New York’s nonprofits are on the front lines of so many crises. They run food pantries, deliver free legal services and provide after-school programs. And the sector has continued that vital work during the COVID-19 pandemic, which left many New Yorkers even more vulnerable.
Those efforts are driven by leaders within these organizations who are committed to their missions. Whether those leaders are fundraisers, direct care workers or executive directors, each of these individuals plays a key role in helping New Yorkers.
In our 2022 Nonprofit 40 Under 40 list, City & State, in partnership with its sister publication, New York Nonprofit Media, showcases a group of young, diverse leaders in the nonprofit world who are making a difference in New York. These rising stars – all under the age of 40 – bring passion and professionalism to their work providing everything from health care services to housing support and advocacy. In the following pages, we highlight their journeys and successes.
Profiles by Kay Dervishi, Sahalie Donaldson, Kimberly Gonzalez and Jasmine Sheena
Michelle Avila spent her childhood in the Bronx, seeing how systemic inequality and limited resources affected her community. That experience inspired her to pursue work in state government and eventually brought her to NYU Langone Health and to her current role at Children’s Aid.
Avila puts her strong understanding of government operations to good use at Children’s Aid. As assistant director of public policy, she has advocated for the continuation of the federal child tax credit and the extension of funding for community schools in New York City. Avila has been crucial in securing more than $1 million in discretionary funding from New York City officials for the organization to support its youth programs. Her advocacy ensures Children’s Aid can continue providing vital youth services, including summer youth employment, after-school programs and health and wellness services.
But her proudest accomplishment at the organization was spearheading its 2020 census outreach effort and seeing its youth participate in efforts to get New Yorkers counted. Looking to the future, Avila hopes to continue to increase civic engagement and political participation in New York City through advocacy, education and outreach.
Her career advice for young people is to find work that inspires them.
“Really become involved locally,” she says. “Sometimes folks find it really intimidating to break into the government and nonprofit space, but I've met colleagues from all walks of life. Everyone has a unique background story, but the commonality is the interest and the passion.”
– Jasmine Sheena
Amanda Babine came to Equality New York as its first executive director in 2020, armed with lofty goals to build capacity for what was a largely volunteer-led coalition. She also started there a month before New York's COVID-19 shutdown began.
But those enormous challenges haven’t stopped Babine from strengthening the advocacy organization’s work and launching new initiatives.
“Our goal was really to engage people, especially during a time of crisis with the pandemic, and figure out, what are LGBTQ people dealing with?” she says. “How can we help them, support them?”
Under Babine’s leadership, Equality New York launched its first training program to help people across the state learn how to advocate for their communities. The program – which will serve 50 people this year – has helped New Yorkers take on projects such as expanding transgender-inclusive practices in health care locally and creating a new LGBTQ education curriculum. It’s one way the coalition reflects the priorities of its 5,500 members and more than 70 organizations.
“My understanding of coalition-building and membership is that it should always be from the bottom up and not from the top down,” she says.
When asked what kind of advice she would give to her younger self, Babine says she would make it clear that in advocacy, you will always make mistakes.
“One of the hard pieces in advocacy, and especially in facilitating advocacy, is that there’s so many different ways to do it,” she says. “I think really being patient in that process is really important.”
– Kay Dervishi
As the leader of the Regional Plan Association’s Healthy Regions Planning Exchange, an initiative that brings together planners, practitioners and advocates from across the country to examine how urban planning can affect the mental and physical well-being of a community, health equity is Vanessa Barrios’ top priority.
Soon after the initiative launched three years ago, Barrios recognized one major hurdle the association would have to address to succeed.
“As planners, we have to be also incredibly conscious of the decisions that were made way before we ever came into this field,” she says, “that were very rooted in the fact that a lot of the folks who made these decisions either didn’t care about people of color, didn’t care about Black people, didn’t care about immigrant communities, or were just straight-up racist.”
That focus on equity is in part what inspired her to delve into urban planning. She previously worked as a case manager at an organization serving people facing homelessness in Los Angeles. After helping someone who was homeless for 25 years into an affordable apartment, she became interested in housing and planning.
“My question was, how do I replicate this en masse?” she says. “How do you create more affordable homes?”
Affordable housing remains a priority for her in her current role. She has been active in the Regional Plan Association’s push, alongside Make the Road New York, to make accessory dwelling units legal and regulated in New York, with the goal of expanding access to affordable housing and improving housing conditions.
Leila Bozorg’s background is in affordable housing, having held top positions at the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It may seem surprising that Bozorg now works at a nonprofit helping New York City youth start college savings accounts – but the work is not as dissimilar as it may seem.
“There’s a lot of overlap in the housing and planning worlds with this ethos of building neighborhoods of economic success,” she says. “And there’s a real overlap there that, for me, has made the transition easy.”
During her time in the public sector, Bozorg has worked on numerous initiatives advancing the creation of affordable housing in New York. While working at the city’s housing agency, she led the creation of New York City’s plan to make housing more fair and equitable locally.
“I’m really proud of the community engagement we did for that plan,” she says. “The city often does not have a good reputation for neighborhood planning or community engagement, and that was something we just got such great feedback from all different types of advocacy organizations that we finally did it right.”
Community engagement remains key to her work today at NYC Kids Rise. As the organization’s chief of strategy and policy, she has played a key role in expanding its program beyond western Queens. The nonprofit now provides college savings accounts to every kindergartner attending a New York City public school, as well as some charter schools, reaching about 70,000 children.
Adem Bunkeddeko became Coro New York Leadership Center’s executive director last year, with the goal of cultivating New York’s next generation of leaders and driving positive change – a tall order, considering that the center’s alumni are “well-represented in city politics,” according to an article from Gotham Gazette published in December. Having trained 2,500 people in New York and beyond to become leaders in civic life, Coro boasts graduates that are City Council members, government officials, nonprofit executives and business leaders.
