Classroom Inequality: Bridging the Gap at Breakthrough

​​Pursuing a Fellowship at Breakthrough Greater Boston was a natural next step after college, given my passion for alleviating classroom inequality. Majoring in sociology ignited my passion and revealed a sense of connection to the field as I pursued an undergraduate degree. My studies uncovered many social patterns that contributed to personal challenges I originally thought affected me by chance. As a Black, second-generation immigrant from a working-class, single-parent household, I recognized my own experiences with sociological concepts. The connection between child-rearing styles, socio-economic status, and classroom inequality was a particularly interesting topic that provided an explanation for the challenges I faced as an underrepresented minority attending a predominantly white institution. 

As I assist in middle school programming, interacting with students who attend the same middle and high school I graduated from... it often feels surreal to contribute to the outcomes of students that I see myself within.

Literature on classroom inequality suggests there is a causal link between a family’s socioeconomic status, their understanding of classroom expectations, and the way they teach their children to navigate their academics. This can critically affect the course of a student’s education journey, especially when compared to their wealthier peers. To counteract these roots of classroom inequality, programming at Breakthrough involves an intensive academic curriculum from middle to high school, tiered social-emotional development, and exposure to college—with hopes of assisting students in building a college-going identity and skills for college success. Students experience these layers to Breakthrough via afterschool programming in the fall and spring, all before our rigorous summer program. The full day of classes and research-based programs that Breakthrough students complete throughout the six weeks directly combats the achievement gaps that widen during summer vacation. 

Breakthrough’s early academic intervention works to dismantle and replace harmful academic messaging that students may have received, all while celebrating student identities in a close-knit community that values academic and social-emotional health. Breakthrough cultivates a setting in which students foster a personal love of learning and hone their sights on getting to college, where they can feel confident to succeed. Breakthrough’s college success focus encourages academic skills and social behaviors that promote persistence and college graduation. From entering the program in seventh grade to their transition to college, Breakthrough students demonstrate executive functioning, critical thinking, and self-advocacy: skills that working-class students must exhibit to level the unequal grounds of the college classroom. 

With an in-depth understanding of the perpetuation of classroom inequality, Breakthrough’s mission of inspiring enthusiasm for learning as well as creating paths to and through college stood out to me when I was selecting which Fellowship host to apply to. It was important to me that my future host organization was committed to intervening in the academic trajectories of working-class students, allowing them the privileges of their middle-class counterparts through their long-term, life-changing programming. As I assist in middle school programming, interacting with students who attend the same middle and high school I graduated from in my own small community within Boston, it often feels surreal to contribute to the outcomes of students that I see myself within. When I reflect on the role of Breakthrough in my community, I am certain that if I had participated in the program I would have been more prepared to face the stratified challenges of my predominantly white institution. 

Witnessing Breakthrough’s impact firsthand fuels my dedication to shaping positive student outcomes and addressing classroom inequality for future generations. My journey with Breakthrough Greater Boston is not just a Fellowship; it is a commitment to making a lasting impact on the lives of students and fostering a more equitable educational landscape.

Jahmali Matthews

Jahmali Matthews

Jahmali (she/her) is the Marketing & Communications FAO Schwarz Fellow Breakthrough Greater Boston.


Leading as a Young Person

The training rooms are packed. These young people, after weeks upon weeks of applications, interviews, and deliberation, have entered the Wall Street office space of the New York | New Jersey market for the first time. Like their peers across the country, they have placed their trust in one permutation of a national workforce development organization, hoping to empower themselves as they journey further through their young adulthood. These young people are at Year Up.

Could I, a mere 22 year-old that scrambled out of college three months before, serve these fellow young people with any degree of competence? Was my age going to be a burden in my work?

No, it was an asset.

There’s a certain tension in the air. They have come in the most professional outfits they could have mustered for the moment, even as your own shirt collar has begun to chafe your neck. These young people are wracked with nervousness, one you are fighting with every passing second. They are looking at you, and the PowerPoint behind you, for answers. How do you manage the expectations of several dozen twenty-somethings, each eager to progress forward in their lives and succeed?

