Nancy Wackstein came to GSS with one goal in mind: teach social work students that they can — and should — be leaders.
After an esteemed career in government and the nonprofit sector, Wackstein wanted to show students what was “out there” beyond the walls of academia. She sought to be the bridge helping students confidently enter a field in which they could take charge.
“One of my missions at GSS is to try to convince and encourage social workers that they can be leaders,” Wackstein said. “They don’t always see themselves in those roles and they don’t always get that message.”
Since 2016, Wackstein has completed this mission. She’s helped countless students find their path through the MSW program and into a field that needs them. She’s been an invaluable wealth of knowledge, providing the unfiltered truth about what lies ahead of students and how they can succeed.
However, as of July 30, 2021, Wackstein will step down from her role as GSS’s director of community engagement and partnerships. But before she does, we wanted to honor her legacy in the social work profession.
Wackstein’s family didn’t boast any social workers, but they were helpers. This was reflected in Wackstein’s drive to serve NYC’s communities. Her first job out of college was at an all-boys school, teaching reading as a paraprofessional on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“I loved meeting and working with the kids,” she said. “Especially with the ones who were considered ‘bad kids.’”
Her next job was the one she said pushed her to get an MSW degree. Working as a housing assistant for the New York City Housing Authority, Wackstein said she mostly interacted with people who were struggling and vulnerable — families who couldn’t pay the rent.
“I was just a rank amateur,” she said. “That motivated me to go to social work school, because I said, ‘well, if I’m going to do this work, I want to do it better.’”
So, she enrolled in Columbia University’s School of Social Work (CSSW) to strengthen her skills. This is where Wackstein — who would return in 2009 to be inducted into the CSSW Hall of Fame — discovered her passion for policy. Her second field placement, along with the recommendation from one of her professors, helped Wackstein get a job after graduation as the special assistant to a director of program planning in the NYC Human Resources Administration.
“That’s why I always tell students to keep in touch with their professors,” she said.
Wackstein also spoke of her time at the advocacy group Citizens Committee for Children. She wrote reports on homeless families and children in NYC during a time when homelessness was “exploding”.
“I wrote about how horrible the conditions were for these families,” Wackstein said. “That’s where I really learned how to be an advocate.”
David Dinkins’s Office
Later, as a policy analyst for human services in former Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins’s office, Wackstein continued her work with the homeless population. Dinkins created a task force on housing for homeless families, appointing Wackstein as a staff director. In this role, she worked alongside former GSS Dean James R. Dumpson, who was the task force’s chair.
Together, the task force published a report titled “A Shelter Is Not a Home,” which criticized then-mayor Ed Koch’s administration and its homeless policy. The report pressed “for speedier dispersal of homeless families from welfare hotels to renovated apartments,” according to a 1991 New York Times article.
“[The report] had a huge impact, but New York still had [a large number of]homeless people,” Wackstein said. “It used to be considered a scandal to have 20 thousand people in the homeless system. Now there’s 60 thousand.”
When Dinkins became mayor, Wackstein joined the Mayor’s Office on Homelessness as their director. She said she was hesitant about taking the job, but did so anyway. Three months in, Wackstein said, the same people she’d advocated with to prevent homelessness were now attacking her and the administration.
“They attacked me for what we hadn’t done yet,” Wackstein said. “It was the hardest job I’ve ever done. I never got home before 9 p.m. I cared deeply about the issues.”
Settlement House Success
After resigning from the Mayor’s Office, Wackstein interviewed for the executive director position at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House — a settlement house that serves people in need on Manhattan’s East Side and Roosevelt Island. She got the job, but there was a problem: She’d never run a settlement house before.
“I had to learn on the job,” she said. “That’s why another thing I tell GSS students is learn about supervision and budgeting — these are the skills I didn’t learn in school but on the job.”
Wackstein said it took her five years to really settle in and feel like the leader of the Lenox Hill organization. And from that experience, she has advice for social workers taking on new roles and more responsibility: Don’t let fear run the show. When professionals struggle with deciding what to do next, Wackstein said, they shouldn’t be afraid or embarrassed to call on colleagues in similar roles.
“When I look back on it, I made so many mistakes — but that’s how you learn,” she said. “You can’t fall into inaction because you’re afraid to make a mistake.”