“I think that kind of work – elevating, giving a platform to leaders here at Coro – is what we do every single day,” Bunkeddeko says, “which is to enable folks to live out the best versions of themselves and be the best kinds of leaders that hopefully can enable others to live that life of potential."
Bunkeddeko brings an impressive and expansive résumé to the position. He ran to represent Central Brooklyn in Congress twice, nearly unseating the incumbent in 2018. He has worked in both the nonprofit and public sectors, having held positions at Brooklyn Community Services and the Empire State Development Corp. More recently, he served as a senior adviser to the Local Initiatives Support Corp., where he spearheaded an initiative aimed at reducing racial and wealth gaps across the country.
Bunkeddeko says his different positions have all had “a common thread, which is: How do we elevate folks who might have otherwise not had the opportunity to be able to be as impactful as they can?”
Samantha Callaghan understands the challenges that face many of the families she works with at New Alternatives for Children. Her mother and father had to raise and care for two relatives after the deaths of their parents – a shared experience that helps drive her passion for helping children and families.
But the New Jersey native initially had very different life plans. Through high school and college, Callaghan had planned on joining the military or law enforcement, staying in the Air Force ROTC for seven years. Instead, she found a job with the New Jersey Department of Children and Families.
“I realized that becoming a social worker was my calling,” she says. “I really wanted to do more direct practice with communities, especially underprivileged communities and families impacted by the child welfare system.”
Callaghan has been working in child welfare for about 14 years now. At New Alternatives for Children, she manages the organization’s adoption and kinship programs and connects families to needed support. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she and her team helped families in financial need get essential resources.
One of her proudest accomplishments has been mentoring people of color on staff and helping them reach leadership positions.
“Sometimes there’s barriers to making those leaps in leadership,” says Callaghan, who is Puerto Rican and Filipina. “And I’m really proud of myself for breaking those barriers and making it to where I am today. But I would like to provide my experience and guidance to those that are striving to do the same.”
Brian Chen started his career at the Chinese-American Planning Council working as an after-school educator. Over the course of about 15 years, he has gone on to hold other leadership positions managing youth programs before becoming the organization’s chief strategy officer in 2020.
In that role, he oversees various initiatives related to college access, adult literacy and employment services. He also represents the organization on several community partnerships, including the Lower East Side Youth Opportunity Hub, which provides local young people with services such as mental health support. Currently, he is developing the CPC Academy, an initiative to promote talent growth within the nonprofit.
He previously launched the Chinese-American Planning Council’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee and oversaw the merger of the organization’s youth services and workforce development departments, a pivotal internal change.
Chen’s future goals include focusing on CPC’s new downtown Manhattan development project, which he is involved in planning. The project will include a new physical headquarters for the organization.
Chen credits his commitment to the organization to his rise through the ranks to assume his current role of chief strategy officer.
“Find value in each and every single responsibility and opportunity and position that you're given,” he says. “You're going to continue to move closer and closer to where it is you believe you to be in the long run. … Ultimately, assess your own value, not only to yourself, but to the organizations that you're working for.”
Youth Communication’s work to elevate the stories of New York City youth excites Betsy Cohen.
The organization, she says, “is really a beautiful meeting of my passion for reading and storytelling and literature … and how those stories can be a really effective leverage point in helping teachers, school leaders, education folks in a variety of different capacities.”
Early in her career, Cohen planned to continue her studies in literature and women’s studies by becoming a professor. But instead of entering academia, she immersed herself in educating younger learners. After holding positions at Success Academy Charter Schools and the Center for Supportive Schools, she joined Youth Communication in 2017.
The nonprofit she leads has changed a lot since its founding more than 40 years ago. What began as a vehicle to promote youth journalism and writing has transformed into an institution that uses those personal stories to inform educators so they can better support the students it works with, most of whom are people of color.
Cohen is proud of the Youth Communication team’s success in advancing those educational initiatives. For example, the organization worked with Gess LeBlanc, a professor at Hunter College, who used the personal experiences of young people to inform a book on social emotional education. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began and after George Floyd’s death sparked racial justice protests, the organization has also been inspired to take on more efforts to promote culturally responsive teaching. And now, it’s even looking to expand its programming beyond New York City.
Jose Cotto’s commitment to helping others is grounded in personal experience. Growing up, he spent some time in the foster care system and saw family members struggle with substance use.
Now in his mid-30s, Cotto is a licensed social worker who serves as senior vice president for residential treatment at the Institute for Community Living, a human services organization that provides mental health care, housing and social support services. While he’s collected various accolades and degrees, Cotto says his background and identity as an Afro Latino, Puerto Rican gay man has been particularly helpful when engaging with clients who’ve experienced trauma.
“My experiences have really helped me connect with people and help change their trajectory so they can live healthy lives and live in an apartment like anybody else,” he says.
Cotto advanced quickly through the nonprofit’s ranks after joining as a clinical specialist in 2012. He’s since served in numerous roles and currently oversees more than 20 residential treatment programs. While his responsibilities have grown, Cotto says he tries to always be person-centered, whether that means leading dance breaks for colleagues or pulling on gloves to help clean someone’s stove during a home visit.
He’s proud to have been given so many opportunities to lead at a young age.
“I just try to be as innovative as possible and genuine,” he says. “I never forget where I come from, and I make sure people know that when the time is right, so they know to never lose hope on anyone.”
– Sahalie Donaldson
Cultivating long-lasting relationships with a vast network of people spanning from volunteers to powerful donors is a key part of Hilary Cramer Robinson’s work at JCCA.
Her passion for helping kids access educational and social services fuels her as she connects with donors and raises money for the New York City-based child welfare nonprofit. What makes her work particularly meaningful is seeing her fundraising support projects that directly benefit youth, such as the launch of a recreation center or campaigns that send foster kids to sleep-away camp.
