Public Service Forum Hosts Executive Director of The Fresh Air Fund

by Megan DreherEditor-in-Chief

On Wednesday, November 6, students gathered in Kelly Commons 4C for a Public Service Forum, which encouraged students to consider job opportunities working in the public sector post-graduation. The event included panelists from three different fellowship programs in the New York City area, along with an opening address from keynote speaker Fatima Shama, the executive director of the Fresh Air Fund.

The Fresh Air Fund is a 140 year old non-profit agency that provides free summer experiences for children in the New York City area coming from low-income communities. Through opportunities such as summer camps, host family programs in rural and suburban communities across thirteen different states and year-round academic enrichment programs, students are given a safe space to enjoy their summers as well as support both at camp and in the city.

Fatima Shama joined the Fresh Air Fund as executive director after serving as senior education policy advisor from 2007-2009 and as commissioner of New York City’s office of immigrant affairs from 2009-2013 in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. Back when she joined the administration in 2006, she spearheaded a special initiative focusing on the intersection between health care, language access and literacy. It is in this area of work that Shama found her “why,” her reason for working in the public sector. She encouraged those present to also find their “why,” and work for that in whatever capacity necessary.

“The first piece of wisdom I want you to walk away with is what matters to you? Think of a moment or an issue – you’re in this really important time in your life and you’re developing these really thoughtful ideas about what matters to you. Is it the environment? Is it people? Is it school? Is it education? Is it inequity? Is it human rights? Is it human rights for a certain community of people? Is it animal rights? What is it? These are the moments where all of those things are developing for yourselves based on an experience or an opinion or an emotion,” said Shama.

Shama’s personal “who,” or the people she wished to work for, never changed throughout her career. Coming from an immigrant family, she saw the discrimination that many hardworking immigrants faced on a daily basis, strivers that were committed to their families, their neighborhoods, and their livelihoods. Her “who” became people like her parents. She worked for children and families, but more specifically worked to ensure a parent’s hopes and dreams get realized for their children, no matter what background they may come from.

“I knew for a fact that there were thousands and thousands of people like my parents who were constantly forced to naviScreen Shot 2019-11-10 at 7.03.57 PM.pnggate systems who didn’t have the linguistic capacity but were brilliant people. My dad was running and owned three different small businesses in the city. He was committed to so many things, including his children’s education, he was committed to success, he was a neighborhood ally, he was committed to making sure those people who couldn’t afford to get food got the food from his grocery store, he was such a community leader in his own way but he couldn’t go to the hospital and get the services he needed because he couldn’t navigate that system – and so my commitment to this policy space was born out of my own experience. I figured out that I needed to do policy to change it,” Shama said.

The two aspects that have consistently changed throughout Shama’s work is her “what” as well as her “how,” the way in which she serves the community and the steps she takes to effect change.

“When you invest in people, they invest in you. When your school invests in you, you will continue to invest in them. You walk away with that really great pride. This city, when you invest in people, they are really proudly New Yorkers. How do you facilitate that? So I was on the team of people who thought about those things but I was focused on a population, not on an area,” said Shama.

From her work in the Bloomberg administration, Shama was able to learn about effecting change through policy. Her educational background, her passions and her prior work in government gave her much insight for her role as executive director of the Fresh Air Fund, still focusing on her “who.”

“This is a place where my educational background, my health background and my commitment to community really comes together. It’s also a place where we really get to talk about the world today, in what are the realities of the have and have nots. So I have brought to this work a commitment to think about our “who” once again and the vehicle, the what and the how, happens to be through summer experiences,” Shama said.

Shama’s inspiring story of her journey in the public sector led into discussion facilitated by Rob Walsh, senior advisor for strategic partnerships and organizer of the event. Students also heard from NYC Urban Fellow David Caiafa ‘19, Neighborhood 360 fellow Vincent Wiedemann ‘19, and Coro Fellow Michael Lukauskas. Each strongly encouraged work, either professionally or voluntarily in the public sector, and echoed Shama by reiterating the fulfilling nature of their work.

“This sector does everything from the arts, to healthcare to human services, to youth development to education. I encourage you in this chapter of your lives to think about what do you care about? Who do you care about? And how do you, in whatever way, want to make a difference? You can do it in a full-time way, you can do it as a volunteer, you can do it in so many different ways,” said Shama.