Answer: Charisma, a thoroughly organized schedule, and pizza lunches. Lots and lots of pizza. What else can you expect from Lower Manhattan?

But the first ninety days of my time at Year Up’s New York | New Jersey market have not only been marked by shuffling pizza boxes around the office, but something infinitely less greasy– a harmony between data and direct service, and the hard work of putting largescale ambitions into incremental action. Year Up prides itself on its “feedback culture,” a system in which staff, students, and the organization at large are able to engage in conversation addressing both strengths and growth areas. For the FAO Schwarz Fellow in New York, this means tackling data at the macro level: organizing surveys for literal hundreds of people. And as with any FAO Schwarz Fellow, this means engaging directly with the population you serve.

When I came to Year Up in July 2023, I had been managing my own expectations as a fellow. I knew I liked working with data, and I knew I was good with working with people. I knew, based on the experience of the previous fellow Nia Atkins, that I could expect a lot of both. I knew that LC Lookback, an event wherein staff use the outcomes of the previous cycle to plan towards the next, was something she worked with often. When I was then asked to conduct research for the August 2023 LC Lookback, only a week into my tenure, I accepted it as part and parcel of my role. Sure, it was a daunting project that required precision and close collaboration over a mere month– which for non-social scientists, feels a little like cramming for a test the night before– but I earned my BA in Sociology from research I eked out in rural New England. This was something I knew I could do. This was a chance to begin doing data analysis with tangible, immediate impact.

August rolled around. LC Lookback came and went, and I presented, showing off my comically long slide deck to fellow staff members. This I had received academic training for. You acknowledge your biases, limitations, and blind spots. You work towards substantive conclusions given the human-centric data you gather. I felt a little proud of the instances where I worked in more qualitative data, sprinkling open-ended answers from participants in-between colorful graphs and numbers. Here was a strength (They really like in-person programming!) and there was a growth area (They really don’t like not getting in-person programming!). Data was data, and to a reasonable degree, I felt confident in handling it.

One LC Lookback down, something like 3 to 4 to go, right?

What I wasn’t so sure of was how direct service would turn out. Unlike some of the other fellows, I wasn’t working with children: on that first day of Orientation, in came participants as young as 17 and as old as 28. Some of them were parents. Others had just finished their Associates’ Degree. The average age was 23. I knew that because I had looked at the demographic data beforehand, trying to see where and how that data would inform my job.

Could I, a mere 22 year-old that scrambled out of college three months before, serve these fellow young people with any degree of competence? Was my age going to be a burden in my work?

Answer: No. It was an asset.

When I got up before those dozens of participants– in-between the program managers and instructors admittedly much more relevant to their day-to-day– I cracked a joke. Then another. And with an awkward flourish of my hand, I had the room smiling, chuckling, and engaged. That’s important when there’s a long road between the start of the morning and the afternoon pizza party. “I’m Avery Trinidad, and I’m gonna be the one to flood your inbox with surveys in a few months.”

Hey, I guess I still knew how to work a crowd. Kinda.

On the way to a break, a participant brought up his hand for a fist bump. Then another, and then another. It turned into a (short) line. I obliged. Trust is important in direct service. It takes a while to build it. It comes in many forms, after all.

Avery Trinidad

Avery Trinidad

Avery Trinidad (he/him) is the FAO Schwarz Fellow at Year Up in New York City.


Natalia works with children and their families at an event at the Museum of the City of New York

A Day in the Life of a Fellow at MCNY

9:00-9:15 – Grounding 

  • I start my mornings by checking my email, responding to any messages, and planning my schedule for the day. I find this routine really grounding because I know exactly what I need to do and when to do it throughout the day.


9:15-9:45 – Field Trip Prep Time 

  • Most, if not every morning, I will be leading field trips for K-12 audiences as part of my direct service work. After I’ve grounded myself in my goals for the day, I will take time to prepare materials that students will engage with throughout the experience. Our field trip materials include a wide range of historical objects, iPads with videos, and arts and crafts materials. 
  • I will also review the information about the group to best tailor the experience to their needs. Sometimes the teacher let us know ahead of time that the students are studying a specific topic related to the gallery, so I will make sure to include that topic as a discussion point in the tour. 
  • I will often teach more than one field trip in a day during the academic year, so I will prep materials for my second field trip at this time if needed so that I am not rushing later on.