“If you’re a fundraiser at any nonprofit, you have to be so committed to the mission because it’s your job to live it, breathe it, sell it,” Robinson says. “It always has to come back to that.”
Robinson says she’s fortunate to work with donors who are so invested in JCCA’s mission. Since joining the child welfare organization in 2017, she’s raised more than 80% of JCCA’s individual donor dollars and helped launch a $35 million campaign to mark the organization’s 200th anniversary this year.
The key to powerful fundraising is to create partnerships not only with donors, she says, but also with front-line workers in the organization, something she has strived to do throughout her career.
“The more fundraisers are able to understand and take in the work that their colleagues do in the field, the stronger the fundraiser is able to present the organization, the mission, the work,” Robinson says.
Carlos Cuevas hadn’t initially planned on a career in health care. After graduating from Columbia University, he spent three years working at a hedge fund but wasn’t passionate about the work.
Then the 2008 financial crisis struck, leaving his family struggling financially and needing to rely on government programs for assistance, including Medicaid. That experience inspired Cuevas to pursue a new career path.
“I realized that I was never going to be a doctor or clinician of any kind, but if I can learn this dialect of this financial health care language, there was a lot of good that I can do for my family and for people in their situation,” he says.
Cuevas returned to Columbia from 2010 to 2012 to pursue master’s degrees in economic analysis and health management. From there, Cuevas went on to work on Medicaid policy as an Empire State fellow and then as senior policy adviser under the New York state Medicaid director.
When he returned to his native New York City to be closer to the woman who has since become his wife, he joined Somos, a network of approximately 2,500 primary care providers helping underserved communities largely reliant on Medicaid. As chief strategy officer, he works on the organization’s financial side to ensure it succeeds in its mission to provide value-based, holistic care. He also took a four-month leave of absence to return to Albany to support the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response in 2020.
“I’m the person behind the scenes who is able to really help all these providers do the great work that they do,” he says.
Lucy Culp has dedicated almost two decades of her career to advocating for patients’ rights to affordable health care.
In her early career, she lobbied for the Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid at the American Heart Association. And in the past few years, she has kept a close eye on efforts to repeal the law and its provisions, a move that would threaten patients’ health care access.
“It’s been the theme of my career, in a way, the ebb and flow of health care nationally,” she says.
Culp now manages state government affairs at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, a nonprofit that funds research into blood cancer treatment and advocates for policy changes.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, her advocacy work, typically an in-person activity, was turned on its head. Culp says that the pandemic “democratized” the ability for patients to engage with the government as many public meetings went virtual, and she took advantage of that new opportunity. “It opened up new avenues for us to have a cancer patient speak directly to their lawmaker,” she says, “or have folks who are out of state be able to connect across the state or far away.”
It’s a top priority for Culp to fight on behalf of people who don’t have insurance or whose insurance doesn’t cover cancer treatment.
“The truth is, none of us are cancer patients until the day we are,” she says. “Making sure that everyone has that kind of access to coverage is of real, critical importance.”
– Kimberly Gonzalez
Maidel De La Cruz, who is Dominican American, grew up accompanying her immigrant parents and grandparents to medical appointments, often helping out as a translator.
As she grew older and reflected on that time, she realized there were disparities in her family’s health care experiences. That understanding is what led her to dedicate her career to improving access to health care in vulnerable communities.
De La Cruz started out in politics and government, working on health policy under New York City’s deputy mayor for health and human services for several years. During that time, she helped launch NYC Care, a low-cost health program for uninsured New Yorkers.
De La Cruz joined New York City Health + Hospitals in August 2020 as the city battled the COVID-19 pandemic. Wanting to help the city’s public hospital system reach New Yorkers during a time of great need, she describes her decision to transition from City Hall to the health care space as a “no brainer” and says she’s proud to be part of a system that delivered vital services such as contact tracing and COVID-19 testing.
She hopes that the system will be able to leverage the trust it’s built with New Yorkers over the last couple of years by getting more people to seek care.
“What we saw over the last few years – I still don’t have the words,” De La Cruz says. “It was really incredible the work that we did and how we were able to stand by our residents regardless of who they were.”
Darrigan DeMattos’ work at the Garnet Health Foundation took on heightened importance as the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York.
As donor relations manager at the organization, DeMattos created online fundraising pages that raised more than $350,000 for personal protective equipment and medical supplies. She also spearheaded other initiatives to support staff, fundraising on behalf of hospital employees who died of COVID-19 and creating billboards and lawn signs showcasing the importance of the Garnet Health Medical Center’s essential workers.
She has spent much of her career at Garnet Health. DeMattos joined the Garnet Health Medical Center as a high school volunteer when it was known as the Orange Regional Medical Center, before going on to work there as an intern during her time as an undergraduate at the University of Hartford. That experience informs her work today fundraising and collaborating with donors for the hospital. Last year, DeMattos played a large role in planning the foundation’s Golf & Tennis Classic, a major annual fundraising event for the hospital.
In her spare time, she serves on the board of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ mid-Hudson Valley chapter and is part of Wallkill East Rotary, a local service organization. DeMattos is also pursuing a master's degree in public administration at Marist College, with plans to use her public health knowledge in the nonprofit world. She said that her father, who died three years ago, is the reason she went to graduate school.
“He is my daily inspiration to keep pushing and helping people every day and just make a small difference in one person's day,” she says.
Erika Ewing always knew her calling was in public service. Upon graduating from law school at Fordham University, Ewing began working in counseling and litigation roles for government agencies. She thought about leaving the government relations field until she saw a posting for her current position at the Day Care Council of New York, where she started working just as the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“It's been a roller coaster,” she says. As an adviser for day care providers, Ewing transitions between relaying legal matters related to COVID-19 policies and working on increasing salaries for essential workers. When the New York City Department of Education implemented an exemption review process for the COVID-19 vaccine mandate without a guide on how to go about requesting an exemption, Ewing developed a citywide process for child care providers to access. Rather than internally reviewing complicated requests, child care providers were able to outsource that review to the Day Care Council of New York where Ewing and other attorneys as well as medical and religious professionals made the decisions.
