Lisa Gitelson is not one to shy away from change; in fact, she embraces it. In Gitelson’s 25-year career as a lawyer and child welfare advocate, she has served as the former assistant executive director and legal counsel for The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, where she managed various aspects of the organization, and has served as the former associate executive director at the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, where she initiated collaborations with foster care, juvenile justice, residential care and prevention services agencies.
Now, in her new role as the CEO of the Fresh Air Fund, she will be spearheading the 145-year-old youth development organization that serves over 1.8 million children in New York City – and working to expand its portfolio.
Gitelson sat down with NYN Media to discuss her new role, what keeps her passionate about child welfare work through transition, and what she hopes to achieve as the new CEO of the Fresh Air Fund.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did your passion for child welfare ignite and what are the common themes in your life that made you CEO of the Fresh Air Fund today?
My whole family is made up of social workers. Both my parents, my brother, my sister-in-law, many of my aunts and uncles are social workers – and I have cousins who are social workers as well – so I just thought that was what you did. Initially, I wanted very much to be a social worker, but my parents encouraged me to also consider other ways of impactful work. I spent a summer when I was in college working for Gov. Mario Cuomo. One of the things he did every week was bring in a different commissioner to meet with the student interns. One day, he brought the commissioner of The Office of Children and Family Services. He was an attorney and he was the first person who made me understand that I could be an attorney and do child welfare work. I also spent four summers working at a sleepaway camp from when I was 15 till I was 18 for special needs children. That also was really formative for me going into the field of child welfare. I really do believe that the stronger our youth are, the stronger we all are. Every young adult, every child who meets their full potential, makes the whole world better. It makes the world better for them and it makes the world better for everyone around them.
What are some leadership lessons you’ve learned about serving New York City’s youth?
I learned at one point that I really, really love change. I get excited by change and I love possibilities. I love looking at what the best practices are, figuring out how we can change what we’re doing to get to a better place. Change is not what everybody feels comfortable with, but I think to do our work well, we have to constantly be self-evaluating, look at what we’re doing and figure out if we are doing the work in the best ways possible. If we don’t constantly evaluate what we’re doing, evaluate how the work we’re doing sits with those that we’re partnering with, if we don’t meaningfully look at who we are and how we’re impacting or what we hope to impact then you won’t really ever get to the place you want to be.
The most important thing about serving youth is listening to them – and hearing where they are so that you can meet them where they are.
How have you managed your career transitions in a way that has allowed you to stay true your commitment to child welfare?
My underlying passion is that I want to be in partnership and create impactful change for children, that makes the world different and better for everybody. That's what gets me up every morning. What really gets me to the office every single day is that every job that I’ve had, I’ve had the opportunity to learn something new and I learned something new not just from the work that I get to do but from the people that I work with. I find it extraordinarily important that in each position that I’ve had, I’ve taken the opportunity to learn from my colleagues, to know who they are, what makes the work passionate for them and how they do the work. I’ve also learned what it is that jobs have offered me with regard to skill sets that I don't have. I very intentionally throughout my career also will identify areas that I don’t know something about, and will look around the community of people I work with, I will then sit with them and pay close attention. I’ve made people mentors without telling them that they’re my mentor. There was a woman that I used to work with who could walk into a room with 20 opinions and walk out with everybody agreeing to the same thing. Everyone I work with has something to offer and paying attention to what it is they have to offer and identifying what new skills there are so that I can learn from others have really, for me, made me continue to be invigorated in the work. When I started out, I was really doing direct service and I’m not in anyway doing direct service anymore. You have to find the points along the way that still feed you and feed the passion that you bring to the job.
How did the pandemic affect your sector and how did you overcome the challenges if any?
I’m feeling the chills of remembering what it felt like on March 13. 2020, when we really began the huge pivot. At the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, our job was to support the 54 child welfare organizations in New York City that were members in doing the work. And the first thing we realized was we still needed to continue to be out in the field. There wasn’t going to be a moment where we stopped doing the work, and I’m not equating the staff to firefighters or police officers, but I am equating them in the fact that they had to go out every single day, still to go into homes, to make sure that children and families were safe. And at some level, they needed to do this even more because of COVID and all of the dangers that were surrounding everyone. So, I spent a tremendous amount of time advocating with the city and getting support staff PPE. I was very lucky in that, although I was working extraordinarily hard, I wasn’t having to go out into the field and I reminded myself every day that my work was to support the work of those going out into the field and doing that type of work. My heroes were people that were going out and doing social work in the midst of something we had never understood or known before, and it was really, really powerful.
I realized because we had a lot of staff that were both going out to the field and working in residential settings, we had a very high ratio of staff that ended up having COVID. I actually also had a pretty serious case of COVID that lasted for about nine weeks. I didn’t have anybody else to talk to about this and I didn’t know how other people were feeling and I felt extraordinarily isolated and terrified. I started a support group for all of the child welfare staff that had COVID or had recovered from COVID and we met once a week, and we created a community of people who were experiencing COVID together. I felt extraordinarily grateful to be able to participate in that work as well.
What do you envision for the Fresh Air Fund moving forward?
What brought me here was the opportunity to impact New York City, youth and families. Again, I always see the work as a partnership, I don’t see this as work that we bring to them. I see this as work that we do in connection with the community and in partnership with those that we serve. I think it’s extraordinarily important to always remember that we serve these families. We serve these children. It’s not the other way around and it’s a really important tenet for me. I have seen the impact of engaging in these kinds of activities, both the summer activities and the year-round activities. I know I mentioned this earlier but I spent four summers at a sleepaway camp for special needs kids. Most of those kids were New York City kids, and it was transformative for the kids, but I want to say, also, it was transformative for me. And for the staff here, it’s the same thing. It changes you and makes you a better person in your opportunity to be able to serve without question. I grew up in a home that was all about social work, so I always knew about the Fresh Air Fund. The opportunity to come to an organization with such an incredible history of service to children and families was one that was extremely exciting for me and the way that the Fresh Air Fund has increased, what they do as a youth development organization to include meaningful year round services for the children that are underserved is extraordinary and exactly what I think a youth development organization should be doing. The opportunity to lead a group of people that believe deeply in youth development, the opportunity to be with others who feel passionately about this work and the opportunity again to partner with our children and our families in the communities that we serve are what brought me here.
The two goals that I would say I have for the Fresh Air Fund are that we continue to define who we are as a youth development organization. And in that definition we continue to look at the portfolio of year-round opportunities that we offer and while we currently offer a rich array of services, we will continue to look at that and offer any services that we think will be what our partners that we serve look for. Additionally, I would love for us to increase our footprint on how many youth and families we’re serving. And I know we have the capacity to do that as well. And when I say increase the footprint, I mean here in New York City. I’m a New Yorker and I want to make sure we’re serving as many as we can in our city.
What is the legacy you’d like to leave?
I would like to leave a legacy of passion about the work. Of mindfulness, attentiveness to what the work should be, and of continual evaluation. Meaningful evaluation to make sure we continue to always offer our programming. To create the deepest partnerships that we can with New York City so that we continue in our service. That the teams that are here are teams of people that work together in meaningful ways to do all those things I just described. To leave a culture of work, of professionalism. Where we listen to each other and work together, meaningfully.