10:00 – 1:00 – Field Trips 

  • Depending on the time of year, I will teach one or two field trips a day. Each trip is an entirely different experience. Some of the variables that make each field trip unique include the student’s prior knowledge and interests, their grade level and previous museum experience, the gallery we are visiting, the time of day they visit, or even the weather. Developing my arsenal of teaching strategies has taken lots of practice, experimentation, and collaboration with other facilitators on the Education team. 


12:45 – 1:00 – Clean Up! 

  • Once all of my field trips for the day are done, I will put away materials that I took out for the day. I will also make note if we are running low on supplies and replenish them so that they’re prepared for the other museum educators who may need them.


1:00 – 2:00 – Lunch

  • When the weather is nice, I will eat lunch in Central Park! The Museum is across the street from the Conservatory Gardens, so I will often sit on a bench in that area. Now, having worked at the Museum for a year, it’s been really fascinating to see and learn how the gardeners change the landscape over the seasons. 


2:00 – 5:00 PM – Special Project Work Time 

  • In the afternoons I have dedicated time to work on my special projects. These projects change throughout the year depending on the upcoming programs and gallery rotations. Much of the special project work I do is collaborative, and I really appreciate the opportunities to work and learn from my colleagues!  
  • Field Trip co-development – One of the special projects I have been working on is co-developing a field trip for our upcoming exhibit People, Place and Influence: The Collection at 100. Part of this work includes selecting objects that students will interact with, identifying the types of engagements we will have students participate in, and selecting the main concepts we want students to take away from the field trip. 
  • FAO Foundation work – I will also work on projects for the FAO Foundation. The projects I have worked on this year include creating a graduation book to celebrate the second-year fellows upon the completion of their fellowship, preparing to present for prospective students, planning for the upcoming New York City retreat, and more.


Natalia Wang

Natalia Wang

Natalia (she/they) is the FAO Schwarz Fellow at the Museum of the City of New York.


Significant and Measurable Growth: Reflecting on My Two-Year Fellowship

Approaching the end of my Fellowship, I have had several opportunities to reflect on the soft and hard skills I have gained from this experience and have been most struck with the significant and measurable growth I have seen in many parts of my professional and personal journey. This experience has afforded me incredible opportunity and leadership in programs and advocacy impacting children and families of New York City, while learning from a powerful community of advocates relentlessly invested in improving the lives of children through robust early learning opportunities. 

The Fellowhsip was a fantastic opportunity to remain in my passion area at the intersection of direct service and policy, while growing the skills I needed to be a more capable advocate and professional.

My direct service work through Jumpstart’s Community Impact team wove direct service components with helpful elements of strategic planning, development work, and more. We focused on expanding the role of Jumpstart services to fit specified community needs, to broaden our scope of service and connect with community partners in schools and beyond. Through the team I have gained valuable experience by planning and executing the Family Academy series with schools in several New York neighborhoods, navigating both a virtual and in-person programming format that created opportunities that engaged many families and caregivers as they built early literacy skills alongside their children. These events were some of the most impactful of my Fellowship, helping to build deep bonds with families, children, and school-based professionals who helped to support and implement our programing.

Additionally, participating in strategic planning through NY community coalitions like City’s First Readers and the Reads Initiative sharpened my skills in advocacy and coalition-building for more effective direct-service programming, gave me additional experience in supporting the grant and funding cycle for programming, and created lasting relationships with a powerful community of advocates.

Through my special project work in the Policy and Government Relations team, I have gained experience in both lobbying and advocacy for issues impacting the early childhood education field and was given incredible opportunity for leadership in supporting our New York Policy agenda build-out. The most impactful parts of this work over the last year have included the roll out of a bill supporting the Federal Work Study community service set-aside, including the exciting introduction of our bill in the 2023 House of Representatives legislative session. Supporting our team from the preliminary stages of drafting our legislation, to lobbying for the role of paid community service with legislators and using coalition- building skills to support and convene a broad coalition of organizational support around our initiative, made for an exciting experience that has reaffirmed my passion for policy advocacy and collective action. 