Ewing is also dedicated to mentoring others as she continues to rise in her career. Her motto: “Lift as I climb.”
She gives gratitude to her predecessor, Nilesh Patel, and Tara Gardner, executive director of the Day Care Council of New York, for being supportive forces in her career. “I have been fortunate to have mentors and sponsors,” Ewing says. “Mentors who give me great advice and sponsors who were like, ‘OK, this is how we're going to implement this advice and this is how we’re going to get you to the next level.’”
Jessica Ferris originally planned to pursue a career in physical therapy while a student at the University of Pittsburgh. But she ended up falling in love with writing, going on to pursue work in grant writing. That was her first step into the nonprofit world, where she’s worked for her entire career.
“I realized that there was an opportunity to take something I loved and was good at and apply it to a great purpose and help other people achieve their goals and dreams,” she says.
In her role at Goodwill Industries of Greater New York and Northern New Jersey, Ferris works with public and private funders to build initiatives that create job opportunities for people with disabilities or other barriers to employment. In 2021, Ferris and her colleagues launched the Bridge to Technology program, a workforce development initiative that helps unemployed people in New York City find jobs in the technology sector. She successfully secured funding from the New York City Council and grants from the Bank of New York Mellon to make the proposal possible.
Her inspiration? Regular people who walk into Goodwill everyday.
“What keeps me going is hearing stories about how our service has impacted a person's life or their family's life,” she says. “A lot of the people who come to Goodwill especially just need someone to give them a chance, and being able to support them in achieving their goals, even in an indirect way, is really special.”
As a child, Drew Gabriel spent his summers in Jamaica, where his grandfather taught him a great deal about acts of service. His grandfather always encouraged him to engage in community work and help others understand the resources at their disposal in the underdeveloped country.
“Most of the time people of color … don't really have the opportunity or know-how to navigate the realm of resources,” he says. “Understanding and studying where resources are or how I could be helpful is really what pushed me to get into this work.”
His drive to help others has led him to his leadership position at Camba, a New York City-based nonprofit providing workforce development programs, legal support and other social services. Gabriel has spearheaded a number of special projects at the organization during the COVID-19 pandemic, organizing food drives and personal protective equipment distribution events, partnering with other community groups to maximize reach.
More recently, Gabriel has supported Camba by organizing running races as a way to raise funds. In the future, he hopes to direct Camba’s work to support youth in high-crime impact areas by focusing on activities centered around sports.
As someone driven by a passion for his work, Gabriel encourages young people to pursue their career goals as he did.
“Don’t be afraid to fail,” Gabriel says. “If you don’t try, you won't know if it will work or not, whether that's a partnership or a policy or anything else that's in between.”
Laura Gallery started out at Planned Parenthood working at the front desk. That experience has grown into an extensive career at the organization, a leader in reproductive health care access in New York.
She worked at several affiliates before taking on her current role as director of clinical operations at Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, a position she has served in for three years. Gallery oversees multiple health clinics and ensures quality care is being provided at each of Planned Parenthood’s sites across the Mohawk Valley, New York City, parts of the Capital District and the Hudson Valley.
That work became especially vital when the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York. In response, Gallery oversaw an expansion of telehealth services, bolstered by the organization’s online appointment scheduling system.
Gallery was also pivotal in supporting the merger of a number of Planned Parenthood affiliates in the state in 2019, a major change that resulted in the creation of Planned Parenthood of Greater New York.
Among her top priorities at Planned Parenthood are to expand health care access for transgender people and to ensure abortions are consistently available despite the political developments throughout the country threatening access.
Gallery encourages young people to stick with work that they are passionate about.
“Working in nonprofits can be really challenging,” she says. “Especially for an organization like Planned Parenthood, it’s really dependent on the political climate if you have supportive local, state and federal government. Just realize that doing good work will ultimately prevail and stick with it.”
An extensive career in politics has shaped Marian Guerra’s journey to Kasirer.
She started out at New American Leaders, a nonprofit that trains immigrants and refugees to run for office, before moving to City Hall. Guerra worked in then-New York City Council Member Margaret Chin’s office, where she gained an undestanding of the local political landscape and tools needed to strengthen New York City’s relationship with nonprofits.
Guerra now brings this expertise to Kasirer, where she supports nonprofit clients with their legislative priorities and works to strengthen the city’s partnerships with the nonprofit sector. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she sought support for human services workers and obtained emergency food funding for her clients, striving to make city officials understand the difficulties nonprofits have faced during the past few years.
In the future, Guerra hopes to continue her advocacy efforts outside of work by supporting Filipino Americans and starting a Filipino American Democratic club. She says building relationships in politics has fueled her satisfaction in her work and urges other young professionals to value those connections.
“My biggest advice to folks who are starting in politics is to cherish your friendships and your relationships with staffers at all levels of government office,” she says. “I think we are all moving up and all are committed to activating change in our own different ways. You never know where you will meet that one staffer that you had coffee with or had a meeting with later on in the road.”
Rachel Isreeli has been proactive in trying to change New York’s labor landscape. Her efforts started about a decade ago, when Isreeli, who uses both she and they pronouns, began to work with sex workers who were targeted by law enforcement. Since then, they have worked as an organizer and developer of cooperative businesses that are owned by members, supporting immigrant workers, sexual violence survivors and LGBTQ people in New York City.
At RiseBoro Community Partnership, Isreeli is focused on increasing access to fresh and healthy food in her hometown of Brooklyn. As part of that work, she is organizing worker cooperatives on behalf of a Black-led food initiative called the Central Brooklyn Food Democracy Project. Isreeli’s passion for developing cooperatives has also translated into supporting startup worker cooperatives by advising them on best practices and a role as a board member for the New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives, where Isreeli uses their experience to assist emerging workforce cooperatives from a variety of industries.
