Liberal Studies at the NYC Mayor’s Office (feat. Julia Gruberg)
Alumni Aloud Episode 6
Julia Gruberg is a graduate of the Masters in Liberal Studies Program at the Graduate Center, and she works at the Center for Faith and Community Partnerships at the NYC Mayor’s Office. She got this position after taking an internship with the New York State Assembly Graduate Internship Program.
If you feel inspired—or even curious—about the New York State Assembly Graduate Internship Program, you can find more information on the New York State Assembly website.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Julia speaks to us about the satisfactions of working in the public sector, and how academic training prepares you for a wider range of career possibilities than you might expect.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: You’re listening to Alumni Aloud, a new podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career and the advice they would give current students. This series is sponsored by the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development at the Graduate Center.
ANDERS WALLACE, HOST: Julia Gruberg graduated with a masters in Liberal Studies from the GC. She’s working for the mayor’s office in New York at the Center for Faith and Community Partnerships. She got this job after interning with the New York State Assembly, specifically the Edward T. Rogowsky Internship Program in Government and Public Affairs.
In this episode, Julia speaks with us about the satisfactions of working in the public sector and how academic training prepares you for a wider range of job possibilities than you might expect. She’s interviewed by myself, Anders Wallace, a PhD candidate in Anthropology here at the GC.
Could you tell me your name and then a bit about what you’re currently doing for a living.
JULIA GRUBERG, GUEST: Sure. My name is Julia Gruberg, and I just graduated with my masters in Liberal Study, and my focus was in Political Science and Sociology. I was in the International Migration and Global Cities track.
And now, I’m working for the city. I’m working at the mayor’s office. I’m working at the Center for Faith and Community Partnerships, which is a relatively new office that started in April. And we connect faith- and community-based organizations with different city programs and partner with them to help get city services to all the New Yorkers who could benefit from them. And at the same time, we bring what they need that they city is not providing, try to bring their feedback back to City Hall, and get them better set up with what they need.
WALLACE: So, it’s channeling city services through these faith-based and community organizations?
GRUBERG: Yeah, exactly, like we’re using houses of worship and community-based organizations to – kind of as a conduit – and at the same time, we’re a conduit in the other direction for them, with their concerns, to get back to City Hall and the mayor. So, we’re a big presence at town halls. The mayor is holding a town hall in every council district for – until by the end of the year, so, we have 21 more to do. And so, we’re at all of the town halls along with other DAU staff. And a lot of times, if someone’s having an issue they can come and we can kind of be a clearing house and help direct them either to the appropriate agency or we can help them solve their problem.
I mean, you definitely see a large block of the city. I mean one of the things I’ve learned is that you can’t pigeon hole or put into a box any religious denomination. And even though we all like to think we don’t do that, there’s of course intensive bias and historical interactions that I have that I bring to my interactions with other people, but the reality is it’s just such a back section of people within every religion.
So, that’s been very informative.
WALLACE: Could you speak a bit about how it is you came into this work role that you’re currently doing?
GRUBERG: Yeah. So, last year I was an intern at the New York State Assembly in Albany. They have a very robust internship program with about a hundred undergrads, and there were eight or nine grad interns. So, I was a graduate intern, and it was great. I had a ton of experience and just was put in to so many different situations, really just doing the work of a legislative aide with an assembly member. And that was great because I had – my background before I entered the grad school there was in community organizing and working in non-profits. So, I was really excited to be kinda on the other side and see how funding decisions get made and how legislative decision gets made.
So, after doing that, I wanted to continue working in government and was just thrilled to have an opportunity to work at the mayor’s office.
WALLACE: That’s sort of a natural progression then from working in Albany in the internship.
GRUBERG: Yeah, definitely. You know, they would have been happy to have me stay on in Albany, but I live down here, my family’s here, so I couldn’t stay up there. And then, it’s very different work in the district from being in the chamber. Totally a completely different world. I would say that they work I did upstate was maybe a little bit more intellectually stimulating because I had a lot of latitude in doing my own research to, you know, when I would make a recommendation on a bill or agitates or something that I thought was really important to the assembly member, participated it in in a working group or something, I could bring some skills I had at writing and present them effectively.
I mean, that’s definitely happening now too. I’ve only been on the job for like six or eight weeks, but I’m doing a lot of the writing for the team. And so, one of the main differences is that now I have a lot more like [inaudible] [00:05:09] constituent relationships. Whereas upstate it was – all the meetings that I took with or on behalf of the assembly member were with extremely high level workers in different parts of the government on the private sector.