Beyond direct experiences in work, relations with both colleagues and mentors played a powerful role in my development as a Fellow. My supervisors and teams became excellent sources of support and leadership and took an important role in allowing me to discover my unique interests in our work, take leadership in key projects, while problem solving around challenges. Having these integral relationships early in my career with senior level professionals offered great opporunities for leadership and to learn from the stories, experiences, and support of those around me. These lasting connections will continue to empower my work beyond my current organization as I continue in educational advocacy. 

Beyond this, working in the education policy arena was a power experience to witness collective power in action. Working with coaltions of advocates, organizations, and program managers across New York City was not only a heartening experience to see the power of our collective voice and programming to improve access to education and resources for families, but to see the ability of groups to leverage the voices of educators, families, and organizations for real and measurable change. These lessons in the role of mentorship, the power of collective action and the skills I have taken from key projects will stay with me through the course of my career.

With incredible support and advice from the Jumpstart community and from the Fellowship, post-Fellowship I will be entering graduate school, pursuing a Masters in Educational Policy Studies from Boston University as a Martin Luther King Jr. Fellow. While completing my degree, I will continue to work in the educational advocacy sector as an Organizer while continuing to build skills in data analysis, policy management, and advocacy through my studies. I am honored to have gained such valuable experience, realtionships, and insight during these first two years in my career. The Fellowhsip was a fantastic opportunity to remain in my passion area at the intersection of direct service and policy, while growing the skills I needed to be a more capable advocate and professional.

Jasmin Norford

Jasmin Norford

Jasmin (she/her) is the FAO Schwarz Fellow at Jumpstart in New York City.


Sophie and a colleague share information about Audubon Mid-Atlantic at a table.

The Importance of Deep Community Engagement

A normal day at work for me usually involves at least one bird, between one and three classrooms, and what feels like infinite students greeting me as I walk down the hallways with hugs and shouts of “Hey, Ms. Sophie,” or “Look, there’s the bird lady!” In my nine months in Philadelphia with Audubon Mid-Atlantic, I have learned that everything we do is community-driven. In my role, I engage with three schools on a weekly basis, providing four lessons per grade over the course of the school year. As I have spent week after week at these schools, I have continued to see the importance of not only being engaged with the community, but having deep roots, particularly in the local schools.

Although it is widely accepted that nature centers that are perceived as part of the community have a broader base of support, many nature centers have operated for dozens of years without deeply listening to the community.

It may seem repetitive to teach four lessons to every grade at the same school, but this continuity is what creates deep community engagement. As my supervisor, Damien Ruffner told me, “It can feel like you’re completing the same steps over and over, but you have to make yourself a consistent presence in the community.”

Environmental education researchers have found that community members are more likely to be involved in their local nature centers when their local centers are actively involved in the community. In other words, by becoming integrated into the learning of local students, my role is to not only teach them about environmental issues, but also help them feel comfortable enough to come visit the Discovery Center, where Audubon-Mid Atlantic is housed, on their own time with their families.

Although it is widely accepted that nature centers that are perceived as part of the community have a broader base of support, many nature centers have operated for dozens of years without deeply listening to the community, much less incorporating community feedback into their programming. In recent years, many centers have realized that they need to incorporate community members into their boards, leadership, and employees, and they are now making up for lost time. While a nature center may come in with the best intentions, going by what they think the community needs instead of what the community thinks they need, hurts centers’ community engagement.

The Discovery Center sits right next to the Strawberry Mansion Reservoir, which is now a lake that is preserved for animals and the people who want to take in this beautiful natural space. However, the reservoir (once a source of drinking water for the surrounding areas) was closed to the public in 1970. It was only re-opened to the public when the Discovery Center was founded in 2018. From the beginning, the Discovery Center operated with a community engagement committee, which continues to serve as an advisory committee that makes many of the programming, budgeting, and hiring decisions.

