Leader to Leader: Fatima Shama

A Q&A with the Fresh Air Fund’s executive director.

Fresh Air Fund's Executive Director Fatima Shama with Fresh Air campers.

Fresh Air Fund's Executive Director Fatima Shama with Fresh Air campers. Sumitted

In April, The New York Times ran a headline proclaiming, “The Coronarvirus Shows Why New York Needs the Fresh Air Fund.” This kind of positive press would be a boon for any nonprofit, but it also comes with a burden: The whole world is watching how the Fresh Air Fund navigates the COVID-19 pandemic.

The woman who bears the brunt of this burden is Fatima Shama, the Fresh Air Fund’s executive director.

Fatima joined the Fresh Air Fund in 2015, after serving in Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral administration in several capacities, including commissioner of immigrant affairs. Over the course of her career, Fatima has worked for a number of different nonprofit agencies, including Maimonides Medical Center, the Arab-American Family Support Center, WHEDCo and CAMBA.

All New York nonprofits are struggling with the coronavirus at the moment, but the Fresh Air Fund faces some unique challenges – its mission is to provide children from low-income neighborhoods with free summer enrichment experiences. Traditionally, this has included summer camps and placements with host families in rural and suburban communities. All of this work is threatened by the public health restrictions currently in place in New York.

I talked with Fatima about how the Fresh Air Fund is planning for the summer and working to take care of its staff during these unprecedented times. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. 

Berman: I hate to start with coronavirus, but it does feel like the elephant in the room. So much of the Fresh Air Fund’s programming takes place during the summer months. How are you planning for this summer, given the lack of clarity about what things are going to look like?

Shama: The Fresh Air Fund started over 140 years ago in 1877 during the tuberculosis crisis in New York. So in some respects, this is a moment that we have been through before.

I believe that children are the hidden victims of the current pandemic. Right now, they're unable to be kids. They're unable to socialize as they normally would in school. They're unable to meet new people and experience the curiosities of learning. Summer is a critical time for young people, particularly those that are under-resourced and live in low-income communities. Summer is the time when we, as an organization, have been able to invest in young people that might not have equal access to enrichment models or sleep-away experiences.

Now, more than ever, children need fresh air and they need to be disconnected from a screen and they need to be in a place where they can move around and be active, not just mentally, but physically. And for this summer, we might not be able to do all those things. We're sitting in a place of uncertainty at the moment about what the summer is going to look like. The public health landscape suggests that social clustering is going to be really hard.

Berman: So are you planning for different scenarios?

Shama: Some months ago, we started a task force to engage in cross-agency scenario planning. The first scenario was traditional summer, the way we always do it. The second was a modified model where we would start later, have shorter sessions based on quarantine rules, and not have any sleep-away experiences. And the third scenario was going entirely virtual.

We have engaged over 40 people in the organization in a series of working groups. There are just so many operational details to think through. For example, one of our departure sites is Port Authority. Would we even feel comfortable having children in Port Authority? What will public transit look like this summer? We are looking at making things borough-based, so that any departure or arrival would happen in the boroughs, not in the exclusive spots that we have traditionally used. That’s just one operational issue among many.

I want to make it clear that we are not alone in facing this challenge. The City of New York has cut summer funding drastically. Traditional summer day camps and summer youth employment have all been cut. What the summer looks like for New York City kids is literally devastating. So I've been calling people and basically trying to say, “How can we work together?” I'm trying to figure out how providers can link together to re-tool summer youth programs in the city.

We are also thinking about how we can use the beautiful pieces of property that we own outside of the city. For them to go empty would be a huge waste. How can we step forward and serve as a wellness site for frontline workers? Could we use our facilities so that hospital workers could come up and go on a hike, do yoga, and do some meditation? These are just some of the things that we are thinking about right now.

Berman: One of the strengths of the Fresh Air Fund is that you operate at scale. But I can imagine that this makes planning right now that much harder – you have to be thinking about thousands of kids as opposed to a few dozen. 

