Director of Educational Programs Liana Grey in Athens Square, Astoria. Photo: Maria Eliades
When you hear that Liana Grey not only shares her experiments with food on her blog, Baker Without Borders, but also that the educator and baker started CIANA’s popular Friday cooking program at its SONYC Middle School After School Program, you get the impression that the educator and baker is exactly where she needs to be as CIANA’s Director of Educational Programs.
The New York native’s experiences in education, communications, and baking span from her formal education at NYU and her time at the Institute of Culinary Education – a top culinary school that has hosted instructors like Julia Child – to her masters in childhood education at Pace University and to her work in the New York City Public School system. But her time in non-profits has been among the most formative, Grey argues.
“If you have the background in best teaching practices, bringing that knowledge in can really improve enrichment activities,” Grey says. “I think there’s this tendency of not thinking about the needs of the learners in the best possible way. The key for the little kids is classroom management and making them good citizens. You learn a lot about that in public school teaching. You learn a lot about working with the parents. And you learn a lot about working with the system. I know what they’re getting in school and what they’re not getting in school so that we can support them.”
Grey with students showing off the sweets of their labor. St. George's Episcopal Church, Astoria, 2017. Photo courtesy of Liana Grey.
Grey’s involvement with CIANA began long before her current position, in which she works with all of CIANA’s educational programs for adults and children. In the summer of 2016 while she was in graduate school, Grey passed by St. George’s Episcopal Church in Astoria and saw a sign for CIANA’s middle school program. She emailed CIANA’s Founder and CEO, Emira Habiby Browne, on how she could get involved.
That Habiby Browne responded right away signaled to Grey that CIANA was the sort of small and agile non-profit that could really respond to clients’ changing needs. When Grey started working with the program, she used her culinary background to create the beloved CIANA Cookbook, which proved a particularly helpful exercise for one of the students who was being bullied at school.
CIANA's SONYC Middle School Program doesn't just help students with their studies. Friendships form, too. Photo: Karen Smul
Ahmed, a 7th grader, was having a hard time adjusting to his school when he came into the program according to Grey. Through the cooking program she started, the student identified food as a particular passion.
“By the end he was able to cooperate with other kids in the camp to make the cookbook, prepare the meals for the whole community,” Grey says. “So he went from being very isolated and combative to being cooperative and respectful.”
Another student, Ibrahim, was a bully at school who constantly got in trouble. He became a part of the program in 2017 and also found the cooking classes and some one-on-one counseling. Grey says he's improved greatly, now talks about wanting to become a lawyer, and applies himself more to his schoolwork. Grey believes this is the strength of non-profits, where a program director has the “freedom, creativity, and flexibility to design exactly the curriculum and program” that works best for the children at hand, but also of the strength of CIANA, where she and others in the programs can build up children’s self confidence so that they see themselves as capable people.
The result is a child who is motivated for the rest of his or her life, which is particularly important in communities like the ones served by CIANA where students may not have adults coaching them aside from their teachers and parents.
As CIANA’s Director of Educational Programs, Grey wants to expand the current educational offerings of the elementary and middle school programs into high school, such as preparing those students for trade school or college, and helping them along that way. But she’s also very interested in bolstering CIANA’s adult education to integrate civics and “real world relevant topics” into its ESL classes since education is a cornerstone of CIANA’s holistic integration model.
Tutoring at the Elementary After School Program on Halloween. Photo: Skyler Reid
In the meantime, Grey will continue to cook with the middle school students to bring them together on Fridays and beyond.
“The kids may not know why they like cooking, but there is something very nice about kids from different cultures preparing meals from each others’ culture,” she says. “They keep wanting to go back to those recipes. It’s this way for them to connect to each other.”