Every day, I go out on our .75 mile, out-and-back trail, run into at least one person from the local community, and get to chat with them. Often, they will tell me how they remember when this land was a reservoir and it was not open to residents. Now, they have the opportunity to access this natural space that was once closed off. The organizations housed at the Discovery Center feel that providing access to the community will allow community members to feel healed by and connected to nature. And maybe that is what deep community engagement is really about, helping the community feel ownership of and comfort in the spaces that should have been open to them from the beginning.


Browning et al. Factors that contribute to community members’ support of local nature centers (2018). Environmental Education Research.

“The Discovery Center”



Sophie Becker-Klein

Sophie Becker-Klein

Sophie Becker-Klein (she/her) is FAO Schwarz Fellow at Audubon Mid-Atlantic's Discovery Center in Philadelphia.


FAO Schwarz Fellow Ryan speaks from a podium at the Massachusetts State House

A Vision for Early Care and Education

Early care and education (ECE) is a fascinating field to work in. It is so multifaceted, with a plethora of stakeholder groups including children, families and caregivers, educators, program directors, and employers. I have been able to interact with many of the stakeholders throughout my Fellowship, and learn at least one new thing every day – about brain development, teaching credentials, the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care’s financial assistance program, and more – and anticipate that that will be the case for my entire time working in ECE. The field is so important, and I feel grateful to be a part of the early education community!

I have the absolute privilege of working every day in service of Jumpstart’s vision that one day every child in America will enter kindergarten prepared to succeed.

The children involved – aged 0 to 5 – are in the most developmentally significant phases of their lives. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child explains that “early experiences affect the quality of [brain architecture] by establishing either a sturdy or fragile foundation for all of the learning, health and behavior that follow,” with more than one million neural connections forming every second. Research finds that participating in an early care and education program as a child has positive effects throughout an individual’s life: participants are less likely to be placed in special education, have increased college graduation and employment rates, and have long-term health benefits.

It is evident that early care and education is vital to child development and life outcomes. It thus should not be controversial to suggest that all children, no matter income or zip code, should have the opportunity to access ECE. All children can access – and are legally compelled to attend – publicly funded schools (i.e. public schools) from ages five to 16, give or take a few years depending on the state. Unsurprisingly and unfortunately, that is not the case in the early years. Instead, the ECE system is – as described in a Bank Street Education Center report – a “haphazard patchwork of [publicly subsidized] resources [that] leaves the rest to find care in a severely broken private-pay marketplace that few families can afford.”

A recent brief from the United States Department of Labor highlights the lack of affordability of early care and education. “In 2018, median childcare prices for one child ranged from $4,810 ($5,357 in 2022 dollars) to $15,417 ($17,171 in 2022 dollars) depending on provider type, children’s age, and county population size.” With such exorbitant costs, family contributions range from between 8% and 19.3% of the median family income; an already burdensome cost that only increases with each child. A Boston Globe analysis of the Department of Labor’s data found that all 14 counties in Massachusetts rank in the top 100 nationally for the cost of infant care, with Middlesex and Norfolk counties costing more than $26,000 annually—costs that rank in the top three nationally.

Such high expenses sometimes force parents to leave the workforce to minimize the cost of child care, a decision that often falls onto working mothers. High quality early care and education is now recognized as “a critical piece of the workforce infrastructure,” and as “fundamental to the success of… local econom[ies].” The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates that “lack of access to child care in Massachusetts is resulting in at least $2.7 billion each year in lost earnings for individuals, lower productivity and additional costs for employers, and lost tax revenue for the Commonwealth.”

And then there’s the heart of ECE: the educators, program directors, and other folks associated with keeping the programs running. These folks spend their entire days educating (facilitating literacy, linguistic, and social-emotional development), navigating interpersonal conflicts over the destruction of block towers, and nurturing the kiddos so parents and caregivers can work. It is important to clarify that the high cost of care for families does not translate to high wages for educators. To the contrary—Directors know that the cost is already unsustainable, so they are loath to increase them any more to facilitate corresponding wage increases. As a result, early educators receive poverty wages. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics analyzed by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at the University of California Berkeley, child care workers made $11.65 per hour in 2019; a wage that ranks in the 2nd percentile of all jobs. They could earn more working at a Dunkin! Early educators – who are predominantly women of color – are overworked, undervalued, and underpaid.

