On Gentrification

Elly Czajkowski ’15 is currently completing her fellowship year at the Coalition for Hispanic Family Services in Brooklyn, NY. She reflects on how her understanding and perception of gentrification in urban areas has evolved since graduation. 


Photo taken by author of sidewalk graffiti in Bushwick, Brooklyn


I have learned more than I even knew there was to know about non-profit management, fundraising, foster care, mental health clinics, and electronic records system during my time at Coalition for Hispanic Family Services (CHFS).  I still don’t even know how much there is to learn, but I know that I’ve only breached the tip of the ice berg.  However, today I am going to write about an equally important and informative aspect of my fellowship year – the experience of living in New York City, and of living in Bed-Stuy and Bushwick in particular.

Before I moved to New York, I had heard that Brooklyn was a hipster kind of place, and I had probably heard of Williamsburg.  What I had not heard about is the gentrification that is going on to turn much of Brooklyn from the “Do or Die” neighborhoods that my parents and uncle worried about me moving to, to the complicated land where hole-in-the-wall hipster bars that serve everything in mason jars sit across the street from NYCHA (NYC Housing Authority) projects. 

I was introduced abruptly and somewhat painfully to this charged situation while I was sub-letting in Bed-Stuy over the summer when an acquaintance posted a Facebook update cursing out any recent college grads that moved to the “cheap” neighborhoods of Brooklyn because they were causing his father’s rent to skyrocket.  I felt guilty and conflicted—I had chosen Bed-Stuy partly due to the more-affordable-than-the-NYC-average-rent, and yet when I considered my spending power as a single and working college graduate to somebody paying the same rent on a lower salary while supporting a family, it was clear that I had the upper financial hand.  I talked about the issue with a woman who has spent the majority of her career working for the New York City Department of Homelessness, who told me to try not to feel badly about it.  “Gentrification is a nasty thing, but it is always happening somewhere and it is hard to stop.  At least you’re there fighting the good fight. And that neighborhood died years ago anyway.”

My boss said the same of Bushwick when a Starbucks opened a few doors down from the agency where I work.  “They’ve just opened a Starbucks.  This neighborhood is officially dead.”


Photo taken by author in her Bushwick neighborhood

It is hard for me to think of Bushwick as anything near dead.  I moved to Bushwick in September, and when I walk home on Friday nights, the sidewalks are crowded with people and children walking.   People roast corn and pinchos, sometimes over charcoal in metal shopping carts.  There are food trucks selling empanadas and when it’s warm, women push around flavored ice carts.  The shops are crowded, few brand names in sight, sometimes blasting music, usually with some of the stock out on the sidewalks, often with someone waiting in the doorway to talk to passersby.  The majority of the people walking by have small children attached to them.  There is one hipster coffee bar between my apartment and my office.  It wasn’t until I had been living in Bushwick for a few months that I realized that if you walk down the same street but in the other direction past my apartment, the neighborhood is completely different.

The sidewalks are cleaner, the stores are quieter, the people are whiter.

One of the women that I work with spoke to me about gentrification one time, positing that gentrification should have some positive aspects to it.  It can bring money, business, and jobs into the neighborhood.  The problem, she said, is that everything stays separate.  And the people moving in now don’t have kids, so they don’t worry about a lack of parks or about bad schools.  So it stays separate.

Another woman I work with had her building sold in the fall.  She worked with a consultant and brokered a deal with the new landlords who weren’t offering her a lease renewal because they were tearing down the building.  She got a lot of money out of it.  But she told me of another family in the building, a family of much more recent immigrants than herself, who she talked to about getting a settlement for having to leave the building.  In the end though, they got hardly anything.  “Why do Spanish people always have to be the ones who get ripped off like this?” she asked.

CHFS doesn’t offer housing services other than help filling out NYCHA forms, but housing scarcity certainly affects our work, particularly in foster care.  Frequently, the biggest obstacle to a child going home with their parent is lack of stable housing.  Gentrification also comes up in conversations about how a community based organization dependent on state funding needs to change if either most of the community or most of the state funding move to another neighborhood.

