When Graduate School of Social Service alumna Cassandra Agredo, FCRH ’04, GSS ’06, applied for the director of outreach position at the Church of St. Francis Xavier, she was terrified. Not that she wouldn’t get the job, she was a shoe-in for the role — an MSW graduate with years of experience running successful nonprofit organization campaigns. She was a great fit.
Agredo’s uncertainty stemmed from, well, life’s uncertainty. She was pregnant with twins. She had a job she knew couldn’t support two babies and desperately needed to move on. But would St. Francis Xavier hire someone who’d need maternity leave in a few months?
“After my interview, I told one of the women on the hiring committee about the situation,” Agredo said. “She said it had no bearing on [their decision]. The Pastor hired me without hesitation, knowing in six months I’d be on maternity leave. Right from the moment I walked in the door, it was a place where I felt like I didn’t have to worry. I knew someone had my back and practiced what they preach. It’s an amazing community here.”
Since that interview, Agredo worked her way to becoming the Executive Director at Xavier Mission — the nonprofit organization formed from the outreach programs at the Church. She also serves as the co-Chair of the board of directors of Hunger Free America, a national organization dedicated to ending domestic hunger. And this month, she was named to City & State NY’s 2021 Nonprofit 40 Under 40 list.
“It’s an honor when I think about all the people who work in the nonprofit sector across the state,” she said. “It’s a testament to the entire Xavier Mission community, to our board, staff, and our volunteers who make everything we do possible.”
A Child’s Perspective
As a child living in Rhode Island, Agredo started her career in direct service early. Her father, who worked for their town’s Department of Human Services, and her mother, an emergency room receptionist, brought Agredo to the town’s first soup kitchen when it opened.
“I was maybe six or seven. I have a very clear memory of one day being there and there was music playing and I was just dancing,” Agredo said. “My mom was volunteering, people were watching me and laughing, and for me, it was just a place we went and there were people eating food and that was normal. At that time, I didn’t have any awareness that the people eating didn’t have a lot of money or might be homeless. It was just what we did — we came here, gave people some lunch, and I danced around.”
Gradually, that awareness came. Agredo recognized people going through tough times and who needed support. In our interview, she spoke of how proud she was of her father, who was instrumental in opening the town’s first homeless shelter. She remembered the planning sessions he held at their house in preparation, and even the pushback he received from locals.
“I understood what he did was important,” she said. “There was some pushback. Some people weren’t happy about his ideas. He fought through it.”
The Guidance (Counselor) She Needed
Growing up, Agredo didn’t see the volunteer work she did as a full-time career. She wanted to be a teacher. That is, until she got to high school and realized she didn’t want to teach high schoolers.
In tenth grade, she sought help from her guidance counselor about career options.
“An old boyfriend of mine in tenth grade said I’d make a good counselor, and it was an ‘a ha!’ moment,” she said. “I went to my guidance counselor, and she was excited to lead me in that direction. I took an AP Psychology class with her, and we talked about college programs. That led me to the social work track.”
Around the time of her high school graduation, Agredo’s parents became foster parents. That gave her first-hand experience seeing both the wonderful and frustrating parts of the foster care system. However, she still had much to learn about the social work profession as a whole.
“It wasn’t until I got to college and took the courses that I understood the breadth of the field, and how many different professions the social work degree encompasses,” she said.
Time at Xavier Mission
As program director at the Church of St. Francis Xavier, Agredo described her role as “in the thick of it.” She ran the programs — Sundays for the soup kitchen, Saturdays for the food pantry — she was on-call for the shelter, and managed all the volunteers and guest interactions.
Awareness spread and the programs got bigger. They eventually became more than what the parish could sustain on its own.
So, in 2012, the Church of St. Francis Xavier decided to incorporate their community outreach programs into an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Agredo spearheaded the process, and was thrust into the fast-paced life as an Executive Director of a brand-new organization.
“In the beginning, I was still running the programs — but then I had all these other responsibilities. I was now responsible for finances, development, communications, human resources, and admin,” she said. “It was an intense couple of years.”