The CSCCE data shows that educators could leave the field and go teach kindergarten at a public school and earn $30,000 more per year. The same goes for teaching pre-kindergarten at a public school. That’s not right.

The United States spends significantly less per child on early care and education compared to other countries. Seen as a private market instead of a public good, the burden is on parents and caregivers to pay exorbitant amounts to get their kids into care. The system is broken. The system is in crisis. Children, families, educators, programs, and the economy are all affected because of the country’s lack of investment in the industry. This is an economic equity, gender equity, racial equity, and educational equity issue. It is easy not to see the forest through the trees amidst the compounding equity issues. However, at the core of it all, one fact remains: all children deserve an accessible and affordable early care and education experience, and educators should be compensated commensurate with public school educators with similar credentials and experience.

In my capacity as a FAO Schwarz Fellow at Jumpstart, I have been welcomed into early education centers where I met wonderful directors, educators, and kiddos. I have also met with legislators in the Massachusetts State House and advocated for bills that would increase educator compensation, provide direct-to-provider funding to stabilize programs, and increase the state’s financial assistance to families to help make programs more affordable.

I have the absolute privilege of working every day in service of Jumpstart’s vision that one day every child in America will enter kindergarten prepared to succeed. It’s the best job in the world.

Ryan Telingator

Ryan Telingator

Ryan (he/him) is the FAO Schwarz Fellow at Jumpstart in Boston.


Practicing Reflection on Community Engagement

At The Food Project, work follows the seasons—physically intensive summers of farmwork are followed by autumn’s final harvests, land closing ceremonies, and preparing farms for next year, which in turn leads into winters of logistical planning and final sales of the summer’s produce. So, as the intensity of outdoor work scaled down this year, with the beginnings of winter, our leadership held a week of all-staff meetings to reflect on the necessary changes to be made to our programs.

At the moment, our organization bases our work around three pillars of focus: Food, Youth, and Community. Even as our projects feature much overlap between these pillars, the focus areas allow us to create our goal outcomes, clarify our mission, and determine which programs are within our capacity and strengths as an organization. Thus, in revisiting our organization’s structure and plans this winter, we evaluated our current goals around the pillars extensively.

I feel grateful to be working for an organization that considers the practice of honest reflection and focused revision so significant.

During one of our meetings, leadership led staff through an exercise called the fishbowl, in which five people most involved in each pillar sat in a smaller inner circle whilst the rest of staff sat surrounding them. The inner circle would work on defining each pillar in regards to the work we do. If compelled to share their ideas as well, anyone from the outer circle could switch places with someone from the inner circle and take their turn to speak. Although a relatively small role, I felt very excited about being selected as one of the initial five to discuss the Community pillar.

Through my recent work managing the Build-A-Garden program—where we install raised garden beds for Boston residents and support them through growing their own food—I have become especially involved in our community engagement. Regularly interacting with residents via installations, workshops, seedling sales, etc., I observe ways in which our organization can improve our collaboration with the community, even as I am a relatively recent introduction to the organization. Thus, having the opportunity to share my perspectives on our community engagement not only empowered me to have a voice amongst our staff, but also gave me the opportunity to reflect on the genuine connections with the community I’ve made, and to recognize ways to positively influence my host organization’s future community collaborations.

Further, I see how our contributions to this discussion have since been integrated into organization-wide changes. In defining what community is at The Food Project, we generally found difficulty in determining a single, all-encompassing answer. While our organization creates its own immediate community, especially amongst the youth in our programs, we also engage with the broader community—sometimes in fleeting but meaningful one-time interactions, and sometimes with community members who work with us throughout their life. Recognizing this, through the reflections from our fishbowl and all-staff meetings, The Food Project has begun assessing the different kinds of community interactions we are involved in. The organization has also begun restructuring our programs, hoping to best leverage those community interactions to spark meaningful change.

