A Conversation with NYC’s Youth and Community-Development Commissioner

By Nora Fleming — April 15, 2011 10 min read
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A couple weeks ago, I wrote a few items about New York state and New York City’s innovative and expansive out-of-school-time programming. Given the pressing budget issues at the state level, as well as some time sensitive projects in the city, I had to hold my Q&A with Jeanne Mullgrav, commissioner of the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), until this week.

As I mentioned earlier, DYCD administers city, state, and federal funding to New York City programs that support needy and underserved children, families, and the community. Mullgrav’s responsibilities are extensive and include overseeing the funding and management for local community centers, immigrant support services, a youth-employment program, and the largest city-funded OST initiative in the country, which supports 485 out-of-school-time programs.

Mullgrav has served as commissioner for the past nine years and in this capacity has worked on not only expanding DYCD’s reach, but has also created specialized programming, such as literacy and service-learning projects, as well as the Semester of Service program, which recruits New Yorkers to volunteer and mentor children in citywide after-school programs.

Here’s what Mullgrav had to say about administering funding during tough financial times, addressing the needs of so many of the city’s kids, and how her past experiences with The After-School Corporation, TASC, and the criminal-justice system have influenced her efforts in her current position.

EW: What are the greatest challenges for DYCD programming efforts in a city as densely populated and diverse as New York?
JM: The greatest challenge for New York City is one of scale. New York City has the largest public school system in the United States, serving at least 1.1 million young people. Next year, our Out of School Time (OST) initiative will reach around 49,000 young people. Clearly, while we are having a real impact on the lives of young people in our programs, there are many others who could benefit from the myriad kinds of services we fund. Once the economy improves, we need to figure out how we can maximize the availability of programming, so that it’s easier for working parents to find safe and engaging places for their children in the after-school hours.

At the same time, I think that the diversity you mentioned is one of our greatest strengths. The immensity of our population allows us to build on the multitude of cultural traditions that each group brings to our city and incorporate them in an after-school setting. After-school should be about learning, but learning in a way that fuels intellectual curiosity and gets our young people thinking about what they want to do when they reach adulthood. It’s a place where if you’re talking about nutrition, you can use that conversation as an opportunity for cultural exploration. We have the unique ability in New York City to expose our young people to different cultures and broaden their horizons as they determine a path for their future, and that’s something that cannot be overlooked.

EW: As an administrator of city, state, and federal funds to CBOs that provide youth and family programs, how have you dealt with significant funding cuts the past few years? What types of programs have been most affected and how have you tried to provide the support organizations needed to deliver quality programming when resources are reduced?
JM: We’ve approached funding cuts with a commitment to ensuring that we stay true to the values and the core beliefs that inspired us to create OST in the first place. By that I mean we have made a commitment to comprehensive programming that meets the needs of working parents. Wherever possible, we have tried to fund programs that meet regularly and offer year-round services. We’ve also tried to ensure that the most needy communities are able to maintain their services, because they are the least likely to have the resources to secure funding from sources outside of government.

Finally, despite some reductions, DYCD has continued its commitment to evaluating the programs it funds and to capacity building. We are responsible for making sure that the city’s investment is worthwhile and truly benefits our residents. We work closely with our service providers and use evaluations to provide them with feedback and recommendations, which are then incorporated into future program models and technical-assistance training. This way, we continue to strengthen the organizations we are invested in, so that they can continue to deliver quality programming

EW: How has your background working in criminal justice influenced your work with DYCD, particularly with efforts to “keep kids off the streets?”
JM: I have a tremendous admiration for those who continue to work in the criminal-justice system. Indeed, it gave me a strong foundation to approach my work at DYCD. The difference is that, while much of my work in the criminal-justice system was reactive, today I am able to concentrate more on prevention. Oftentimes, whether you’re counseling a victim or an offender re-entering society, you feel like you are trying to put back the pieces of lives that have been destroyed by crime. At DYCD, I have the opportunity to be in front of that discussion and to help youth and families stay on the right path. That is what I love so much about my job.

EW: What programming specifically do you credit with pushing New York to the forefront as a national leader in after-school program development and support? What strategies has DYCD pursued to work with CBOs to provide quality programs for such a large number of youths citywide?
JM: New York City is a national leader in after-school program development and support because we ensure that our OST initiative is flexible and able to evolve to reflect current research and best practices. We have taken the time to not only review the wealth of national literature and studies on after-school programming, but also to research our own programs at every level. We have funded a multi-year external evaluation of the OST system, conducted regular site monitoring by our program staff, and received a great range of stakeholder input through focus groups, community meetings, and written feedback to ensure we capture the experience and knowledge of our nonprofit partners. We have used all of this information to design and continuously improve our programs, so that they are as rich and rewarding as possible.