Back to Policy Roots, and Onward to GSS
Wackstein ran Lenox Hill for 11 years, then took the executive director position at United Neighborhood Houses (UNH), a policy and social change organization which oversees 44 NY settlement houses. Although she would forever be an advocate, Wackstein was happy to return to the policy side of things. Coupling her government experience in Dinkins’s office with her settlement house expertise, Wackstein was able to effectively understand both sides.
“I realized I missed the policy work that I had done in my early career. Running an agency is about operations; you’re not involved in policy that much,” Wackstein said. “[The job] put me in close proximity with government, and I had many meetings with government officials. I understood the government side and the settlement house side and what both their needs were.”
After running UNH successfully for 13 years, Wackstein got a tip from her friend, GSS Associate Professor Sandra Turner, Ph.D., that Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service was hiring. Turner said GSS needed someone with experience in establishing relationships to grow their community engagement. Wackstein met with Dean Debra McPhee, Ph.D., who went on to offer her the position of director of community engagement and partnerships.
“Both Fordham University and GSS have benefited tremendously from Nancy’s leadership, extensive professional experience, and distinguished NYC reputation,” McPhee said. “During her time at Fordham, she has facilitated important connections for GSS with prominent NYC leaders and organizations and has forged new interprofessional collaborations with the University. She was also instrumental in advancing the curriculum of our Executive Education Certificate in Nonprofit Leadership.”
Since that day, Wackstein has brought valuable lessons and tangible assets to the students, faculty, and staff at GSS. She helped create and establish the Centennial Scholarship in collaboration with Catholic Charities, which provides one MSW student with a full scholarship every year for five years. She oversees student placements in the NYC Mayor’s Office and acts as the advisor for the GSS Student Congress. She has brought in speakers from all over to educate students about job hunting, voting, and acting as an advocate for the things they believe in most.
“One of [Wackstein’s] most significant contributions has been the dedicated mentorship and education she has provided for so many of our GSS students,” McPhee said. “I have no doubt that our graduates will draw on her experience and wise counsel throughout their lives and careers. Nancy Wackstein is one of a kind. On behalf of GSS, I thank her for her many contributions, her integrity, and her unwavering commitment to social work. She will be missed!”
40 Years of Social Work
Wackstein received her MSW over 40 years ago. How has she seen the field change?
One of the most positive transformations, she said, is the profession’s growing recognition that lifting the voices of vulnerable populations is is crucial to social work’s success.
“It’s front-and-center, as it should be,” she said. “There is also a growing recognition in the country around things like income inequality, and social work should be front-and-center in addressing some of those societal issues.”
She also stressed the importance of social workers as leaders.
“As people like me retire from leadership positions,” Wackstein said, “I hope those positions are filled by social workers.”
But the past four decades haven’t contained all positive change. Wackstein said a disappointing reality is that, even today, the misunderstanding about social work’s breadth and depth still persists.
“Unfortunately, the lack of visibility of the social work profession remains as it did then,” she said. “One of the biggest problems facing the profession is the understanding by the public of what social workers do. I think there’s still a presumption that they all work for CPS and ‘snatch babies.’ Talk about a stale narrative.”
Wackstein, who is still active on the boards of three nonprofit organizations and has volunteered at a local food pantry since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, said her career isn’t quite over. She also plans to supervise another pair of GSS students interning in the NYC Mayor’s Office next year. That is, as long as Fordham lets her keep using the copy machine, and loan books from the library.
Wackstein is an avid gardener at her home in the Catskills, and will perhaps form a group of green-thumbs in her area.
If she had to boil it all down — all the many positions and achievements throughout her career and education — to one word, what would that word be?
“Curiosity,” Wackstein said. “I’ve always been curious.”
We asked some students closest to Nancy about the impact she had on their education and lives:
“Nancy was an integral part in the initial development of Student Congress. She has always advocated for student voices and concerns,” said Hannah Babiss, GSS ’21; Liz Manus, GSS ’20; and Tessa Engel, GSS ’20. “We each feel lucky to have been able to collaborate with Nancy and thank her for the knowledge she so willingly offered to us.”
“I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Nancy through student congress and the activism committee. She has been a great mentor to me and I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to work closely with her,” said Timothy Manning, GSS student and member of student congress. “I’ve enjoyed her stories, sense of humor, and insight into New York City politics and I will miss her next year.”
“Nancy was a huge part of my MSW experience,” said Shadequa Hampton, GSS ’21. “She fulfilled several advisory roles and helped facilitate the success of Student Congress. Nancy also selflessly provided insight into macro practice and career readiness. I’m thankful for all she’s done.”