For this interview, Lisette Nieves (NY ’90), who at the time of the interview served as Founding Executive Director for Year Up NY, was interviewed by Amber Herman (TN ’06), Federal Partner Relations Management for Year Up National Capital Region.
Lisette Nieves (NY ’90) has been appointed the Belle Zeller Distinguished Visiting Professor in Public Policy at the City University of New York and is Social Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Blue Ridge Foundation, a leading nonprofit incubator. Most recently, Ms. Nieves served as the founding Executive Director for Year Up NY, a leading workforce and education program for disconnected young adults, where she took the site from a $250,000
seed grant to a $7 million operation in five years. Prior to that position, Ms. Nieves served as Chief of Staff at the Department of Youth and Community Development for the City of New York, Director of Grants Management and
Compliance at the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, and Senior Program Officer for the Corporation for National Service. Throughout her career, Ms. Nieves has also served as a consultant to nonprofit organizations in strategic planning, program development and management. She is the Vice-Chair of New York City’s Panel for Education Policy, a trustee of the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System, a member of the Year Up National Board, a board member for the Fund of the City of New York, and a member of the Woodrow Wilson School Advisory Council. She was the winner of a 2008 Robin Hood Hero Award and a 2011 El Diario Mujeres Destacada Award. Ms. Nieves received her MPA from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, her BA in political science and philosophy from Brooklyn College, and was a Rhodes Scholar and Truman Scholar.
Amber Herman (TN’ 06) serves as the Federal Partner Relations Manager for Year Up National Capital Region. Formally, Amber served the US Department of Agriculture as the Acting Deputy Director for the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and as a program analyst for the Office of Strategic Initiatives, Partnerships and Outreach at the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. Upon graduation, Amber served as a National Hunger Fellow with the Congressional Hunger Center. Amber is a 2006 scholar and graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in public service and administration in agriculture.
Have you always felt called to public service?
I grew up in a family that did not think twice about helping someone in need. We often had someone staying with us that was going through a rough time. Also, I went to a public high school that was about learning by doing and that included a strong community service component. For example, in my senior year, I did service one day a week and attended class the other four days. This early exposure to service contributed to my desire to delay college for oneyear and serve with the City Volunteer Corp, which was one of the few urban corps in the country at that time and became the model for City Year.
What issue did you write your Truman Scholar application essays on?
I believe I wrote about homelessness and HIV/AIDS. At that time I was very engaged in raising awareness about AIDS and HIV and also including more physical manifestations in the definition so that we women could be represented and access needed resources. At the time, there was so much misinformation being published by The New York Times and people were dying and leaving behind families. I was acutely aware of how policies were creating social, moral, political and economic impact.
You are a Rhodes Scholar. Tell me about your experience?
My experience at Oxford was in stark contrast to my time at Brooklyn College. I came from a poor, working class background and was accustomed to first generation collegiate peers who attended the local city or state university and worked many jobs while attending classes. The Oxford cohort represented a very different class, whose parents had college degrees and an understood the nuances of accessing the best of the education system. For me, the experience was a lesson in class segregation but also one of what issues can truly bring diverse classes and races together.
After earning your degree at Oxford, why did you choose to work in public service?
When I graduated from Oxford, I weighed a few offers. Although I have nothing against the private sector and recognize its value in the economy, I wanted to be part of a movement. I had an opportunity to serve on the start-up team for AmeriCorps. Of course, it meant I got paid the least of my Rhodes Scholar peers. However, I was able to live and work in DC and be part of a social movement to engage citizens in helping transform theircommunities. It was an exciting time to be part of a team working on real solutions.
Looking back on your career, do you see any trends?
Every job I had was either a start-up or a turnaround. When I look at a job description, I look for the opportunity not yet written on the page. I take joy in building something new that didn’t exist before. I like being part of a vision and making it come to life. I have been blessed with jobs that have impact. I strongly believe that public service jobs are as competitive as the private sector. However, in public service people are willing to make trade-offs since there is such a great social return in working in a mission-driven organization.
What career advice do you have for other Truman Scholars?
You create the opportunities that you want to see happen. Your reputation and everyone you come across can become a critical person in your future. Do not let life just happen to you – instead lead it. We are not passive recipients in our lives – we are the ones that help drive the direction and provide opportunity for others.
As an Executive Director, what advice do you have to other Trumans managers?
It is not always about the content of your work but how you get things done. Relationships matter. You have to be committed to encouraging talent to thrive. The change you want to make is not about you but a team of people you have working along side of you. If you have a gift to inspire and build, then seeking out other talented people and spending time cultivating relationships and talent is the best gift you can give to yourself and your mission.
What inspires you to take on a new challenge?
I love what I do and am blessed with a role that has impact on people’s lives. I never want to be the founder that is so tied to the organization that no one else can see themselves in that role. Emotionally it is hard to leave behind something that you created and built but there are other opportunities to take advantage of. There is also value in stopping to reflect, write and coach others.
How do you make value choices that impact your career?
I ask “what are your values and how do you want to represent them? Do you want to represent them through family, volunteer work, professional life or all three?” For me, what gives me happiness and fulfillment in being engaged in the transformation of lives and being part of a movement for equity. I will not compromise my values, but I have made trade-off’s in other areas.
What is the next chapter for Lisette?
I am my best when I am fully 100% engaged and my work compliments my life. I am my best when I have people around me that are dedicated to changing lives. For now that means I will spend more time with family as
well as more time working on equity issues from the influence/policyperspective. I have accepted a two-year full-time appointment to be the Belle Zeller Distinguished Visiting Professor in Public Policy at the City University of New York (CUNY). Under this position, I will be teaching as well as providing two city-wide lectures a year. Also, I have accepted a federal appointment on an education commission looking at the academic issues for Latinos. Lastly, starting next month, I will continue to support leadership in the nonprofit sector as a “Social Entrepreneur in Residence” at the Blue Ridge Foundation working with our great colleagues in the field.