So, now, it’s different. I’m one of those government workers and I’m not high level. So, it’s like a different group of people that I’m interacting with now, but that’s so good.
WALLACE: Can you talk a bit about your academic background and where you were – you mentioned doing the masters at CUNY and could you speak a bit about that and how that maybe then fed into your current work?
GRUBERG: Yeah, sure. I went to Sarah Lawrence as an undergrad, so, I’m really into independent research and spent about six years before I went back to grad school because I wasn’t sure what kind of degree program I wanted, and I actually – I mean, I graduated in ’08, which was – the recession happened right then, so it was a really terrible time to finish undergrad. And I felt very much like there’s no place for a Liberal Arts degree, and it was like, oh, man, and it was really like, I’m not gonna get a job and what am I gonna do? And so, I went abroad. I studied abroad during college, so I went back to where I had studied abroad with the intent of doing –
WALLACE: Where was that?
GRUBERG: That was Nepal. So, I went back to the part of Nepal that I’d been in before where I still knew a bunch of people. It was only like three years later. And I had the complete intent to do epigraphic field work and just kind of document the lives of my friends in this village, and then kinda do some kind of comparative project, maybe a video project, just see what’s going on, you know?
GRUBERG: And then, I went there, and I didn’t do any research. But instead got very involved in Dharma, and so, became just really focused on religion –
GRUBERG: – before I came back. Yeah. So, it was very good experience, but not academic. So, I came back to the US, I got involved with community organizing, and after doing that for a few years, as a member, leader of a faith-based organization, I was like, I should – I want to go back to school and I thought, what am I really gonna do, am I gonna get a PhD? I don’t know if I can really think about the enormity of doing that.
GRUBERG: It felt pretty overwhelming. And I worked in non-profit communications and I was like, definitely not interested in doing that anymore. I couldn’t handle the stress over what felt like minute things, and also a complete lack of control over larger goals, organization-wise. That was also because of the kind of organizations that I was in. They weren’t modernizing.
So, okay, I don’t want to do non-profit communications, I don’t really want to work in the non-profit sector. I just can’t imagine myself being really fulfilled like doing nine to five kind of experience. So, back to grad school, which is when I found Liberal Studies, and I thought, oh, this is great, what I want to do is study the intersection of immigration and labor because a lot of – particularly elder care and domestic work – because a lot of what I had been doing as an organizer was working with immigrant domestic workers in New York and particularly in the Nepali community.
So, that was kind of how it all came together. And so, I was like which track do I do within Liberal Studies? And finally, I just settled on the International Migration track, which was great. And I got a very robust background in that. And I wrote my thesis on the history of domestic worker organizes.
GRUBERG: So, that was with a political science advisor. And so, that’s been really great because now in my current work, we’re working with different groups of – I’ve worked in different capacities in the past, putting on Know Your Rights training for domestic workers.
WALLACE: So, it’s almost like the circle has come back around.
GRUBERG: Exactly because, luckily, in this position, I have the opportunity to engage with CBO’s and faith groups however my skills allow me to.
GRUBERG: And I have this like deep relationship with different worker and employer groups in the city. And a lot of those groups are either ethnic solidarity or faith-based groups. So, it’s been really great to be able to take the skills and the special views I developed in grad school in this position.
WALLACE: What skills and knowledge that you gained in grad school have you found useful in your current work?
GRUBERG: Definitely writing, analytical skills, being able to parse information and identify credible sources. Like right now, we’re doing a lot of work around federal budget, so, being able to read and synthesize information and then translate it into something that’s understandable by people who maybe don’t have a masters degree. Time management, people management –
I went to a lot of career management seminars, and I can’t remember who, but someone at one of them was talking about how a lot of the skills that grad students don’t necessarily think of as being applicable outside of grad school actually are definitely applicable outside of grad school, like working independently, and having a deadline, and being able to take information from one context to another, and definitely in politics.
WALLACE: Yeah. I think that’s really important advice. I think so many students don’t grasp that these are skills in and of themselves. So, it’s good to have that reminder.
Could you talk a bit about like what’s a typical day in the office?