I feel grateful to be working for an organization that considers the practice of honest reflection and focused revision so significant. While working in the nonprofit sector, I find it essential to regularly reflect on how our work must change alongside our changing communities. With springtime on the horizon, I look forward to further engaging our organization’s reflections and implementing them to support a flourishing community around gardening and food.

Vanessa Barragán

Vanessa Barragán

Vanessa (she/her) is the Build-a-Garden Manager and FAO Schwarz Fellow at The Food Project in Boston.


Jesse looking through binoculars with a group of people.

Imagining a Wild City

Sitting on a cold, mossy jetty, I watch the bottomless, blue Atlantic spill over the distant curve of the horizon. A few brave Herring Gulls swoop through the wind gusts overhead searching for small, beached crustaceans. I can also tell they’re curious if I’d bought a hotdog from Nathan’s before assuming my wintery perch. Turning my gaze to the idle boardwalk, Coney Island’s famous “Wonder Wheel” frames a distant metropolis.


According to Betsy McCulley, author of City at the Water’s Edge, “we tend to see nature and city in opposition.” A quiet, unspoiled, innocent nature is at the mercy of sprawling consumption; New York City is the hungry machine. Since its colonial origins as a Dutch trading post, New York City has concretized itself (quite literally) as a global center of human progress situated on one of the world’s largest natural harbors. But underneath the concrete floors and through the glass walls of approximately one million nearly indistinguishable buildings, lies a living truth: a human and non-human community inextricably linked to our bioregion.

As the FAO Schwarz Fellow at NYC Audubon, I am most interested in the intersectional challenges we face as an island megapolis in a time of global, anthropogenic change.

Imagine a Times Square where Red Maples and American Chestnuts grow nearly a hundred feet tall, providing shade, sustenance, and habitat for the critters below. Gray Wolves, Bobcats, and Mountain Lions survey the old-growth, deciduous forest floor for prey, like Eastern Cottontails and White-tailed Deer. The occasional Snapping Turtle wanders from the river to lay her eggs in the warm, rich earth; she’s careful not to become dinner for a lucky human. Though much of the biodiversity that once made up pre-1609 Mannahatta, the adjacent mainland (in the Bronx), Wamponomon (Queens and Brooklyn), and on the south side of the harbor (Staten Island) has been lost to colonial ecocide and aggressive urbanization, a group of warm-blooded vertebrates continues to remind us of the City’s wildness.

New York City is home to over 400 species of birds living in or stopping over its 193,700 acres of urban, wetland, forest, and grassland habitat. Every spring and fall, millions of birds repeat their ancient cycle of migration through New York City, journeying along the “Atlantic Flyway” in search of food and breeding opportunities. As the birds follow a promising, blue haze on the horizon, they’re no longer met with a forested island of Maples and Chestnuts; rather, choice green oases amidst a maze of reflective glass. According to New York City Audubon’s research, up to a quarter of a million of these migrating birds are killed in the City each year in collisions with building glass. Nevertheless, the birds return again to remind us, despite rapid habitat degradation and fragmentation, that this wild city was once – and still is – their home.

As the FAO Schwarz Fellow at NYC Audubon, I am most interested in the intersectional challenges we face as an island megapolis in a time of global, anthropogenic change. Environmental pressures – like urban development – disproportionately affect urban wildlife as well as communities of color, illuminating a clear relationship between issues like habitat loss and gentrification. In a time of global climate crisis, it must be understood that the outcomes for New York City, its human and non-human dwellers, and its bioregion are undoubtedly entangled. To best address this looming pan-ecological disaster, we must work to address the living truth of our home and our neighbors. We must reconfigure and reimagine the nature of the City, and develop intimate knowledges of this place and its critters. Though much of this place is covered in a concrete veneer and many of its critters scarce or destroyed, the birds lead us to little pockets of something different. The birds take us to the rooftops, the beaches, the cemeteries, and the parks. They announce their continued survival in soaring melodies over sirens and car horns. When we listen, we can no longer see our City as a triumph over nature or a testament to masterful technology. No longer protected by arrogant presumptions of human superiority, we become curious about the land we inhabit and our fellow City dwellers (human animals and non-human animals alike).

