Interviews & Profiles

Empowering young uptowners to find their path, despite a tough start (like his)

An Interview with Lew Zuchman, executive director of SCAN-Harbor

Lew Zuchman, executive director of SCAN-Harbor

Lew Zuchman, executive director of SCAN-Harbor (Image courtesy of New York Junior League)

Much like our current U.S. president, Queens native Lew Zuchman is not going to stop doing what he loves just because he’s 81. A juvenile criminal turned Freedom Rider down South, Zuchman credits the righteous anger of the civil rights movement for convincing him to stop making bad trouble and start making the good kind. After becoming a social worker, he took the helm of SCAN-Harbor in 1987 and is still the executive director today (with succession plans, though!). The agency, a 2019 merger of SCAN (Supportive Children’s Advocacy Network) and Boys and Girls Harbor, is the largest youth service provider in East Harlem, Harlem and the South Bronx, serving more than 7,600 children and 1,000 adults annually with a budget of more than $20 million. Its multiple programs at 23 different sites offer everything from afterschool programs, summer camps and early childhood education to workforce development, youth education and violence prevention, food pantries and safe spaces for LGBTQ youth of color.

On January 8, Zuchman spent more than an hour talking to New York Nonprofit Media about his perilous youth, the ways he’s turned SCAN-Harbor into what he calls a family for young people with unstable backgrounds like his own, and why he has no intention of not being “Mr. Lew” to countless youth until he no longer can do the job.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lew, thanks for talking today. It's a Monday morning. How did you spend your weekend?

Recovering from cataracts surgery. I've been wearing glasses since I was six, and now for the first time ever I can see better without them than with them. 

That's great. So you are a native New Yorker?

I grew up in Forest Hills, Queens. I was a gangster, arrested by the time I was 13 and incarcerated in a juvenile facility. My goal was to become the first Jewish young man to become a "made man." My father committed suicide when I was young and my mother raised me very brutally, both spiritually and physically, so I was very angry and saw the whole world as bullshit and was very rebellious and had trouble in school. I was in the first class of what were then called the "600" schools, which put all the worst kids from each borough into the same school. There, I had many guys to get in trouble with. After that, I went to the University of Bridgeport, dropped out almost immediately and became much more involved in organized crime in after-hour places – gambling, pool halls.

But I was lucky because, just by coincidence, I saw a TV show about how Jackie Robinson resolved not to fight even when people hit him and spit on him. He was my idol as a young man – he somehow replaced my father. And this show was discussing the Freedom Rides, how the first bus in 1961 was firebombed in Alabama and whether the Freedom Rides should continue. And Jackie Robinson said, with a tear in his eye, "How can we not support our young people if they want to do this?" So because of Jackie Robinson, I went down to the CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] office and volunteered to be a Freedom Rider. I ended up spending 40 days in jail in Jackson, Mississippi.

The younger people are, the less they usually know about the Freedom Rides. Can you describe what they were like?

They're considered the first moment in the civil rights movement where young people from across the country—Black, white, male, female – came South [to march and demand the end of segregation]. And I was arrested when we got to the bus terminal in Jackson and they put us in jail for 40 days, which they thought would scare off more riders, but it didn't. Hundreds of us went again.

What were the social dynamics between the Black and white riders?

Many Blacks resented white people being on the rides because they felt we controlled the movement. Then there was tension between the religious pacifists and those of us who weren't that way. Also, we were very homophobic as a group. There were many gay riders, Black and white, who [were closeted]. There was a lot of anti-semitic stuff going on, which was never confronted correctly and which I think killed the civil rights movement. And there were young African-American guys who were gangsters. But predominantly we were college educated.

So I now had two paths in life – one to be a made man, the other civil rights. And I know it sounds crazy, but for the next few years I did both, being a soldier in the Genovese crime family and also going down to Mississippi to do voter registration, while also going to City College and being on the basketball team there. And just as I was about to graduate, I was arrested three times in one week, which was very frightening to me because the [crime] guys I worked with were worried I was going to turn them in and were threatening me. I hadn't realized I was working for such big guys. That helped me realize that I had to get out of there. 