“Some of my proudest moments in doing this work is when workers who have been underpaid, exploited or not had control over their labor start to make decisions together,” she says.
Isreeli says that the work is like “organizing through entrepreneurship,” with the goal of transforming the capitalist economy to a more equitable economy that allows people who have been historically exploited to have power and agency over their lives.
“What inspires me is the members and owners of cooperatives who are building a vibrant cooperative future and who are investing in relationships that are a key ingredient in determining success,” Isreeli says.
Heidi Kim sees herself as a bridge-builder, connecting private law firms and the nonprofits that seek their help. As assistant director of pro bono programs at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, Kim helps hundreds of community organizations get legal advice from volunteer attorneys.
That support has extended to a wide range of nonprofits, from local grassroots groups to multimillion-dollar social services providers involved in education, affordable housing, racial justice and other issues.
In response to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, Kim helped launch a project to guide nonprofits through real estate challenges such as communicating with landlords and negotiating new leases. She also connected groups to attorneys who could help design online programs and initiatives with appropriate privacy policies and aggregated COVID-19 relief resources for nonprofits.
“I’ve seen the legal industry rise to the challenge so many times, and this is no exception to that,” she says.
Kim is particularly proud of helping a criminal justice organization that wanted to provide more support to New Yorkers who were eligible to get their criminal history sealed. New York Lawyers for the Public Interest partnered with the organization and two law firms to offer that service, guiding dozens of clients through the process.
“I’ve been really inspired by the success of that partnership and our role – and my role – in being able to bring all that together,” she says.
One thing her role has taught her?
“I think there's no one right way to have a public interest career or really any kind of career.”
For as long as Tara Lee remembers, she’s always been able to walk into a room of strangers and find commonality – a quality that has served her well in the nonprofit world.
As executive director of the American Heart Association’s Long Island branch, Lee pulls from this to instill boldness and authenticity into her work. Doing so, she feels, has helped her create “moving, memorable moments” that inspire people to give generously during fundraising.
“It’s all about being able to tell the story of a particular mission that you are working on and tell it in a way that relates to people,” Lee says.
Wanting to find a way to be engaged in meaningful work, Lee became involved with nonprofits after a friend passed away from a drug overdose in college. The loss shook her Long Island community, and Lee began working as an executive assistant at a substance abuse organization after graduating. This experience solidified Lee’s interest in health-related nonprofit work, pushing her to join JDRF, a nonprofit funding Type 1 diabetes research, where she led the fundraising and event-planning work.
When an opportunity arose to serve in the community she grew up in, Lee jumped at the chance, becoming the local American Heart Association’s executive director in 2020. There, she’s helped advance community impact work like the recently launched Healthier Long Island Initiative, lead fundraising efforts and amplify the organization’s message through partnerships.
“I think in many cases it's about being bold and being able to have conversations with folks may lead to something bigger,” Lee says. “I look for the movers and the shakers on Long Island who can help amplify the American Heart Association’s voice and articulate our mission.”
Sara Lind is focused on making New York City’s streets safe, livable and equitable. Having served as the director of policy at Open Plans since September, she has been advocating for everything from improved traffic safety to permanent outdoor dining.
What made her passionate about this work was nearly getting hit by a taxi while walking in the city with her two young children.
“It was just terrifying,” she says. “And that was the kind of thing that made me think, OK, I have to care more about what’s going on on our streets.”
She started out her career in corporate law but found that she was more drawn to her pro bono work. Lind went on to work in the political realm, joining Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and subsequent campaigns for other female candidates.
Her experience brought her to 21 in ’21, an organization that trained and supported female candidates running for New York City Council.
“When you’ve been talking long enough about how women should run for office, you start to think well, OK, why not me?” she says. From there, she launched her own campaign for City Council to represent most of the Upper West Side last year.
While she didn’t succeed, 21 in ’21 managed to bring a historic number of women into office. And the experience connected her to what she calls her “favorite job” to date, at Open Plans.
“I’m really excited about the potential for where this work can go,” she says.
When Dan Lloyd moved back to Long Island from Newark, New Jersey, in 2016, he noticed a $500 million redevelopment project underway in Wyandanch. He asked friends and colleagues what was going on. Although the project was next to a Long Island Rail Road station in Suffolk County, no one knew – and no one seemed to care.
“I was thinking and spoke to one of my close friends that we need to do something, create something, where we bridge the gap between policy and culture,” he says. That’s when Minority Millennials was born.
Minority Millennials helps young people of color learn about and shape the political landscape through civic education, workforce development and economic development initiatives. “We've really been able to inject ourselves into the conversation in Long Island when it comes to advocacy,” Lloyd says. “A lot of times, millennials were left off boards or were not given a seat at the table when it came to talking about the future now on Long Island, but at the same time, they are talking about us. The future is in our hands.”
Part of Lloyd’s mission is to inspire young people of color on Long Island to make the region a less segregated place. Minority Millennials has already gotten national attention, with areas across the country, such as South Dakota, Florida, New Jersey and Los Angeles, seeking to form chapters. “Our ultimate vision is to become the nation's leading resource for the next generation of change-makers from diverse backgrounds,” he says.
Much of Leah Martins-Krasner’s work at Local Initiatives Support Corp. New York City involves overseeing programs that connect students to internships and fellowships at nonprofits. Another piece of her work as a community development officer is helping community organizations become strong and sustainable. Those efforts are interconnected.
“A lot of these programs, the reason that they're under our capacity-building programming is that they really do help the organizations that we place these students with,” she says. “They're not just going in and shuffling papers around. They're usually working with community residents within housing complexes, doing really strong outreach and project development.”
Two major programs fall under Martins-Krasner’s purview. One is an initiative in which AmeriCorps members get paid positions with community organizations while completing a course through the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. The other, called the Cashin Community Development Fellowship, connects students to paid summer internships with nonprofits within the five boroughs.
