Social Welfare at StoryCorps (feat. Lisa V. Gale)
Alumni Aloud Episode 69
Lisa V. Gale received her PhD in Social Welfare from the Graduate Center and is now the Chief Program Officer at StoryCorps.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Lisa talks to us about why every individual’s story matters, the benefits of asking those around you what career they see you having, and the value of a CUNY education.
VOICE-OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
SARAH HILDEBRAND, HOST: I’m Sarah Hildebrand. I’m a PhD candidate in English at the Graduate Center and a fellow in the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development. In this episode of Alumni Aloud, I interviewed Lisa V. Gale who graduated from our PhD program in Social Welfare and is now the Chief Program Officer at StoryCorps. She’s going to be talking to us about why every individual’s story matters, the benefits of asking those around you what career they see you having, and the value of a CUNY education.
So to get us started, Lisa, would you mind telling us a little bit about StoryCorps, what their mission is, and what your role is there?
LISA V. GALE, GUEST: Certainly. I guess plainly put, the mission of StoryCorps is to preserve and share humanities’ stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. Organizationally listening is very, very important to us. People hear StoryCorps and they immediately think about the telling of stories, but for us, there’s much greater appreciation for the listening aspect. So that’s one thing that I want to draw from that mission.
The second thing is, is that everyone’s story matters. There’s this tendency when you think about media and you think about people whose stories are told. They’re the famous. Or they’re the infamous. The notion that you or I or our friends, people who work with us, people who work around us, our neighbors. There are stories everywhere, and so, we’re about trying to encourage as much as possible the opportunity for people to share and to preserve the stories so that future generations can appreciate them.
And you know, what we do toward that mission is to figure out ways in which we can create environments where individuals can have what we consider to be the conversation of a lifetime with their loved ones.
This interview experience is kind of central to all that we do. The interviews that I’ve described tend to be about 40 minutes in length and individuals will talk about a range of different things. Facilitators are listening for whether there are stories that possess characteristics that make them appropriate for further editing. Not every story that we collect is edited. I mean, we have collected stories of, 600,000 people have gone through this experience thus far. And about I’m going to say less than 1% of these stories are edited by producers—edited to three-minute nuggets. Dave Isay, our founder, refers to them as poems because they really capture the essence, the beauty. But there’s a story—a beginning, middle, and end that actually provides some revelation about the circumstances, the lived experiences, the remembrance of who we are in aggregate, who we are as a society. Anyway, these stories are edited and air weekly on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition broadcasts.
The final thing that I’m involved with is, is research and evaluation. Research and evaluation is critical and in thinking about my role and coming from the Grad Center, the person who was the previously first Chief Program Officer did not have research and evaluation in her portfolio. Here comes the PhD, let’s give her research and evaluation to boot. And it’s fine. We collect data about our participants, trying to understand, first of all, if we’re doing what we think we are doing. Meaning that we think people are having the conversation of a lifetime, but are they really? What are they talking about? Is it working for them or are we doing the things that we think we’re doing? Should we be changing it to adapt to changes in the environment or in terms of need?
And second and perhaps more importantly is the outcomes associated with this work. Time and again people will report to us that they find themselves feeling closer to their interview participant, feeling after they’ve heard a broadcast that they are more aware and sensitive and more empathetic to the circumstances of people who are not like them. So we continue to collect information from our touches with individuals in the context of the interview, in the context of their interactions with our content through broadcast and visual means, in the context of our work with community partners, ever trying to understand the impact of our work on the radio stations that we’re working with. And when we talk about our initiatives, are we in fact able to reach as broadly or as deeply as we want to? I mean, you can have aspirations, but it doesn’t mean jack if you don’t have the data that supports that you’re actually achieving them.
HILDEBRAND: So I’m wondering how it is that you got to StoryCorps? What did you do between graduate school and now getting into your current position?
GALE: Well, when I was at in graduate school, I was working four days a week so that I could have that fifth day for writing, frankly, working in Upper Manhattan supporting organizations that provide skills training for individuals who are not part of the workforce. So workforce development, skill, skills, training. And so you get your degree. And you feel, emboldened, I mean, you feel, I mean, it’s a significant accomplishment to get your degree. And after you get beyond just the fewf I did it right?
You’re going to say to yourself, well, I want to do something now and I was looking for something really meaty.
I did think about academia. There were some challenges. I was not really interested in moving.