Shama: We traditionally serve upwards of 6,000 to 7,000 kids every summer. Some of them we serve through summer camps. We have to think through how to do this. It starts with transportation. There's no safe way to have 40 kids on a bus. So how many kids could we have on a bus? How would we take everyone's temperature? What would sanitizing look like? On rainy days, what do you do? It's been a very interesting exercise.

We also have our host family program, which we call Friendly Towns. Our conversations with medical experts suggest that the Friendly Towns program might be easier to operate in the pandemic because a host family could come and pick up each child and could self-quarantine. But some of our host families have expressed that they have their own economic challenges that they are struggling through. And some have shared fears of COVID being so present in New York City. So there are a lot of factors and variables that we've been thinking through. Everything that we do is with a clear focus on the health and safety of our children. I would say that right now, the landscape doesn't look promising for Fresh Air Fund doing its traditional model.

Berman: In addition to serving your program recipients, right now it feels like nonprofit organizations are also being asked to bend over backwards to take care of their own staff, many of whom are facing really challenging situations. Is there a tension between pushing staff to focus on figuring out how to do right by the kids while also, at the same time, sending a message to staff that you feel their pain and that you're taking care of them?

Shama: I started out by assuring everyone who was on staff that the Fresh Air Fund is economically secure for now. I needed everyone to just exhale and then quickly focus on our programming. For me, it was really important that our task force on summer planning included our frontline staff so that everyone felt bought into the decisionmaking. The goal was to have staff not just be told what we were doing, but actually be part of the thought process. 

But with all that said, we have to acknowledge that many of our staff are also experiencing this crisis. Their families are touched by COVID. The economic crisis is touching them directly. And so I write a weekly email to the team with some positive messaging in it. Just thanking them over and over again. We also kicked off a virtual series of “community bonfires” where once a week staff can drop in and participate in a community-building space. We have five licensed social workers on staff and I gathered them to help us create support circles. We've got two support circles happening each week. I have check-ins with my senior team twice a week. So there's a lot of connecting.

So many times I've said to the staff, “We're a service provider and our commitment is to work for our communities. We will be doing something this summer.” And it actually came back to me that people on the team were a little worried. “What if it isn't safe?,” they asked. So I have had to dial back a little on my language and my optimism, to be mindful that people are scared. I’ve had to say to staff, “We will not be irresponsible. I promise you the health and safety of our staff … it's on my mind too.” I've had to be really thoughtful. As much as I want to serve, I have to be mindful of what everyone is experiencing.

Berman: You are included in that “everyone” of course. I'm wondering what you're doing to take care of yourself these days.

Shama: I have three boys: 16, 12 and nine. And they're all distance learning on devices for a chunk of the day. I love to cook. I have generally been a savory cook, but I've adopted baking, so that has been an escape for me in some ways. I am encouraging my team to go out for a walk to get fresh air as often as possible. I need to practice, I think, a bit more of what I preach.

Berman: You took some time off to work for the Bloomberg presidential campaign. How long was that for?

Shama: I started on the campaign in December and was there through Super Tuesday when he discontinued the campaign. So I was there at the beginning. We were building the plane as we were flying it. I oversaw our national constituency engagement and coalition-building work, which was an honor but it was intense. I was working 18, 19 hours every day. I didn't see my kids for weeks. I was able to come home on March 12 from the campaign and have been at home basically every day since then. So I now get to see my kids all the time. Working from home has been a gift in some respects. Being able to have dinner with my kids every night has been really awesome. I'm not really sure when that has happened other than on weekends or vacations. It's been great to see them.

Berman: Was it hard to parachute back into essentially a crisis situation at your regular job? 

Shama: I was supposed to go back on April 1, but because COVID was unfolding, I asked the board if I could step in earlier to lead the summer task force, because I thought we can't wait. So I haven't really had a chance to think much about the transition. I just stepped back in. I needed to get the team working together in this time where everyone is working from their own spaces at home. And I wanted us to start to think in a forward-leaning manner. I think I'm feeling the crisis more now as we get closer to decision making and 40 days away from what would be summer.

Berman: You are someone who has thrived working in government, working for large nonprofits and also working for smaller nonprofits. I'm interested to hear how you have navigated those different settings. Did you feel like you had to adapt your style depending upon what kind of organization you were working in?