Riding the train home from Coney Island, I watch the vast, blue Atlantic fade behind new construction along the tracks. Rock Pigeons balance on the edges of the half-finished buildings’ harsh, modern design — I wonder who will live there, and I wonder who lived there before.



McCully, Betsy. City at the Water’s Edge a Natural History of New York. Rivergate Books, an Imprint of Rutgers University Press, 2007.

“NYC Audubon,”

“The Welikia Project.” The Welikia (“Way-LEE-Kee-Uh”) Project,

Hunt, Christian. “The Second Great American Extinction Event (1600s to 1900s).” Wild Without End, Defenders of Wildlife, 18 Nov. 2018,

Chaudhuri, Una. The Stage Lives of Animals: Zooësis and Performance. Routledge, an Imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

Jesse McLaughlin

Jesse McLaughlin

Jesse (he/him) is the Advocacy & Engagement Associate at NYC Audubon.


Feature image by Anne Schwartz.

Kayla teaches a child to work with clay.

Community Education Spaces for Systemic Change

As an FAO Schwarz Fellow and the After-School Program Coordinator at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, and I also serve as a teaching artist within the organization. My direct service work happens with Claymobile (our mobile engagement program), as well as our in-house ceramic community events. One of my favorite direct service projects during my tenure so far was engaging with our Clay, Play, Read program, where we combine literacy programming and ceramics in each session for preschool-aged students. I was also able to take part in Clayfest, our yearly festival where we have all-day activities taking place throughout the studio.

Growing up in Philadelphia, I have always experienced access to multiple types of community education spaces like libraries, community centers, gardens, art studios, and more. My local library felt like a haven for me to learn about my interests, engage in craft projects, and go to events. My art experience was cut short in elementary school due to underfunding and I am now learning what it looks like to engage in art practice as self-care. As an adult, I look to community education spaces for practicing new hobbies, meeting with friends, and learning something new.

Social impact work has a goal of systemic change, and I believe that the prioritization of community spaces that encourage exploration is essential to that journey.

When I thought about what I wanted to study in college or choose as my career I always knew that I wanted to work in youth education, so I chose to study human development and community engagement. My experiences with community education spaces growing up taught me that there is always something more to discover in life. Community spaces, especially free or low-cost spaces encourage families, friends, and strangers to come together in collaboration to have a new experience, meet new people and ultimately feel safe. Starting work with my Fellowship at The Clay Studio this July showed me a new type of community education experience in the arts.

My special project work at The Clay Studio involves the creation of an after-school ceramics art program. The coordination of this program includes curriculum development, communication with schools, networking/marketing, enrollment, and registration. The age group is currently third through fifth grade and students come after school dismissal to the studio to hand-build, wheel throw, and make claymation films. This program is the first of its kind in this organization, giving us the ability to work with the same students for a long-term residency in our studio. The arts and ceramics, in particular, teach important skills to students such as patience, persistence, imagination, and play. Being able to create a space in our organization for this type of community to exist means that students get to practice their craft, engage with other children in their age group, and be welcomed with open arms.

In addition, the role includes community partnerships, and this has allowed me to contact local arts and culture organizations to collaborate with our after-school program and incorporate other forms of education in the program. One of the pillars of community education is simply offering a space that is available for people to spend time in without the expectation of spending money or working. Being able to spend time in this environment and create a program for children has been so rewarding because I have experienced the benefits of programs similar in my childhood.

As we as a city, country, and world are engaging with challenges related to social equity, safety, and isolation, I feel that the creation of community engagement and education programs will act as a protective factor for all. Social impact work has a goal of systemic change, and I believe that the prioritization of community spaces that encourage exploration is essential to that journey.

Kayla Johnson

Kayla Johnson

Kayla Johnson (she/they) is the After-School Program Coordinator and FAO Schwarz Fellow at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia.