Board Member Emily Levitt. Photo courtesy of Emily Levitt.
Astoria, NY -CIANA Board Member Emily Levitt first got involved when she moved to Astoria -as a volunteer. She chats with CIANA Communications and Programs Manager Maria Eliades about how CIANA effectively helps immigrants navigate a new system, and on how being a board member allowed her to continue making an impact outside of work hours.
Maria Eliades: How did you first hear of CIANA?
Emily Levitt: I started as a volunteer. I looked on google to find a local community service initiative that I could help out during the day, because I was a student and didn’t have to be anywhere during the day. I also wanted to feel rooted to something in my neighborhood, and I always felt that volunteering is a great way to get that kind of connection.
My background is in teaching, so I was specifically looking for teaching-based work. I wanted to do something where I wouldn’t be just a pair of hands, but could use my specific skills to help.
I found a website that would hook you up with a volunteering opportunity if you entered certain preferences. It found CIANA for me based on my specifications about location and preferences for teaching.
ME: What made you decide to go from being a volunteer to a board member?
EL: I left Astoria a while back and hadn’t been able to work for CIANA ever since because of a new work schedule. A year or two after I had to leave, Emira asked me to join the board. It meant I could get back involved, and it would be something I could do outside of my work hours.
I was intrigued to join the board because I already knew how intimate the organization was from the volunteer perspective. As a volunteer I loved how every ounce of effort you put in had a direct impact; there’s nothing mediating your effort and its effects. For example, if you show up to teach a class, someone will be there. If you help out with some admin, that’s an hour that frees up Emira’s time so she can do something else. I always liked how impactful the work felt as a volunteer, and I hoped that it would feel the same as a board member.
ME: If you have developed an affinity for the cause of immigration, could you talk about how that happened and why you think it’s important to support new immigrants in New York with pro bono or low bono services?
EL: I think that the immigrants who use CIANA’s services come here to pick up knowledge about specific resources, but more broadly to pick up knowledge about how things work in New York City. Most, though certainly not all, non-immigrants depend on a network of friends and family to teach them where to go to resolve the issues that come up in their day-to-day lives. If you’ve had to leave your country and your network behind for one reason or another, you have to start from scratch to figure out how to resolve those problems. On top of that, it’s a whole new society with a whole new set of problems. So people need help to just get to the starting line of figuring out how to make a life in this city.
It’s way more effective to try to navigate these issues through organizations that keep a human scale…a place where people will know your name; a place where you can just turn up and trust that someone you already know will help you learn the next steps. That small scale is crucial to feeling like a welcoming place; and being welcoming is crucial to making CIANA’s clients feel like they can ask for the help they need.
ME: Why should people donate to CIANA?
EL: I doubt I’ve ever worked in a place where the ratio of revenue to expenditure is so high. It really feels like almost every dollar we get in goes to a specific program that will help a person with a name and a story. Just like the reason I liked being a volunteer here, it comes down to impact: every dollar has real impact here.
On top of that, the cause itself is important. So many causes are linked together: poverty alleviation, helping immigrants get settled, gender and education equality, to name a few—they really all boil down to the same issues. Because of that, I think the most important thing to think of when deciding where to donate is to determine how impactful it will be. Because CIANA is lean on overhead and spends so much money on programs, each dollar really goes to help this important foundational cause that will help make these people’s lives more livable. Then the benefits of that initial cost really radiate out exponentially into the community.