The pay scale would have meant a severe cut to my life. I couldn’t make that work with all of the responsibilities that I have at home. So I began to look around for different positions and believe it or not, I applied to an ad that I read about in a nonprofit newsletter to be Deputy Commissioner in New York City. Now, you know, you apply to these things and whoever thinks, right? But it sure did sound meaty enough. Well, I got the job. And the process was I applied, I was interviewed two or three times.
There was a really long waiting period because it’s a whole lot of vetting that goes on when you’re accepting a job at that level of city government. And I was hired to be Deputy Commissioner of Employment Services for New York City Human Resources Administration.
Now this just jelled on a couple of different fronts. One, it’s the place where social workers are. For people who just have that social services inclination, that’s where they are at HRA. Two the organization at the time, there was a relatively new commissioner and was interested in rethinking the employment end of their work trying to figure out ways in which it could be shifted so that it could be more client focused and anchored in the client circumstances. And previously there was a lot of emphasis and there’s has to be emphasis on federal mandates, but to also be thinking about the individual was part of the charge. And so under at the time that I came in, they knew that they were about a couple months away from having to rethink their contracts with the organizations that provide the skill building, workforce development skill building training, and connections to employment.
So I was involved with writing the RFP for that, helping to author the RFP, helping to bring in an assessment system for clients that would help us to understand where they were so we didn’t just take them and drop them into jobs or take them and drop them into training. Let’s assess them and try to figure out where they are. And rethinking the work experience program, which provided the needed engagement in work activity that met the federal mandate that all individuals who were able to work should be working, but unfortunately wasn’t really calibrated to opportunities that were satisfying to the clients. And it’s a question of how is it helping them evolve to a place where they could get a job. And so we did some rethinking about that as well.
So I got to that I think, like, I applied, I’m sure having the PhD contributed. Unquestionably it was a big, big job, big big, and when I say big big, the time commitment, I mean, I worked 12–14-hour days regularly. And truth be told, I live in New Jersey, I moved during the week and lived in Brooklyn during the week and then on the weekend would come home. My kids were in high school and I figured, hey, high school kids don’t want their parents anyway, they don’t want to have anything to do with their parents, so what’s the big deal? I didn’t realize that not only would they they do need your parents, well, I knew that, they do need their parents, but I missed them and it got to a place where it was really wearing. So I was working in this high-octane job, but I was a little heartbroken at the same time missing my family, so I decided to leave. And I wanted a job that was equally meaty and substantive where I could see my kids much more regularly, a little bit saner in terms of my approach to it. And I saw an ad for StoryCorps, and I had been a listener, and I just applied. So it’s kind of like for all the people who talk about the importance of relationships and networking, they’re important, but mine haven’t borne out though, because I literally have applied and just got in positions.
HILDEBRAND: I can’t believe that it happened that quickly, that you just applied to StoryCorps, and that was it.
GALE: Well, you know it’s kind of like I saw the ad and maybe, like, I want to say in the Fall. I interviewed a couple of times. I started in February.
HILDEBRAND: That’s great. What do you think it was about your experiences at the Graduate Center that helped you achieve that position? Was it just having the PhD? Was it certain skills that you picked up along the way?
GALE: It was the degree plus. Some of my background I think contributed. I had worked in media before, so this wasn’t the first time. The sensibility about thinking about organizations. I mean, there was an appreciation for that which I know about organizations that I think they were looking for me to kind of bring in that, I think I’m going to say with as much humility is as I can muster, you know I spent a lot, I know a lot about organizations, so I was able to kind of like approach conversations in a way that didn’t feel like I was being brought along as much because I knew the organizational context so well. I also, the studies, my studies in Social Welfare were really anchored in three places, right? Research. Just understanding research, of course, to earn a PhD. Social policy—all of the things that affect the welfare state. And then management.
So I was able to speak to those pieces of my work at the doctoral level. I think it resonated for folk and philosophically, and this didn’t come from the Graduate Center, it’s just always been the things that I’ve been driving for, my mission is around allowing voice for all sorts of people. It’s really important to me. And two, providing access to opportunities. So, I came in with a bit of a critique about how could the organization push even further. It made significant accomplishments, but how could it reach into Latinx communities and Asian communities and the degrees to which the model can be adapted so that it speaks to these, I was able to talk like that because of my history, but also I’m thinking the way in which a lot of my thinking around this coalesced as part of my doctoral studies.