Martins-Krasner has helped build out the programs, ensuring they deliver the best experience to participants and partner organizations. “It was really important to me to make sure that all of our community leadership programs were paid, that they’re getting this really strong professional experience within the community-based organization,” she says.
For her, these programs are vital to cultivating a new generation of nonprofit workers. “I've had conversations with students who didn't even know this kind of work was happening in their neighborhood, and they lived in their neighborhood for forever,” she says. “I think a lot of it is creating exposure.”
Moving at a young age from an affluent part of South Carolina to California’s Central Valley, where many residents were low-income farm laborers, exposed Lauren Mendenhall to the challenges under-resourced communities face. That awareness inspired her to pursue work in health care helping vulnerable populations.
Mendenhall now oversees primary care initiatives at Acacia Network, a nonprofit providing a wide range of social services in New York and beyond. Leading one of the organization’s community health centers, La Casa de Salud, she has played a vital role delivering quality care during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The past two years have brought numerous challenges to her work. Many patients with chronic conditions put off screenings and appointments to avoid coronavirus exposure. The organization also took on new clients seeking COVID-19 tests and vaccines. And that’s all while Mendenhall worked to ensure Acacia Network could continue to provide high-quality care.
“The health care industry as a whole is undergoing a giant transformational shift,” she says. “And the concept is basic: We're moving from volume to value.” To that end, she ensures the organization collects data and metrics to improve patient outcomes.
Mendenhall is particularly proud to have mentored staff and to have positioned them to rise into leadership positions. She’s also appreciative of Acacia’s efforts to provide a broad set of supports such as behavioral health, housing and workforce development services.
“There's no way that you can focus on your health outcomes if you don't have basic needs,” she says.
Marie Mongeon was drawn to public health early in her life. That interest drove her to become a research assistant at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University early on in her career before turning toward work in health policy.
Mongeon joined the Community Health Care Association of New York State in 2018 and now serves as senior director of policy. That puts her in charge of leading advocacy efforts and developing a policy agenda on behalf of more than 70 community health clinics across the state. She has recently been involved in efforts to get state officials to delay its decision to move the Medicaid pharmacy benefit from a managed care program to a fee-for-service model, a change that would’ve hurt safety net providers.
“All of those health centers are so mission-driven and patient-centered, they come together and fight for the spirit of across the health center network,” she says. “A big part of my job is fostering that and driving toward making sure that we're advocating not just for the biggest health centers in New York City, but also the smallest health center.”
Being able to work with such a wide network of community health centers makes Mongeon feel privileged.
“If I can do something so small that makes their day easier, that's what brings me the most joy,” she says. “At the end of the day, they're the implementers, they're the ones on the ground, they're the ones providing services in these communities, some of which wouldn’t have any other source of care.”
Settlement houses number among the key social services providers in New York City, and they have delivered essential support throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. As director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses, Nora Moran fights to make sure those organizations and their staffs are prepared to help underserved communities in the city.
“Our members were out there, running programs that were making sure that people were still getting essential services,” she says. “And that really motivated us to make sure that we were doing everything we could to support that.”
Moran has spent much of her career handling policy priorities at United Neighborhood Houses, taking on her current title in 2019. In that time, she has played a key role in pushing for measures big and small that support settlement houses and New York’s most vulnerable populations. One signal achievement for her: seeing legislation signed into law allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections in New York City, expanding voting rights to approximately 800,000 New Yorkers.
“We were engaged as an organization in that campaign for a very long time, so it was really wonderful to be able to help get it across the finish line,” Moran says.
Moran is also motivated by the work that doesn’t attract headlines, like working with government agencies to ensure settlement houses get properly funded.
“It’s really important to make sure that people who actually work at settlement houses can do their jobs and provide child care and ESL classes and after-school (programs),” she says.
New York City's largest food rescue organization, City Harvest, is a major player in advocating for policies combating persistent hunger. Jerome Nathaniel is the man behind the scenes creating the policy proposals the organization stands behind. Speaking to people who operate pantries and soup kitchens in New York, he says, has helped him successfully craft those initiatives.
City Harvest’s work is personal to Nathaniel. He grew up in Brooklyn, where he saw produce stands near him disappear over time and more fast food restaurants pop up. He recalls seeing more low-income residents in the community having to rely on cheap, unhealthy fast food to feed themselves. That experience – and his time spent volunteering at soup kitchens at a young age – has given Nathaniel a deep understanding of food insecurity.
Currently, Nathaniel is working on a virtual lobby day to inform members of Congress about City Harvest’s funding priorities. He’s also spearheading a training program to teach 50 food pantry leaders how to communicate with elected officials.
Nathaniel encourages young professionals starting out in their careers to find a cause that inspires a similar passion within them.
“I always tell folks to start off with figuring out what issues matter the most to you,” he said. “What gets you excited, what gets you emotionally energized? Once you know what you care about the most, then just figure out what skills you have and what's the best way you could touch on those issues.”
Rigaud Noel’s time in the nonprofit world dates back to 1996, when he was a freshman in high school. Now he’s the executive director at New Settlement, an organization focused on providing housing, community development services and educational programming.
“I think we’re still the best kept secret in the Bronx,” Noel says.
Even after all these years in the nonprofit sector, he hasn’t lost his desire to create lasting change. Much of that inspiration comes from his parents, who immigrated to the United States from Haiti. Understanding the sacrifice his parents made and the support system he had growing up, he says, pushes him to think of the countless families who never had that. Noel wants to level the playing field for those families and their children.
Looking at all of New Settlement’s programs, Noel is particularly proud of what it has done with its food pantry. The food pantry not only gave out thousands of meals to New Yorkers in need, he says, it also showed community members that New Settlement is here for them. For Noel, this is the kind of behind-the-scenes work that nonprofits offer that government officials often can’t because of a lack of capacity.
