Harlem’s Sheena Wright never thought her first two weeks as the head of the city branch of United Way would be spent assisting the recovery efforts following Superstorm Sandy.
In fact, her first day on the job — Oct. 29 — was when the storm hit. Ever since, the new president and CEO of United Way of New York City has been busy leading relief efforts — primarily in Coney Island — and she’s somehow found the time to get acquainted with her new staff and begin digesting her new responsibilities.
“I thought that there were some things that needed some attention sooner rather than waiting until mid-November,” said the South Bronx product, who has lived in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem for almost 30 years. “I actually wound up starting on the day the storm hit.”
For her first week, the United Way office on Park Ave. and E. 33rd St. didn’t even have power. But the work continued, and Wright was asked by United Way Worldwide to lead the recovery efforts for all of the United Ways impacted in the region.
Wright, 42, admits that starting in the midst of such daunting tasks wasn’t easy, but says she didn’t panic. “This is what we’re built for,” she said. “This is who we are.”
Wright comes to United Way after serving as the president and CEO of Harlem-based Abyssinian Development Corp., a post she held for 10 years.
Wright is also making history: She is the first woman to the lead United Way of NYC in its 75-year history.
Much of Wright’s work in the early going will continue to be centered on disaster relief, though she hopes to focus her long-term efforts on strengthening low-income communities.
According to figures provided by the United Way, poverty has been on the rise for three straight years in the Big Apple, where 21% of New Yorkers are considered poor (meaning they earn salaries under $11,500 or $23,021 for a family of four) and one in three city children lives below the poverty line.
“This hurricane has certainly impacted all of those areas in a very significant way,” she said, noting the large number of low-income residents who were touched by the disaster.
“We’ve been doing work on the ground; on the front lines,” Wright said. “We work with almost a thousand non-profits across the city . . . so certainly a part of our strategy was making sure that those organizations have the tools and resources that they need in order to meet those needs.”
One of the groups with which they have been working is Coney Island Lighthouse Mission. She said the agency’s building was devastated by eight feet of water inside its space.
“Part of what the United Way’s work is making sure organizations like that . . . can get back on their feet,” she said, adding that United Way volunteers helped them to clean out in the Sandy aftermath.
More than 6,000 volunteers have visited the United Way website and signed on to help with the relief, Wright said, noting that the organization has deployed about 800 into some of the hardest-hit areas, including city housing projects. The volunteers have gone door to door, bringing food, water and blankets.
“We are very, very focused on some of the urgent immediate needs,” she said. “But more so on the long-term recovery needs.”
Wright said she’s been well prepared for the responsibilities of her new position, comparing it to her work with Abyssinian.
“It’s very similar: It’s community-building work,” she said. “The work I was doing in Harlem involved income support, workforce development, education, community organizing, housing issues . . . and this is all that stuff, but blown out across the entire city.”
And she expects to be ready for the challenges of her new role.
“I think it was perfect preparation,” she said of ADC, a nonprofit group of Abyssinian Baptist Church that is dedicated to assisting the Harlem community in areas of housing, education and youth development. “It was really a great training ground.”
Wright, a lawyer who graduated from Columbia University, said her new job should not be viewed as a farewell to the communities to which has dedicated much of her work.
“A lot of our community-based organizations or partners are in Harlem today, and I expect that as our work expands over the years, that our presence in Harlem — and communities like Harlem across the city — will expand as well,” she said.
“Harlem is my home, and it’s very much a part of who I am, and will always be.”
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