As time passed and hires were made to handle the programs, Agredo stepped away from working on-the-ground and focused on learning all she could about the administrative side of running a business.
“It’s not something I intended or thought I would be doing,” she said. “It was trial-by-fire. I went to lots of workshops and certification programs. I had to learn it all on my own.”
For-Impact, Not Non-Profit
Xavier Mission now boasts six programs that provide New Yorkers in need “the opportunity to achieve safety, stability and self-sufficiency.” Their financial assistance program provides over $175,000 each year in assistance, and their food programs supply nearly 130,000 meals to thousands of individuals and families a year.
On their website, Xavier Mission describes themselves as a “For-Impact” organization, instead of a “Non-Profit.” But where did that come from, and what does it mean?
“That actually comes from an organization called For Impact,” Agredo said. “I went to this fundraising seminar that described fundraising in a way I had never thought about before. I hated asking for money prior to that workshop, and I left with a completely different view on what fundraising is. I’d always go into it feeling like if people say no, they’re saying no to me, or it’s because of me, like I’m asking for a personal handout. That’s not what it is. I’m asking for people to invest in their community and take part in the work that we’re doing. It’s an invitation to get involved and do something good and make an impact.”
Agredo said one of the first things she learned from the workshop is that no other industry defines themselves by what they do not do. Why should the nonprofit sector?
“[The phrase, ‘for-impact’] shifts the idea of the entire sector. No matter what issue you’re working on, your mission is to make an impact in some way,” she said. “And it’s more empowering for those of us who work in the sector, to feel like we’re doing something that matters. People respond to it.”
The self-sufficiency aspect of their impact is also stressed at Xavier Mission. Agredo notes that, for a long time, society generalized those who receive assistance as lazy. And while that stigma has been remedied a bit, it still persists. Agredo couldn’t disagree with it more.
“In talking to people who come [to Xavier Mission], many are ashamed to ask for help. They want to be working. That’s a terrible feeling,” she said. “No one wants to feel like they’re dependent on strangers to make ends meet. If we can offer people the tools, resources, and skills they need so they don’t have to be in this position, that’s our obligation. I don’t want to just be a charity. People want to get back on their feet so they can do it themselves.”
Handling Impostor Syndrome
With public recognition for your successes can sometimes come the struggle of self-perception. Psychology Today defines the feeling of impostor syndrome as:
People who struggle with imposter syndrome believe that they are undeserving of their achievements and the high esteem in which they are, in fact, generally held. They feel that they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think—and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them. Those with imposter syndrome are often well accomplished; they may hold high office or have numerous academic degrees.
Agredo, who started in her position at 24 years-old, said her impostor syndrome kicked in almost immediately. She was leading people who’d worked in the organization almost as long as she’d been alive. It was a reality check, but one she said she needed.
“It was my first job where I was in charge. I came in thinking I was going to shake things up and change everything that wasn’t working,” she said. “That was a pretty big wakeup call when volunteers who had been here for 20 years were like, ‘who are you and what do you think you’re doing?’”
And that feeling of insufficiency isn’t something that just goes away. Agredo said even now, after all she’s accomplished, she still bouts with the feelings of inadequacy on a semi-regular basis.
“The understanding that the nonprofit sector, like any other sector, is dominated by white folks, and the majority of people we serve are not white [plays into the impostor syndrome],” she said. “I don’t have the same experiences as many of the people we’re serving.”
So, how does she cope with these feelings? Listening, learning, and advocating for justice — much of which she learned from the values of social work.
“I try to make sure I’m earning the position of leadership that I have and really listening and learning from other people to move the issue of justice forward,” she said.
And while she thanks her board, staff, and Xavier Mission community for pushing her every day to be an effective leader, Agredo says she owes it all to her parents.
“When I found out this was happening, they were the first people I called and said thank you,” she said. “Because without them and their example and everything they did for us, this wouldn’t have happened.”