HILDEBRAND: And if there are any graduate students who are looking to follow in your footsteps, if they’re finding your work as a Chief Program Officer to be very enticing, or if they’d even like to work at StoryCorps, are there any recommendations you have for things that they could do to boost their resume?
GALE: I think as much as I made my statements about networking, a lot of thinking about how I stepped to positions comes from the conversations that I have with peers and colleagues. I love to ask people what do you see me doing next? And I get some surprising things. I’m not going to say I follow all of them, but it does provide some sense of how I’m perceived, so I encourage people to kind of think about ways, particularly while still in school. There are folks all around you who are watching you, who are observing you, who are helping you, who you are helping and I think the way in which we get to those last two elements, is by having some pretty direct and authentic conversations about how we are perceived.
I believe firmly in recognizing our past. So I bring that into every single conversation and would encourage all students to always hold onto that. Their past, of course, the credential that you have or are about to get will be invaluable, but your history is just as important and your origin story is one that needs to be told. The PhD opens doors unquestionably. Your resume, and when you think about a pile of resumes, the ones with a PhD I think do get a second look. So there is that opportunity that people will just, you’ll stand out as someone with a PhD. But after you’ve gotten into the conversation, then what?
I encourage people to talk to folk around them, go to the websites. I mean, one of the things that I started doing post degree is there were certain organizations that I admire. And I would stalk them online a little bit to find out what positions they have available. I’ve done the informational interviews; They’re useful. It’s a good exercise when you’re trying to figure out how you tell your story. If you talk to someone and you’re able to get information about a particular organization, but I’m going to say these conversations, stalking the places that seem interesting to you, applying in a lot of different ways. But those are a couple of the thoughts that I have about how you do that.
HILDEBRAND: I love that piece of advice you gave about asking your peers and colleagues what they see you doing. I feel like that’s something that as soon as we hang up this call, I’m gonna go and ask the next five people what they think.
HILDEBRAND: Because I think a lot of the problems that graduate students sometimes have as they’re getting ready to graduate is that they don’t even know what’s out there. So it might be helpful to get these perspectives of other people and see…
GALE: Absolutely. Getting it from colleagues, getting it from faculty. I had a, a large part of my discussion during my defense was about what I would do after. And I had this esteemed group of faculty all focused on me for about an hour. That was awesome. And to have them say things, you know, again, I haven’t pulled the trigger on all of them, but it was very helpful and I took that to heart.
HILDEBRAND: Do you have any last pieces of advice for graduate students? Things that maybe you wish you knew at the time, or things that they should be doing while they’re still a student?
GALE: Plan for your post-dissertation defense activities. I think you’ve worked so hard to get to this place and it’s hard to be able to see what’s going to be on the other side. So definitely begin to think a little bit, particularly as you approach your defense of like what do you want and have a couple different scenarios. I mean, generally, I’m sure it will go fine, but you know, have a couple scenarios that allow you to kind of celebrate this time.
I have never, and this is going to sound so like I’m brown nosing, I’m a CUNY baby and proud of it. I just really am. Went to Baruch undergrad, went to Hunter College School of Social Work grad, and now the Grad Center or finished at the Grad Center where I got my degree. There are all sorts of people out there who will make statements, particularly upon leaving about where you got your degree and its value and blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. I stand strong with the value of the CUNY education, the quality of the CUNY education. So there are times when you’re in the middle of it and it’s kind of like why am I here? Why am I doing this? Or whatever, whatever, whatever and, and particularly it’s not the Ivies or all that kind of thing, but you know what? It’s a damn good education. And as I was going through it was having my moments of, ABD is not a bad status to have, you know? But I said to myself no, no, no, I’ve got to, I’ve got to finish this. And so there are moments when you feel like, “I don’t know,” but just stand strong. You’re in a great great network or a great great family of students and faculty who are happy to support you.
HILDEBRAND: I think that’s some perfect advice to end on. So on that note, I would like to thank you so much for coming in and sharing all this great information with us, and I hope that we get to hear from you again soon.
GALE: Thank you so much. It’s been my pleasure Sarah.
HILDEBRAND: Thanks again to Lisa for coming in to talk to us about how she’s put her PhD to work. The Office of Career Planning & Professional Development can help you decide what career path is right for you. Find a list of our upcoming events or make an appointment to speak with one of our career advisors at cuny.is/careerplan. You can also follow us on Twitter @careerplanGC. Thanks for listening.
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