GRUBERG: Yeah. I would say probably about a third of my time is spent meeting with constituents, or clergy, or directors of CBO’s. So, we figure out ways we can partner with each other, there’s some long-term planning going on. We figure out ways we can partner with each other in terms of what services do we provide that they could use. So, like getting – for example, with the domestic workers, making sure that employers know what the laws are, that if you have – if you are hiring somebody you have to pay them overtime at x number of hours.
So, yesterday I met with Council on Poverty, which is a major organization that does a lot of social service work. They have career readiness programs and we work closely with the Department of Small Business Services, so we could like hook them up with trainings on MWBE Certification or workforce development initiative. So, it’s like they’ve got an audience and we’ve got a product, and we can bring them together.
WALLACE: Mmm, yeah.
GRUBERG: Or them just kinda listening to what clergy are saying the needs of their community are. So, a couple of my colleagues, they just formed a homelessness prevention working group, and they had two nights last week where clergy and CBO leaders came to our office and did like a two-hour kinda brainstorming session about like what kind of information would you like to see in the toolkit?
WALLACE: The toolkit?
GRUBERG: The toolkit for clergy and CBO leaders. When their members, or clients, or congregants, or whatever, are coming to them and saying – in a housing crisis situation – like what do they need to know?
GRUBERG: And then we can tell them that they haven’t been able to find in one place before, you know? So, compiling information on whatever different topics people are asking us to have the information about.
And then, as I said, we work a lot of mayoral events, whether it’s parades or town hall meetings, things like that. We’re able to call our own task forces, so I’m working in an intergovernmental capacity with Department of Health and the City Commission on Human Rights and my department on creating a toolkit for clergy who are interested in becoming or affirming to LGBTQ community members.
WALLACE: Oh wow, and you –
GRUBERG: Whether it’s actually members of their congregation who are queer in some way or like family of their congregation who are queer and the family’s saying, I don’t know what to do about this.
GRUBERG: So, we’re reaching out to state leaders. I mean, we’re not telling any one what their beliefs should be, but we’re just saying if they have a need, the community has a need for being respected in a house of worship that they want. You know, we have the connection to all the clergy, where like the mayor’s relationship with houses of worship, so we’re all equally as often propelling the work forward, and developing a toolkit, and the invite list, and figuring out how do we facilitate a group of 40 people from different faith backgrounds and different familiarity and comfort levels with the LGBTQ community, how do we help them talk to each other and come out of this feeling like they’ve spent four hours in a productive way.
WALLACE: What do you wish people knew about your work that they might not really get from a first impression?
GRUBERG: Well, that’s a really great question. Before I worked at the Assembly, I remember I would see things online about call your senators, call your something numbers, whatever, and I always felt way too intimidated to do that, even as someone who is a lifelong activist. I was very nervous and shy about who’s gonna answer the phone and felt like I wasn’t equipped necessarily to talk with them.
So, working upstate and getting calls from constituents all day long, then it was like, oh, it’s just me; I’m the person who’s answering the phone. It’s someone just like me who’s answering the phone, in the sense that it’s an employee of the government who works for the constituents. It’s just a regular person who’s totally happy to answer the phone call, give me the information I’m asking for. And especially now that there’s so much going on in DC, you know?
WALLACE: Mm-hmm, yeah.
GRUBERG: We see these calls all the time online like, call so-and-so, and it’s made me feel a lot more empowered. So, it’s just normal people who work in the government.
I also didn’t quite understand how many people there are, but there are a lot of employees. It can be kinda of – you can be very isolated, very siloed, from different work in different departments. So, I think that they City is, as a whole, moving toward making sure that the communication [inaudible] [00:14:50] is better between the departments so we’re all doing the same thing.
I’ve been very lucky to have great flexible supervisors in both these positions, the Assembly last year and now, where I’ve had a lot of freedom and responsibility. So, it doesn’t feel like drudge work, it doesn’t feel like everybody’s trying to get out of there at 5:00. It’s really people who are committed to the work because it takes a lot, it takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of time. We were trained we have 12-hour days, and that’s like, I did not think of myself as someone who wanted to do that before. But I have found I love the kind of group element of it. I love working together with people in a way that we are all on the same page toward the same goal type of thing, and it’s really like a club, it’s like the strong sense of comradery.
And also, something I love about working in government is it’s extremely diverse on every front, race, age, class, where people live now, what people’s interests are, who they’re exposed to and familiar with. I’m often the only white person in the room or the only upper middle-class person.
GRUBERG: The thing that is constant is most people are born and raised New Yorkers.
