for progressive priorities. Williams played a key role organizing last year’s “Occupy City Hall” protest that called on city officials to cut the New York City Police Department’s budget – which led to a $1 billion spending reduction for the NYPD. He also was instrumental in the push to raise taxes on wealthy New Yorkers and to legalize recreational marijuana – two state-level measures that were enacted this year.
Vibrant Emotional Health reaches 2.5 million people through its crisis services initiatives, supports about 50,000 people through its community programs and advocates for awareness for mental health needs. Kimberly Williams has led the 50-year-old nonprofit for the past four years and will head up the organization’s management of a new three-digit hotline – 988 – for suicide prevention that federal lawmakers approved last year.
The 55-year-old environmental justice organization Uprose has long had an influential presence in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, as illustrated by Executive Director Elizabeth Yeampierre’s successful effort to block a proposed rezoning of Industry City. She argued that the space should be used instead to promote jobs in renewable energy production and improve resilience in response to climate change. Before leading Uprose, Yeampierre served as the director of legal education and training at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The Asian American Federation, led by Jo-Ann Yoo, gathered hundreds of demonstrators to denounce hate and bias incidents and attacks against Asian Americans this spring. The initiative garnered support from elected leaders such as U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Grace Meng. Yoo has continued to spotlight the discrimination faced by Asian American New Yorkers throughout the pandemic. She’s also advocated for greater support for low-income Asian American communities and small businesses led by Asian Americans.
Correction: An earlier version of this post had an incorrect name for Ichor Strategies and an outdated title for Susan Warner at Mastercard.
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