So after I graduated, I started working at Casita Maria, a settlement house in East Harlem, as a street outreach worker for young people, fighting gangs. I was there a couple years. Becoming involved with other people who had their struggles, helping them heal, helped me heal myself and change my life.

It sounds like you realized that you could devote your life to doing good rather than being bad.

I was able to fight back in a healthy way rather than in the nihilistic way where I was going to end up either in jail or dead.

So how did you end up the head of SCAN-Harbor?

After a few years at Casita Maria, I was accepted at Columbia School of Social Work and ended up the commencement speaker there in 1974. Then I worked ten years at Edwin Gould Services for Children and Families, all the way up to deputy executive director, then I helped open preventive services at Familias Unidas del Barrio. Then I became the executive director of SCAN-Harbor in 1987 and have been here ever since.

To address this issue from the jump, there's been a lot of conversation in recent years about entrenched white leadership of agencies that particularly serve communities of color. And you're a white man who's been the head of such an agency for 37 years. What are your thoughts on that?

It's white guilt that creates that conversation, not any real desire for change. You don't change the world by having Black people on top – but by having people who understand what's being done to our communities and who understand the colonization of our profession and the world. Race isn't the answer to everything. On the other hand, I absolutely believe powerfully that, to the furthest extent possible, our staff should reflect our community and our programs should be structured in a way that gives people in the community the chance to find employment and be empowered and work their way up. Almost all of our staff grew up in East Harlem. Our board president, Jamel Oeser-Sweat – I met him when he was a 10-year-old homeless kid and we've worked together closely ever since.

What's the racial makeup of your staff? And what percent were youth clients of the agency like Jamel?

Probably close to half of the staff were clients. And it's 80 to 90 percent African-American and Latinx. But it would be foolish for us to be 100 percent nonwhite. There are white people who are exceptionally skilled at what we need. 

Okay, thanks. So, SCAN-Harbor has many programs, many moving parts. How would you summarize what the agency does?

We create programs that do not just address problems people have—that's just the beginning. Our real goal is to empower you to reach for the stars, to realize your aspirations in life. And we do that by creating family. Even when you're discharged as a case in our preventive programs, you're still a part of us. In our community, many families are broken—a parent may have died or is incarcerated. So we empower people to move up, encourage them to get their high school and college degrees. Many of our staff came to us without high school diplomas and now have masters degrees. We work with street gangs, whether or not we're asked to. We don't believe our young people are violent – they just grow up in a violent world. So we reach them from a positive angle rather than one of pathology, of asking "What's wrong with you?" and trying to scare them straight. When I was a kid, I did bad things but I wasn't a bad person. I was responding to an environment that was breaking me down. It's the same with all our young people.

Can you share a few stories that bring to life what you're talking about?

Yes. Back in 2011, it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Rides, so I brought down two busloads of our kids to a reunion in Jackson, Mississippi. We had these circles where the Freedom Riders and young people talked about their lives. One of our young men, about 17, talked about how almost his whole family had been involved in violence and criminality, how relatives had been killed or been in jail. He broke down crying. 

When we came back to New York, I called him into my office and said, "You're going to graduate college or I'm going to kill you." And he did go, but he stopped attending after a few years, even as he was working for us part-time. So I called him in and said, "If you don't go back to college, I'm dumping you. I know what you're doing out there. It's your life, but I'm not going to make it easy for you."

But it turned out that his older brother already had a masters degree and was directing one of our programs. And he said to me, "I want to hire my younger brother as my assistant." And he did. And today, his younger brother is director of one of our programs, even though he still doesn't have his college degree. I can't tell you how proud of him I am. 

Another former client was a single mother who came to us with three children and no high school degree. And today she has a masters degree and oversees $14 million worth of our programming.

Can you talk about one of your agency's many programs and what it does?

We started our LGBTQ program, W.I.S.H. [We. I. She. He.] about 12 years ago when we came back from the reunion in Mississippi. At one of our centers, we had a group of young gay men who would come use our space to vogue [a type of gay urban dancing based on fashion modeling poses] but weren't part of us. But down in Mississippi, I talked to someone I'd been jailed with who was Jewish like me. He told me he was gay and how intimidated he's been by all the homophobic shit on the Freedom Rides. I felt bad about that – really bad. And when we got back, Jeanne Mulgrave, who was commissioner of the Department of Youth and Children's Services at the time, said to me, "You have no LGBTQ programs – I wanna see you start one. You can do it."