“The role that we play in society is significant and sometimes that’s not taken into account,” says Noel, who also teaches nonprofit management at Queens College. “But it’s very important the work that we do and I hope that everyone sees that.”
Hot Bread Kitchen has a unique mission, preparing women of color and immigrant women in New York City for jobs in the culinary field. As the organization’s director of programs, Katie Peabody plays a vital role ensuring that it provides quality training in food entrepreneurship and job skills to prepare participants for successful careers in the food industry.
“Our model is really centered around the people that we work with,” she says. “Our mission is to support the economic mobility and the career aspirations of each person who walks through our doors. To do this, we've expanded our programming.”
Peabody has helped Hot Bread Kitchen increase the range of programs it offers its participants to include classes in digital literacy and English for nonnative speakers, in order to better support women aiming to enter the culinary arts world. Peabody says there is a lack of growth in the food industry, and the programs offered help participants figure out how to find more stable jobs or make more money in their roles.
One of her proudest accomplishments is seeing how much Hot Bread Kitchen’s reach has grown since she joined the organization five years ago. At the time, Hot Bread Kitchen was connecting 30 women with jobs. Now, it’s on track to help 100 women in 2022, with a goal of supporting 1,500 participants in the next three years. Peabody hopes to stick around to ensure that growth happens.
Maria Pineda wants to correct the many misconceptions around youth homelessness. She wants people to know that the youth she serves aren’t homeless because they are lazy or they ran away from home – they left to seek a safer situation.
“The face of homelessness is not the face that you think it is. It is not the person who was drunk or high with needles in the street,” Pineda says. “That person is the person who is selling you your shoes at Nike or the person who is giving your burger at McDonald’s. It might even be the administrative assistant that is picking up calls at your school.”
Pineda has been with Covenant House since 2008 when she joined the organization’s transitional living program as a residential adviser. In the years since, she’s been promoted multiple times and has earned a master’s degree in social work, shifting from being a direct care worker to a supervisor.
While Pineda’s role has grown in title and scope over the years, her relationships with the youth are still central to what she does. She says nobody knows her as “Assistant Director Miss Maria” – she’s “Miss Maria” and still does the same work as the resident advisers, case managers and program coordinators.
“You meet characters here,” Pineda says. “I’ve met kids that crack me up to my soul and singers, dancers and artists and dreamers that just make life seem just a little better. They remind you of how important it is to live and dream and be hopeful for tomorrow.”
Olivia Pryce is proud to be from the Wakefield area of the Bronx and to be helping neighborhoods like hers. As the lead community engagement specialist at nonprofit health insurer EmblemHealth, she cultivates relationships and drives health campaigns that directly benefit New Yorkers.
Her boots-on-the-ground approach and understanding of people have been integral to her successful work engaging communities.
“Seeing people that look just like me and people I grew up with and people that even look like my parents and being able to bring programs to them, bring resources to them, see how they light up … those personal touches are what keep me really excited about the work I do,” she says.
Pryce strives to build lasting partnerships with local organizations, schools and government officials to help EmblemHealth bring accessible and affordable health care to New York City neighborhoods. Last year, she put together several events across the city that brought medical screenings, vaccinations, entertainment and food to those in need – a rewarding experience that Pryce says she intends to build on in the years to come.
“Being from communities that I now serve is very touching to me, because I have got somewhere in my career,” says Pryce, who previously worked in marketing at Healthfirst. “I want everyone to feel empowered to step out of those neighborhoods and feel confident in your abilities to do something positive. With some determination, some staying power, you can definitely be a force to be reckoned with.”
Being an advocate for Asian Americans’ rights, especially when hate crimes against the community have recently skyrocketed, is no easy job. But Ravi Reddi says bringing your most honest self to the table is the key to bringing about social change.
“Just be yourself,” he says. “So much of advocacy is about relationship building, and it's about having aspirations for the community that you represent. Advocacy takes organizing and a lot of the work is building community and building relationships. Then it manifests in big gains.”
Reddi manages the policy priorities of the 70 member and partner organizations that are part of the Asian American Federation. Analyzing the narratives and experiences of the Asian American community and other data informs Reddi’s perspective as he crafts the organization’s policy positions.
As part of that work, he has collaborated with other organizations to advocate for greater government funding for the broader Asian American community, which he says is systematically underfunded despite being the fastest growing population in the state.
He recently helped obtain $3 million for the Asian American Federation’s Hope Against Hate campaign, which promotes safety initiatives for the Asian American community. That funding will support safety ambassador training, bystander training and specialized mental health care.
“We worked together with a number of organizations to advocate for the inclusion of funding in the state budget for anti-violence programs that address the anti-Asian hate crisis,” he says. “It was a crisis then. It's a crisis now.”
Olakunle Saliu sees himself as a problem-solver. As a child, he often used to pull apart electronics, examine what each piece did and then put them back together to create something new. That’s the mindset he brings with him to Graham Windham, a child welfare nonprofit in New York City.
“What I like to do is analyze things: break it down, understand what each part is and then figure out how to put it back so that you can have either a more efficient or more effective unit,” he says.
Saliu holds numerous responsibilities as Graham Windham’s employee and labor relations manager. He handles and mediates complaints and grievances, is the go-to person for discussing union matters and manages workplace investigations. He’s also involved in improving and monitoring the organization’s performance and evaluation system.
“I’ve found that my role is centered around essentially being a professional solution-finder,” he says.
But what Saliu has been most passionate about are some of his special projects, like creating a training program to help employees across the organization develop skills to become managers and leaders. Discussions about the initiative began in 2018, and Saliu took on the task of spearheading its implementation and curriculum. His broad perspective helped him understand how best to craft that initiative.
“I’m in a unique position … where I speak to managers, and I know what their concerns are,” he says. “And I speak with our front-line staff and I know what their concerns are.”