I read at some point that gentrification could actually alleviate the housing crisis, because it can allow for developers build and increase the amount of available housing, thereby easing the current scarcity.  However, in order for that to help the majority of low-income communities affected by gentrification, landlords have to allow for low-income or subsidized units alongside regularly priced units.  This is unlikely to happen anytime soon, because at least for now, everything stays separate.


Tying Together Childhood Literacy and Hospitals in NYC


Luba Margai ’15 is currently completing her fellowship year at Reach Out and Read in New York, NY. She reflects on the impact that local volunteers have had on the nonprofit. 

The last few months at Reach Out and Read have been a hectic whirlwind of meetings, grant applications, emails upon emails, and more meetings. Every time I think things are winding down and we’re entering period of respite, another commitment pops up. This time it’s our biggest commitment of the year. We are gearing up for our “Believe in Books” Benefit and Auction. Such a large event requires extensive planning. And planning for that planning.

While our benefit is our biggest (and most fun) fundraiser of the year, it also provides an opportunity to thank select volunteers involved in the work of Reach Out and Read. In particular, we thank our program coordinators who implement our program on a daily basis. With over 200 program sites in hospitals, and health centers in all five boroughs, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley, what we do at Reach Out and Read would not be possible without the help of our many program coordinators and pediatricians who volunteer their time and energy for the good of their patients. Their commitment to integrating early childhood literacy and pediatric primary care is truly what makes our work so fulfilling.

Indeed, what I’ve most enjoyed about my job over the past eight months (which, might I add, have passed by extremely fast) is meeting the staff at health centers across New York and talking to them about their ROR programs. While we have set standards for a model Reach Out and Read program, each site executes and adapts this model in its own way. Just when I think I’ve seen every type of program, I meet another medical provider who takes the program above and beyond. For example, I just met a pediatrician who told me that she follows up with her patients’ teachers to ensure that their education complements their medical needs and vice versa. She said that, in their isolated Bronx neighborhood, she serves as their physician, their therapist, their teacher, and their friend.

Partners like her make the whirlwind of work deeply rewarding. Though sometimes our office seems small (there’s only five of us at the main office), we have the help of over 250 health staff across Greater New York who devote a piece of their time every day to Reach Out and Read. It’s a testament to the impact of a small amount of time distributed among a large amount of people.


Learning to be a Jack of All Trades in the Nonprofit Sector

Association-to-Benefit-Children1Daniela Bartalini ’15 is currently completing her fellowship year at the Association to Benefit Children in New York, NY.

When I began my fellowship at Association to Benefit Children (ABC) at the end of June, I did not know quite what to expect. I knew that my title was “Program Associate” and that I was to provide support to a few of ABC’s programs, but those two facts did not fully encapsulate my work here at ABC. I’ve had the opportunity to write proposals to expand certain programs and solicit public funding, manage administratively the supportive housing program, collaborate with coworkers to organize staff-wide events, and represent ABC at coalition and community meetings, among other tasks. These diverse responsibilities mean that my day-to-day schedule is rarely routine; I could start my day in the office working on an application to ensure that our apartments for the formerly homeless living with HIV/AIDS is funded or out of the office in Queens, attending a pre-proposal conference to expand our family preservation services. Perhaps I end my day at one of our other locations in East Harlem meeting with the fiscal office about changes to New York’s Medicaid program or at a children’s mental health coalition meeting in the Financial District. The fast-paced environment, the flexibility required to work with limited resources and government entities, and constant issuances of different funding opportunities provide me with challenges that keep me engaged with my work. All of these numerous projects also aid the smooth operation of ABC’s vitally needed programs; I love knowing that the work I find fulfilling also has a marked impact on the people we serve.

Click Here to watch a video about the work that ABC is doing in New York City.

Holiday Helpers: Serving Culturally Diverse Populations

Karenna Martin ’15 is currently completing her fellowship year at New York Common Pantry in New York, NY.

