Vivien Schweitzer in Athens Square, Astoria. Photo: Maria Eliades
CIANA Board Member Vivien Schweitzer is a journalist, pianist and author whose book, A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera, was released in September 2018. She got involved first as a volunteer teaching civics and ESL and then joined CIANA’s board. Communications and Programs Manager Maria Eliades chats with Schweitzer about her CIANA journey and why she fundraises on behalf of CIANA.
Maria Eliades: How did you first hear about CIANA?
Vivien Schweitzer: I found it on Volunteermatch.com after I moved to Astoria and was looking for something local to get involved with. So I emailed Emira Habiby Browne, the founder and executive director, met her, and started teaching ESL three years ago. I switched to civics at one point and then joined the board in March 2018. I still teach ESL.
ME: Is there an eagerness to learn in the classes?
VS: I think there's definitely an eagerness to learn. Even if their English isn’t great, the students really make an effort to master immensely difficult vocabulary and concepts in the civics classes. Some of them have a fairly low level of education from their home countries, and now they’re not only tackling challenging material in a foreign language but they’re also studying material that the vast majority of Americans don’t know either. You can really tell that they’re putting in an effort to learn.
ME: What inspired you to become a board member in addition to teaching?
VS: I guess I was curious. I’ve never been on a board before, and I was interested to see how it all works, what boards do, and how nonprofits are run.
It’s one thing coming in once a week as a volunteer and another being on a board and looking at budgets. I’d never done that before. You realize that there are a lot of pieces of the pie that come together even in a small nonprofit.
ME: Had you volunteered before with other organizations prior to moving to Astoria?
VS: I had done various volunteer things and I still occasionally volunteer at a homeless shelter run by the Quakers in Manhattan. My parents did a lot of volunteering, and I went to a school that really encouraged volunteering, so I grew up thinking that it was a worthwhile thing to do.
ME: Can you talk about some of the challenges that CIANA has gone through in your time here?
VS: I think it’s hard for volunteers to commit to something that's ongoing, especially if they are working. I would love to be here every week, but sometimes I just can’t get here in the day because of my work schedule. So I think the lack of continuity with the volunteers and the endless fundraising to try to cobble together the basics is a real challenge.
ME: What do you think would change this problem of sustainability?
VS: Big funders need data, which is hard for us to get, and hard for a lot of small nonprofits to get. We can say to a funder: “We help all these people, they love our classes and we’re reaching out and giving them something,” but I think until we can say “Ten of our ESL students got jobs or have done this,” we won’t be able to secure the bigger funders. So it’s a catch-22 cycle: you can’t hire staff to do the work necessary to collect data because you don’t have the money, but then you can’t raise the money because you don’t have the staff.
ME: Given these challenges, why should someone donate to CIANA?
VS: We offer a very familial, friendly, nonthreatening, non-judgmental environment for people who are marginalized; whether it’s the fully veiled woman or the Mexican man who can’t speak English very well. We have people from all around the world, every possible type of person, including Central and South Americans, Bengalis, Brazilians and many students from Egypt, Yemen and Morocco. It’s a very eclectic mix of people and I’m guessing that this is quite rare. I do sense that people enjoy being here and that they feel comfortable and welcome, especially at a time when America isn’t exactly giving out the welcome beacon.
ME: What made you decide to help raise money for CIANA?
VS: I’d been teaching here for a few years, and after meeting all these students and seeing how much they enjoy the classes, and what they get out of them, I decided to donate. My experience at CIANA made me realize that the organization is doing really important work.
My maternal grandma was an immigrant from a small mining town in Wales. Her parents were not well off at all. She moved to New York with her husband as a young woman and eventually became the principal of the United Nations International School in Queens. She was an immigrant success story. Because she worked at the United Nations, I grew up with this idea that multiculturalism is what we should be aiming for, and that the best societies are multicultural and welcoming.
My paternal grandparents were German-Jewish and became refugees in England. I’ve never had any such hardships in my own life, but in the not-so-distant past, my family were refugees. In England, many German-Jewish refugees were suspected of being Nazi sympathizers -including my grandfather and great grandfather, who were arrested because of that suspicion and imprisoned on the Isle of Man. I think a lot of countries historically have a terrible history of judging people who are fleeing some place when they’re just coming here to start a new life and have better prospects for their children.
So I have deep sympathy with the refugee cause, and believe strongly that immigrants can move here and do great things, as they so often do. Every element of our society relies on immigrant labor, so I think it’s deeply hypocritical to be hostile to that when they’re doing the jobs that many Americans won’t do.