Jermaine Sean Smith has been with children’s services provider HeartShare St. Vincent’s Services for nearly all of his professional life, serving in both leadership and front-line care positions.
That broad experience has given Smith a deep understanding of youths’ needs and helped him craft sustainable programs that empower and educate young people.
In his current role as the organization’s associate vice president for strategic workforce initiatives and external partnerships, Smith is crafting a workforce development program that gives youth transitioning out of foster care exposure to different career paths. Having known many of these kids as they’ve grown up, he says, makes them feel comfortable turning to him and other coaches for help finding employment opportunities.
The most rewarding part of Smith’s work is seeing young people grow up and live happy, successful lives. He’s worked hard to develop a culture at the nonprofit where youth feel comfortable stopping in to play games and get mentored.
Smith says he’s been disheartened at times when a young person he’s developed a relationship with experiences hardship. But he gets through those moments by focusing on the long-term ripple effects of his work and programs.
“Whether they come to use it a day later or five years later, I understand that I’m planting seeds in young people’s lives that’s coming to fruition one day,” Smith says. “I know I’m going to pop into their mind at some point, our coaches are going to pop into their mind, our team.”
Shehila Stephens believes in creating a space that goes beyond helping seniors survive. She wants them to thrive.
As the senior director of programs at Encore Community Services, Stephens creates programming for older adults that allows them to tackle social isolation and improve their overall well-being. She also strives to empower seniors by making sure they are involved in the organization’s decision-making as it crafts new initiatives.
Since Stephens joined the nonprofit in 2020, she has helped revitalize its programs and expand its operations. Last year, she launched a financial wellness program that connects seniors with financial navigators to help them organize their finances, avoid fraud and conduct end-of-life planning.
Working with seniors has reframed her previous conceptions of aging.
“I would think knitting and bingo, and maybe they're playing card games, but when I came to Encore, they were having parties – we have DJs for our seniors, they love to dance, they love to sing,” Stephens says. “We have seniors that are current and former musicians, actresses, authors, playwrights. There's so much experience and so much life there.”
While Stephens has worked in many different parts of the human services sector over the years, something about working with older adults has resonated with her.
“I want to provide services to people who have done so much for their families and their community,” she says. “I want for whatever time they have left, for them to feel like they’re valued and they’re respected and that their contributions and sacrifices meant something.”
Samantha Sutfin-Gray had initially planned to go into academia. But her classes, combined with her early experience working as a therapist and social worker, instead led her to pursue a different career path.
“I thought I wanted to go into academia and do research and teach other social work students how to be agents of change,” she says, “but then I stumbled upon quality improvement, which took all of my interests of policy, data and clinical practice and combined it all into one.”
As vice president of performance and quality, she ensures the organization is serving vulnerable youth and families as effectively as possible, using data analytics to improve SCO Family of Services’ programming. During her tenure at the organization, Sutfin-Gray has spearheaded an initiative to transition from a paper-based incident management system to a more efficient electronic one.
Looking ahead, Sutfin-Gray is striving to make SCO Family of Services one of the leading data-driven organizations in the country. Her advice for young professionals is to know what they value but be open to diverse career paths as well.
“When I started out, I thought I was going to be a clinician with my own private practice, which I'm pretty sure 99% of all social work students think,” she says. “I never envisioned myself being a vice president of quality improvement. Taking yourself in a different direction, taking opportunities that don't necessarily fit into your defined career path, may lead you into a job that you love.”
Phylisa Wisdom’s professional endeavors forging public and private partnerships with the aim of improving educational outcomes are informed by her past experience as a teacher.
Early on in her career, Wisdom held a position as a behavioral aide working with young students with autism. Her firsthand classroom experience has positioned her well to succeed in her current role at Literacy Trust, a New York City charity that is devoted to boosting literacy rates among disadvantaged children.
“I’m proud of the way I’ve been able to take hours and hours of experience working directly with students and thinking about how to systemize that and grow that work,” says Wisdom, who also serves on the board of Young Advocates for Fair Education, or YAFFED, a nonprofit that fights to improve education in Hasidic and Haredi schools.
The COVID-19 pandemic made clear the value of her efforts as director of strategic partnerships at Literacy Trust. “When COVID-19 hit our city, schools were reeling and had to rethink every part of their programming,” she says. The nonprofit’s program team supported schools by helping them analyze policy and programming shifts remotely, while Wisdom kept funders alert to developments on-the-ground in the schools. She facilitated collaboration and the sharing of information in order to support students and educators alike during difficult times for New York City’s public education system.
“I feel like a nonprofit like ours really has a responsibility to do the best that we can by those front-line educators,” she says. “Hearing about all the ways that they've been able to keep our shared mission at the forefront has been really inspirational.”
Creating outreach programs that help more than 10,000 New Yorkers with academic intervention and career support is no small feat. But Mimi Woldemariam has successfully done so throughout her time at Grand Street Settlement, before assuming her current role as senior director of development in September.
Woldemariam initially became interested in nonprofits after working in journalism, which she found unfulfilling. At the time, she also mentored middle school girls. Her passion for that work led her to Grand Street Settlement, where she became a tutor. She has mentored youth who have gone on to obtain jobs at prominent companies such as Google, which she considers a satisfying accomplishment.
For Woldemariam, the strong technical education Grand Street Settlement provides for youth is a major strong point at the organization.
“We've also been focused on cultivating intentional programming and innovative programming, so we've built out a team tech center in collaboration with Best Buy,” she says. “We have expanded STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programming with Verizon.”
After about a decade working at the nonprofit, Woldemariam now leads all of the organization’s fundraising efforts. In the future, Woldemariam wants Grand Street Settlement to continue to build meaningful programming for kids, while also incorporating newer technologies to better advance its mission.
“I think what makes organizations successful is not implementing the same thing you were doing 20 years ago,” she says, “and really being creative and really hopeful about the future and the world.”