Part of that equation, especially now during tough economic times, is to find ways to continue to innovate that are not overly burdensome from a financial standpoint. One way we accomplish this is to foster private partnerships that benefit our young people. A great example is the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Mentoring program we started with the New York Academy of Sciences. We have about 200 student-volunteers that go to after-school programs and engage our young people in everything from robotics to genetics. This partnership is really the definition of a win-win scenario —the volunteers get to give something back, and our young people get exposure to a curriculum that will help them compete in today’s economy.

Another reason we’ve been successful is that we’ve started a dialogue with the communities we serve on what it takes to instill quality throughout our programs. Working with our community-based organizations, parents, and academic leaders, we have created a set of core competencies for youth, work professionals, and supervisors that have really been embraced, largely because we pulled together all of the stakeholders and asked them to help us shape the end result.

Lastly, we’ve used data in ways that has garnered praise from other municipalities. The more we know about the people we serve, the more we can work with our partners in the community to tailor services, so that we’re getting the highest possible return on our investment. We are now at a point where parents expect a certain level of quality when accessing our services. That confidence, the knowledge that they can trust to leave their children at a DYCD-funded program, is one of the most appealing aspects of the system we’ve created.

EW: How have your experiences as a former TASC employee shaped the development and expansion of programming supporting by the Out-of-School Time Initiative?
JM: OST has certainly benefited significantly from TASC’s ability to raise the profile of high-quality after-school, both locally and nationally. TASC began with substantial private support, but was always insistent that ultimately after-school is a public responsibility. I carry this philosophy with me to this day, especially as commissioner of DYCD.

We are all shaped by our life experiences, and while TASC was certainly an influence on me, I also grew up attending New York City after-school programs, and that left an indelible mark on the person I am today. I am grateful for the fact that I was able to take advantage of some of the premier programs in my youth. Whether it was Grand Street Settlement, University Settlement, Henry Street Settlement, or the Church of All Nations, those were all comprehensive programs that shaped my life and my commitment to arts and education.

EW: Discuss the ideas/motivations behind the Semester of Service-Take Action Afterschool Program? How many volunteers have been recruited, and what are your long-term goals and plans for this project?
JM: The Semester of Service-Take Action for Afterschool Program was designed to build on the resources that already exist in our communities. People want to give back, and there are skill sets they possess that align nicely with what we are trying to accomplish in after-school. We know that young people in particular respond well to more individualized attention and to other young people who may be on a path they want to follow. And so, in the spirit of giving back, we embarked on this endeavor to connect the private sector, whether individual or corporate, with after-school and to see where those connections may grow organically to support OST.

EW: What development would you like to see on behalf of DYCD or other city leaders who support youth programs in the next 5-10 years to meet the needs of more of New York City’s children?
JM: While I can think of many responses to this question, the first thing that jumps out is that we need to figure out how to infuse workforce development into more of what we do. I am very concerned that there are many, many young people who don’t have the opportunities that I had in terms of entry into the workplace. The recession really continues to have an impact on young people, in that they are not getting the basic exposure to the world of work that they need to help them launch a career. That is why I’ve looked to create more internship and job-training opportunities for our city’s young people.

We know that young people who work as teenagers earn more as adults and are more likely to graduate from school. As entry-level employment opportunities for young people diminish, so do their chances of moving up the career ladder later in their lives and being able to support themselves and their families. The social and economic implications of unemployment among our nation’s youth are likely to reverberate for years to come. If we are going to overcome these obstacles, we need to get all of our young people ready to compete in the 21st- century economy, and that means getting them the work experience they need to succeed. It means helping our young people think about their career options. It means making college a reality rather than an aspiration. And it means putting a focus on the universal skills they will need in any job, like analytical thinking, teamwork, and conflict resolution.

I also believe it is critical that we see a shift in how policymakers view after-school. The fact is that after-school is a necessity for today’s family structure. We need to view after-school as an important component of youth development, and just as important as school or youth recreation. It will take a real shift in our thinking, but out of necessity, we will get there.

Photo 1: Commissioner Jeanne Mullgrav
Photo 2: Karate class, OST program, Queens
Photo 3: Alvin Ailey dance program on Staten Island
Photo 4: After-school reading-enrichment program at the Beacon Community Center
Photo 5: Swim program run by the Children’s Aid Society, Staten Island
All photos courtesy of DYCD. All programs depicted are supported with city funding, administered by DYCD.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Beyond School blog.