We’re gearing up for the holiday season here at New York Common Pantry. The next month—our busiest time of the year—will mainly revolve around getting ready for both our annual Thanksgiving drive and holiday toy drive. All regular Pantry members are eligible to receive a Thanksgiving package, which includes not only a turkey but all the fixings: vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, onions, potatoes, and beans), rice, corn bread and stuffing mixes, gravy, canned cranberries, shelf-stable milk, and even cake mix with frosting for dessert. Similarly, at the end of December, regular Pantry members will be able to pick up children’s toys to serve as holiday gifts.

As one can imagine, handing out thousands of food items and toys during such a short period of time comes with logistical challenges. How should NYCP determine who is eligible to receive these limited resources when so many families are in need during this season? How can the staff work to make our toy-sorting process as efficient as possible (currently, NYCP sorts children’s toys on the basis of perceived age- and gender-appropriateness) while still respecting the varied identities and interests of Pantry members’ children? Addressing tough concerns like these has been a highlight of my fellowship so far on the Live Healthy! team at NYCP.

One such concern was brought to my attention last week, when the Live Healthy! team worked together to compile a packet of recipes to distribute with our Thanksgiving packages. The team spent several days researching healthy yet tasty dishes that could be created mainly with the food items received in the Thanksgiving package. As we readied the recipe booklet for distribution, we realized that we had forgotten to include a rice-based dish. I had never thought of rice as a “Thanksgiving food,” but this experience allowed me to talk with my coworkers about how rice-based dishes are staples for many of our Hispanic, Latino, and Asian Pantry clients. The omission of a rice-based dish would have surely disappointed a number of Pantry members looking for creative new ways to making a hearty Thanksgiving meal. With this insight, we were able to make a quick fix and successfully include the packet in the thousands of Thanksgiving packages that we will be handing out over the next week.

Working so closely with nutrition educators has taught me about the myriad ways in which food—and the way we think about food—has deep ties to political and cultural experience. As I reflect on the things I am most grateful for this holiday season, I am happy that my fellowship experience at New York Common Pantry through Princeton Project 55 has challenged me to think about new solutions to exciting issues every day.

A Head Start on Halloween

Rose Lapp ’15 is completing her fellowship year at Association to Benefit Children in New York, NY.

Last Friday was an exciting day for the 75 three and four year-olds enrolled at Cassidy’s Place, one of the Association to Benefit Children’s Head Start preschools. Like thousands of other small children around the country, they dressed up in Halloween costumes, and went trick-or-treating. Grouped by class and holding hands, they went first around the corner to Duane Reade, then throughout the offices of the school.

ABC’s central offices are also located in this center, so we were lucky enough in the middle of the workday to have our usually child-free offices filled with tiny, costumed children.  

ABC’s commitment to promoting healthy habits in childhood prohibits us from handing out candy, so their little paper bags, decorated with wobbly, hand-drawn ghosts and witches (and in one case, what I think was a dinosaur) were filled with treats like pretzels, fruit, and stickers. 

Some of the kids came as princesses, firefighters, and policemen, in tiny, plastic-y perfect replicas of the real life uniforms, but for others’ costumes were handmade, coordinated with the rest of their class by their teachers. My favorite group came dressed as a pile of leaves: each child was outfitted with a paper bag and crown, with handpicked leaves stuck all over them, their costumes embellished with drawings in crayon.

They had just come in from their trip outside to Duane Reade, and seemed stunned and shocked by the unusual schedule, and the building full of adults dressed as animals and characters. One by one, they approached us. A few proudly shouted “trick or treat!” or “happy Halloween!” as their teachers whispered in their ears “what do you say?” A few could manage only “hi.”

  At times work can be difficult, tedious, or stressful. That Friday, the day of trick or treating, was also the day we had a huge grant reapplication due, one that would actually be used to directly fund these preschools.

Almost all of the children at the preschool come from very low-income families, and many have developmental delays as well. In many ways they’re set up to have a harder life than I ever have. This can be easy to forget, as I see them only within the walls of the school, where they learn and play and eat and make friends, just like any other 3 or 4 year old.

