Alumni Spotlight: John Smith, NYC Health & Hospitals

Posted in News Story Spotlight

John Smith has more than twenty years of experience in education and is currently working for NYC Health & Hospitals as a Supervising Public Health Advisor in the city’s COVID-19 response. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Mr. Smith about his work with NYC Health & Hospitals, and his experience in the Certificate Program

CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with many important causes to champion, what made you decide to switch sectors?

Smith: After twenty-five years in education I realized I was curious to try something different. I wasn’t sure what I wanted that to be, but I was confident I could apply my skills and experience to many different areas. My professional and personal life has always gravitated towards the work of helping others, and that trend gave my new search some general direction.

I was comfortable in the Northeast, however, I was ready to re-experience life outside of NYC, and I began talking with some good friends who live close by, in New Jersey. These conversations helped focus my job search, and I eventually discovered a wonderful nonprofit organization in South Jersey. The idea of working in this sector had always held some interest for me, but I’d never really explored it. I began to pay more attention to how I’d always been drawn to service work, and doing so led me to my first proper job in the nonprofit world: leading an organization that helped currently and formerly incarcerated men and women improve their communication and conflict-resolution skills.

CPNL: During the pandemic, you began working for NYC Health & Hospitals as a Supervising Public Health Advisor. What influenced your decision to work in COVID-19 response?

Smith: I learned a great deal in New Jersey, including that NYC was where I really wanted to be. So after completing my stint at the small nonprofit, I took a position with a woman- and minority-owned business in Brooklyn. We helped affordable housing residents/building owners secure the planning and funding to improve their buildings with energy efficient upgrades. I began a month before the pandemic hit, and soon thereafter we were forced to close. The city was suffering, and it became increasingly clear that contact tracing would be crucial to our recovery. I was eager to lend my skills and experience to the city’s effort to flatten the curve and beat back the pandemic. Once again, I’d hoped I’d found an opportunity that aligned with my affinity for helping others. At the time there was – and still is – a significant need for qualified people to help with the city’s COVID-19 response. I was fortunate to be chosen to lead a team of Community Engagement Specialists who attempt to engage – or re-engage – city residents who have stopped participating in the contact tracing initiative. I’ve been happily working at it ever since.

CPNL: COVID-19 has exacerbated many of the injustices and inequities that exist within our healthcare system. How has Test & Trace worked to combat these issues?

Smith: We certainly see these inequities up close. My work is based in Queens, and many of the neighborhoods my team covers have been devastated by the pandemic. Unfortunately, too many of these areas are both underserved, as well as being Black and Brown communities. We see the effects of health injustices and inequities daily, and I’m proud to see how serious Test & Trace is about addressing them. It is too often true during a public health crisis that Black and Brown people find themselves last in line to receive attention and support. In our work, no zip codes are more or less important than others; no neighborhoods get preferential treatment; no last names get the short shrift. There is a serious and obvious commitment to reaching each and every person on our list.

I’m also proud of how diverse our teams of contact tracers are. There is a concerted effort to find and deploy native speakers of the dominant languages in the communities we serve. This wasn’t always the case, especially at the very beginning of our program. For example, while we began with interview scripts in several languages, we quickly realized there was a need for even more translations. Throughout there has been a clear and persistent dedication – at all levels of our operation – to find the people and resources necessary to meet our communities’ needs. And they realized that the change needed to happen as quickly as possible, not down the road when there was more time. I very much appreciate and am proud of how seriously my team – and the organization – has taken the need to respond thoughtfully and appropriately to the diversity of New York City. I’m proud of our COVID-19 response.

Furthermore, there is a focus on hypersensitivity in our community engagement. Each outreach interaction is made with an awareness of the specific community involved. While the resistance  we sometimes encounter is not typically due to a lack of belief in science or in the existence of a serious health threat, there are people we try to reach who have a historical and valid mistrust of local and federal government. We need to be aware of these complexities, and I have been heartened to see how seriously the city is taking this issue. And our organization lives this commitment. When I join a Zoom meeting and see a grid full of colleagues and supervisors that are people of color – I know this is for real. It’s pretty amazing to see, and this commitment to diversity and to addressing these inequalities is transmitted throughout our contact tracing team and out to the communities – the people – we serve. 

CPNL: What is one accomplishment you are most proud of since completing the Certificate Program?

Smith: The program helped me in so many ways, it was really a godsend. I entered the program not knowing much about the nonprofit sector, but the faculty and students were generous and welcoming (and I was not the only one new to this work). In addition to the connections I made with classmates and faculty, I am most thankful for how the program helped me craft a fundraising plan for my nonprofit. I had several discussions with Dr. Kretman about how I might approach fundraising for my organization, which was facing some truly tough decisions. We needed a robust development plan, and I made that the focus of my capstone project. Dr. Kretman helped me develop a sound, feasible course of action. She also connected me with other professors from the Certificate Program who lent me their support and guidance. I left the program with a renewed sense of confidence and optimism, along with an excellent head start on a fundraising plan. I took the capstone project from homework assignment to actionable plan, and after several months of hard work, we raised 85% of our fundraising goal. I was, and remain, quite proud of our success, and I credit much of it to the Certificate Program and its support network.

CPNL: How has the Certificate Program helped you in your career?

Smith: The Program was an excellent introduction and overview of the nonprofit sector, and it convinced me that I could meaningfully contribute to this space. And I hope to again. Although my current position (and the one before it) are not squarely within the nonprofit sector, both were service oriented. The Program taught me how organizations can better tailor their outreach to a specific community, and how community-based organizations can more effectively interact with local government. And as I mentioned earlier, I’m grateful for the network of classmates I joined as a result of the Program; I’ve reached out to them several times for advice.

I also realize that my contact tracing position with NYC Health + Hospitals will not last forever (and from a public health perspective, that’s a good thing!). I remain very interested in nonprofit work, and I’m sure I will return to the readings and notes from the course, and reach out to the contacts that I made there when I explore my next professional steps.

CPNL: What advice would you give to other professionals considering participating in the Certificate Program?

Smith: No question about it: the Program is absolutely worth the time and money you invest in it. I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who has an interest in learning the how the nonprofit world works; the curriculum is quite broad and incredibly useful. It’s also a great way to learn more about the specifics of budgeting, fundraising, and community outreach, among other topics. And don’t worry if you are new to the nonprofit sector, push past any doubts about  “knowing enough”. Finally, I almost didn’t attend the program because of the cost, but fortunately it all worked out. I strongly encourage anyone considering participation in the Program to do what’s necessary to make the financial piece work, because the experience is invaluable, and is one I’m thoroughly glad I had!