GRUBERG: And I am, so that’s always good. It’s like we all went to public school. It’s New York. It’s all of New York working for New York and that feels great.
WALLACE: A sense of community.
GRUBERG: For sure.
WALLACE: And what is it you find most rewarding about your job? Anything else or the challenges? So, the pros and the cons?
GRUBERG: I really also love how much independent direction and control I have over what I’m doing.
WALLACE: Yeah, yeah.
GRUBERG: Of course, there’s somethings that I just – you know, we all have to do certain kinds of work, but I feel like I get to lead these initiatives that I’m really passionate about, like this Know Your Rights training, I’m playing a big role in the LGBTQ faith initiative. Those are the two big things I’m working on. And also, I have a background in web design, which I did as a freelancer for 13 years. We do not have a website yet even, so, I’m working with our IT department to move the content forward, and I feel like I’ve asserted myself in a way of saying, I’m a writer. And so, I’m given the latitude to do a lot of the writing.
WALLACE: Was there a point that you thought of having a life in academia or did you always know that your training was gonna lead you outside of academia?
GRUBERG: I mean, everything you hear is about how it’s impossible to get tenor at a school you want to be at, and once you’re number one of the number one of the number one. And so, I never though I would be a professor the way I had professors [inaudible] [00:17:15], the idea of having to constantly be in a publishing situation.
GRUBERG: Publish or perish, right? If I don’t have that motivation, that’s gonna be really hard for me. And I’ve always wanted a life that I have a lot of my own time to do my own stuff outside of work.
WALLACE: Mmm, yeah.
GRUBERG: Which is why, I was saying before, I was shocked that I am not miserable if I have to stay until 6:00 or 6:30, I’m okay with that because I like the work so much. And I mean, maybe that would have materialized in academia too, but it felt difficult to imagine that. And also, never really having the affinity for teaching I don’t think. I have a little bit of stage fright, so I can’t – I’m not interested in that. So, I mean, I love being in school so much, so I definitely haven’t ruled out the idea of possibly getting a PhD, but then I don’t think I would take that PhD and go into academia. I would probably bring it back to policy work.
WALLACE: Are there any skills that you recommend that GC students might look into acquiring if they’re interested in work in government?
GRUBERG: I mean, so different to be in a work place environment than to be in a classroom. I think it made a huge difference to me that I took time off between undergrad and grad school to be in the quote real world. The kind of language that we use in the academic classroom and the way that we interact and argue with each other in positive ways, does not translate necessarily to work in a public sector. So, that’s definitely something to keep in mind.
GRUBERG: Being able to engage with people on different levels.
WALLACE: There are things, is there anything that I didn’t ask that you want to sorta share, or contribute, or you think might be useful?
GRUBERG: Yeah, I definitely just want to say that I – I mentioned earlier that I’ve been to a bunch of the career services events and one of them was so, so helpful. I think it was like two years ago, and it was like an all day, Alt-Ac conference, and there were professionals from all different fields. And you just kinda could go around to different sessions. And it was great, and it made me feel like I can do anything, I’m equipped to – you know, if I have these basic fundamental skills of research, writing, people, person skills, soft skills in addition to tangible knowledge about a certain issue, I can do anything. And I could pitch a show and work at CBS and be a producer, or I can run a think tank, you know?
GRUBERG: So, I felt extremely empowered from that, and having now worked in government and been extremely warmly received, and have people say, oh, wow, you have an interesting background, stuff like that. And it’s just like, what, I just went to this rinky-dink program at The Grad Center that has stuff like legal studies, you know, [inaudible] [00:19:57] and liberal studies. But it’s actually been really great.
GRUBERG: And it’s so cheesy, but to be limited by what you think you can do, there’s so much more you can do.
WALLACE: That’s really great advice.
GRUBERG: Especially, like it was a huge turn from graduating at the beginning of the recession in ’08 and being like, there’s no place for me, there’s no place for liberal arts, like STEM, I should have done STEM. And now, being like, actually I’m succeeding in the career path that I want and I have multiple other paths to choose from if I want.
WALLACE: That’s a wrap for this episode of the Alumni Aloud podcast. Coming to you from the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development at the Graduate Center. Be sure to stay tuned for more perspectives from alumni across fields that are working in academic and non-academic jobs. Also, be sure to look up our online resources at careerplan.commons.gc.cuny.edu. Like our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter for updates from our office. Thanks. See you next time.