Watching the kids parade around the school that day made it much easier to continue on my work with renewed energy, because I could see exactly what all the numbers and reports were meant to accomplish. 

Here, There, and Everywhere In-Between

Rachel Buckle ’13 completed her fellowship year at the National Coalition on Health Care in Washington, DC.

My mother has often remarked on how quickly her children grow up. “Oh it feels like yesterday was your seventh birthday party!” I always thought she was being unnecessarily dramatic.

Until I realized I was typing this post from my second week of medical school.

It feels like yesterday I was secretly playing with my dad’s stethoscope, trying to get a heartbeat from my beanie babies. Just last year at this time I was studying for the MCAT and frantically emailing my new boss about my start date at the National Coalition on Health Care. The space between “here” and “there” is composed of tears and disappointments, joy and celebration, beautiful people and beautiful plans. Things move fast, but on occasion you pick up a lesson or two or three and find the time to make a list. How handy!

  1. Always ask questions. Your boss, your organization, and even the older woman at the bus stop have something to share. Be inquisitive and listen intently. On the other side of that, the “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” trope is a lie. Brazen ignorance is not cute and Google exists for a reason. If your question makes you wonder if you’re about to offend a person or institution, Google, Google, Google.
  1. Fake it until you make it. If someone asks you to take a seat at the table, sit quickly and pretend that you belong there. I spent many meetings nodding enthusiastically and sighing thoughtfully while quickly jotting down acronyms to look up or ask about later (see #1). Be nervous but don’t doubt yourself.
  1. You’re a human, please act like one. This has two parts: 1) You are not a robot. Even if your job is the most amazing job in all the land you need to take a break every once in a while. Explore, pick up some hobbies, and maybe consider attending the events you RSVP to. 2) Be nice! Even if you are an incredibly competent, hardworking employee, it means nothing without a good attitude. Also who wants to go through their week scowling? If you feel that’s preferable to a sunny disposition then I don’t know what to tell you. Good luck, I suppose.

My fellowship year was eye opening, confusing, energizing, and oftentimes all of these at once. Most significantly, I challenged my perceptions of myself and learned about the importance of passion in your work. In about a decade when I emerge from my schooling bunker I plan to apply these lessons. Maybe before then even, we’ll see.

Eat Well, Live Healthy!

Karenna Martin ’15 is currently completing her fellowship year at New York Common Pantry in New York, NY.

Last week, I started my yearlong Project 55 fellowship with the LIVE HEALTHY! Eat Smart New York team at New York Common Pantry. The LH! team is the nutrition education branch of the Pantry, and we serve low-income communities throughout New York City by offering free nutrition classes both at the Pantry and around each of the five boroughs. As a Nutrition Program Aide, I’ll be helping to facilitate the lessons that we offer, which include free cooking and food safety classes, physical education workshops, farmer’s market tours, and lessons on affordable nutrition habits.

Last week, part of the LH! team took a group of over twenty people from East Harlem and the Bronx to a farm in upstate New York. On the trip, these children interacted with farm animals, learned about the process of growing and harvesting food, and even prepared a healthy lunch for their parents. For some of the participants, this trip provided an opportunity to taste many different kinds of fruits and vegetables for the first time (a few kids even branched out and tried kohlrabi, a cabbage-like type of vegetable!). Below, a couple of kids munch on some freshly picked apples.


Field Work in the Nation’s Capital

Evaline Cheng ’14 is completing her fellowship year at the National Coalition for Healthcare Reform in Washington, D.C.

My boss often says that we can get a graduate school-level education from taking advantage of the briefings, hearings, lectures, and other free learning opportunities in D.C. From the start of my fellowship, I’ve been encouraged to attend any health-related events that pique my interest. I think of this as my chance to make up for all the free lectures at Princeton that I had missed out on.

At Princeton, I spent a semester studying abroad in Panama with 18 of my peers in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. For 3 months, we spent nearly every day in the field: tracking leaf-cutter ants in rainforests, collecting sea snails with potential parasites, snorkeling in coral reefs – and I loved it. With field work, my textbooks came to life: the same scientific theories that were printed on those pages were now interacting with real life.