Shama: I'm pretty clear about for whom I work. I work for our community. I work for our children and our families. That's my guiding light, if you will. That's my north star. That's how I show up. Another important thing for me has always been being a listener. I want to always make sure I am having a conversation with our community and listening to people to understand what their needs and assets are. Those two things help inform how I behave, I hope, in any institutional setting.

Berman: I recently talked with John Raskin, the founding director of Riders Alliance, about the challenges of stepping down when you're highly identified with an organization. I'd like to talk a little bit about the reverse with you. At the Fresh Air Fund, you are following someone (Jenny Morgenthau) who served in the post for more than three decades and was very visible and well-connected. What does that feel like? 

Shama: I have benefited tremendously from Jenny’s long-standing career at the organization. She is responsible for assembling a community of generous donors and an incredible board. I recognize how lucky I was to show up in a place where so many of the things that organizational leaders are hoping to achieve were already done. The Fresh Air Fund in an incredible brand. I have lifted Jenny's legacy. I have celebrated what she has built. I'm delighted and honored to have been able to pick up the baton from her. My lived experience is different than Jenny’s. I've worked in the community. I’ve worked on public health policy. I've done education policy work. I have brought all of that experience to the table to help us grow in a different direction and really think about our purpose.

Berman: How are you thinking about tweaking the Fresh Air Fund model going forward? In some ways, your model feels very much of the moment, because it is about bridging differences and championing the value of the environment. On the other hand, your model does raise some complicated racial and cultural dynamics. 

Shama: I love the simplicity of what we do. Children deserve to be children. Very few decision makers sit there and say, “Well, kids deserve to have fun and play.” Instead, they tend to say, “Well, we need to raise their reading scores.” Okay, that's true too, but there's value to allowing kids to be kids and to actually get fresh air. That’s what we do at the Fresh Air Fund. It’s a very simple recipe.

What I think I have brought to the organization is a desire for us to make a deeper investment from a youth development perspective. One big thing I would like to see us do differently is connect with children more year round. I think it would be great for the organization to move out of just being a summer provider and start to do more academic programming.

Three summers ago, we piloted a model called the Explorers Summer Program. It was born of data. We found that a number of kids did not show up for departure. And I thought, “Well, that's really odd.” And so I asked the team to call the families and find out what happened. And the dominant reason was summer school. They had to go to summer school. And I turned to the team and I said, “What about combining summer school with summer camp? Why couldn't we do that? Why couldn't we layer in project-based learning? Why does learning have to be in a classroom? Why can't we do things a little differently?” And so we designed a summer learning model and we've done it with sixth graders for the past three years, and it has been awesome.

And then last summer we opened our newest camp called Camp Junior which is named in honor of a young man who was murdered in the Bronx. So now we have a camp for children in the Bronx ages 9 to 13. We are trying to redefine what summer looks like for a community of kids. Violence shouldn't be their norm.

But I think there's a lot still to be done. I'd like us to continue to be part of the solution, but in a real contemporary way. We need to ask, how are we being really purposeful in the work that we're doing? I think our host family program can play a role in helping to welcome immigrant families to this country. Some of this work is already happening and it is really beautiful. It's not without error and it's not without challenges, but there's really a progressive space there that I'd love to continue to invest in.

Berman: Is your board down for this?

Shama: I think they are. I've been very focused on helping them to understand where I'm going and why. You actually helped me in this process, because you introduced me to Ife Charles. (Ife is the director of anti-violence programs at the Center for Court Innovation.) I had Ife come talk to the board about community violence. I had board members crying at that meeting. So I'm moving them on the journey with me. It's been good. They’ve been very supportive.

Berman: One last question for you because I do want to end on a positive note. What's bringing you joy at the moment? 

Shama: Trees blossoming. I know spring wants to come. I planted some herbs and lettuce, and every day I’m looking to see if they're peeking out. There's an eternal desire for rebirth in the spring. That's bringing me joy. You know, this too shall pass. This COVID moment – we can get through it. I know we can get to the other side.