So we did, even though we faced a lot of shit from most people in the community. We afford space to the kiki [another term for voguing, or ballroom] scene, mostly gay African-American and Latino young men. About ten to twelve ballroom "houses," one of which is a transgender house, come to our different centers and vogue and are also a part of our programs. We provide support for their ballrooms and galas.

Thank you. So what is a typical day like for you?

I live alone in Sutton Place. I go to bed around 9:30 or 10 and get up around 5:30 or 6 and read for an hour. Right now I'm reading Tolstoy's "On Life, and before that I read Kiese Laymon's "How to Slowly Kill Yourself And Others in America." Then I meditate for a half-hour to an hour, which I started doing during COVID. It's definitely helped calm me and made the world a little less overwhelming. Then I have coffee and two pieces of toast with some Nova Scotia lox. Then I get in my car and drive to SCAN-Harbor's main site at 102nd St.

The agency stayed physically open for most of COVID, correct?

I'm very proud that we physically reopened the middle of June 2020, of course with masks and safety precautions. Other executive directors were saying to me, "My staff doesn't want to come back." Some of my staff didn't want to reopen either, but I said, "This is a catastrophe – our community needs us now more than ever." We're human and we need to be together. I think teletherapy is horrible. We only use it if someone's broken their leg or something. Communicating remotely may work for a law firm but not a human services workplace. We're a family, and families are supposed to be together.

So what is a typical workday like?

I start by meeting with my executive assistant, Gabriela Bardales. SCAN-Harbor is the most important thing in my life, but I'm getting along in age and it's getting harder for me with tech and computers, and she's been a godsend. So we go over the calls she has to make and what I need to get done. Then I'll meet with our fiscal and development directors and other top staff. Then maybe I'll go to a community meeting. We have 23 sites and I try to visit five to six of them a month. I still have kids at the sites who I consider my own kids. I feel that, as the father of a family in a metaphorical sense, I have an obligation to not just sit in my office. The kids call me Mr. Lew. I love that. It shows a little respect but also the closeness we have.

When do you work until and what do you do at night?

Some nights until five, others until eight or nine. It depends. Then I go home and chill out with a glass of wine, read and watch Netflix or college basketball. I mostly buy prepared foods. Sometimes my niece or a couple of lady friends will come over.

What's the most challenging part of your job, especially as it relates to your personality?

Because I really do feel that the work we do can change the lives of our kids, at times I can be too demanding.

Has your staff told you that?

Absolutely. I have to control myself to be helpful to others. The passion I feel is mine and there's nothing wrong with it, but I shouldn't visit it on someone else. For example, at one of our centers there was a shooting. My director there, who's incredibly brave, shut the door – and they shot at her through the glass. Some of the staff thought we should close that center. But I said, "We can't do that, guys – it's all our kids have." I wanted to say "Fuck you, we're not closing." But my deputy executive director, Renee Avery, was more diplomatic. She's a perfect complement to me.

The other challenging thing for me is when everything we try to do for one of our young people isn't enough. We had a young man who came up with us since he was seven or eight. Just when he was accepted to college, he was arrested for three attempted murders, part of running with a gang, and did six to twelve years. Now thankfully he's out and working for us full-time.

What would you call your superpower as an executive director?

The way I relate to everyone as Mr. Lew. I'm not just an executive director sitting in an office.

You're the same age as our current president, about whom there is much debate about whether he's too old for the job, or at least too old to be elected again. What about you? How much longer do you want to head SCAN-Harbor for?

I'm here as long as I'm able. I'm not as physically adept as I was 20 years ago, but hopefully I'm a little wiser. No one knows the people in our community like I do – I'm embedded in it. But I've also handed over much of the day-to-day stuff to Renee.

Are you grooming her to succeed you? Does she want the job?

Yes and yes. I've been grooming her for 10 years to succeed me. I was on a panel about succession and I made a very strong point about how the deputy should always be the successor. If you're an executive director and your deputy can't succeed you, you're a fool.