Celebrating in a Panamanian rain forest

Celebrating in a Panamanian rain forest

When I leave the confines of my office in D.C., I feel like I’m back in the field. At these health-related events, I have a chance to actually see what is happening in health policy. For one thing, seeing our government in action is different from reading about it in the news. I had read about ineffective partisanship in Congress. But watching Representatives debate the Affordable Care Act with backhanded (and openly hostile) comments showed partisanship at another level. When one Congressman blamed another for “starving the dog if you can’t shoot him,” I was surprised at how intensely contentious some issues can be.

Spotted in Capitol Hill

Spotted in Capitol Hill

At the same time, it’s mesmerizing to witness parts of the governing process that I’ve learned about since childhood. In the beginning of March, the Supreme Court heard arguments for King v. Burwell, a crucial case for health care and the Affordable Care Act. I waited in line for 2 hours to enter the courtroom, where I got to listen to 10 minutes of the oral arguments. Even though I was craning my neck behind a row of pillars embellished with red drapes, I felt like I was in the presence of celebrities – am I really breathing the same air as Justice Ginsburg?

Waiting outside the Supreme Court for King v. Burwell

Waiting outside the Supreme Court for King v. Burwell

With each event, I feel like I’m getting a window into the wonky world of health policy. Although I’m no longer in the outdoors of Panama, I’m still doing my version of field work – this time, in the nation’s capital!

Discovering our inner leader

Malena Attar is the Development Associate at Good Grief and a participant in this year’s Emerging Leaders program.

We often have an idea of the opportunities that await us at the start of a new career or upon acceptance into a program. I had high expectations for my experience with the Emerging Leaders program, but I can honestly say that I had no idea how life-changing it would be. As with anything that emerges naturally, the program starts within. Before our first session, we were asked to obtain feedback on our strengths. Only our strengths. Before our first day together, Emerging Leaders was already sending us a message that would be made very clear: “You are already a leader. You already possess the unique strengths that you bring to the environments around you.” On a number of occasions, our group talked about the “imposter syndrome,” the fear that we don’t really deserve to hold the positions we hold and that our inadequacies will be discovered. The Emerging Leaders program silently dismissed this from the beginning. We have gotten this far because we already are leaders, we are just simply unaware of how to position ourselves so that we can best show our strengths and succeed. To start this journey, we took the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, had our coworkers complete a 360 Review, and reflected on what gives us energy versus what absorbs our energy. The beauty of this program is that it meets once a month over the span of nine months. As we explored forms of communication, leadership styles, managing up, networking, fundraising, public speaking, we always looped back to what kind of leader we were.  It is a lot of work to undo the notion that a leader speaks, leads, works, looks a specific way. As each of the leaders in the program slowly emerged into their better defined selves, everyone benefited. Everyone in the program shared the struggles, rethinking, perseverance, and successes of each peer. In learning to work with our varied professional teams, we were evolving into our own diverse and powerful team.

This would have been impossible without the exceptional work of the AlumniCorps staff and board, and most importantly of our facilitator, Yael. Emerging Leaders is a great program as it is designed, but many leadership programs are informational and great. Yael’s delivery of the material and creation of a safe space really enabled the self-reflection, openness, and courage that is essential for growth. Each session we were asked how we felt when we arrived. There was not one session in which a number of my peers said that they had felt stressed or overwhelmed, but that being at Emerging Leaders made them feel at ease and ready to learn. We all knew Yael would be our trainer encouraging us to stretch further than we thought we could, and that that day we would grow. We did. The announcement of a number of promotions, new opportunities, workplace improvements filled the air as we met each month.

I am so grateful for this opportunity, for the Princeton AlumniCorps, and for our facilitator Yael. In being accepted into this program, each leader emerged onto a journey they didn’t know was possible. A journey with a network of hundreds of accomplished professionals, a wealth of knowledge, a family of peers that will continue to grow alongside us, and as a leader we didn’t realize we could be.