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Sheena Wright

United Way of New York City (NY)

As President and CEO of the United Way of NYC, and the first woman to hold the position in the organization’s history, Sheena Wright wields an impressive amount of authority and influence. But that’s not how she approaches her work.

“We are who New York City needs us to be,” she says. “Communities know what they need to solve their own problems. Our work is to empower and equip those communities to implement the changes that will work for them. We have trusted relationships at the community, government, nonprofit and corporate level, and that allows us to work effectively on the ground in ways that are credible and culturally responsible, while also focusing on systems change around equity and inclusion.”

Wright’s very first day on the job in 2012 coincided with Hurricane Sandy making landfall, an experience that proved useful for the rapid deployment of resources that were needed once again when COVID-19 began devastating the lives of low-income New Yorkers. As nimble and necessary as UWNYC is in times of crisis, its larger mission is to mobilize communities to break the cycles of poverty and build paths of self-sufficiency.

Using an integrated suite of programs that build on and complement one another, the UWNYC uses a two-generational approach to foster upward mobility and empower individuals and families to be champions of change to create vibrant, healthy neighborhoods.

For example, research shows that reading proficiently by third grade is the single biggest predictor of whether or not a child graduates from high school. In New York City 6 out of 10 children are not reading at grade-level, making it more likely that they will drop out before graduating. Without a high school diploma, residents have fewer job options, which contributes to higher rates of poverty, poor health, incarceration, substance abuse, and dependence on public services. Through its ReadNYC initiative, children, parents, educators and other stakeholders identified and implemented six key strategies to optimize success, including a focus on health and wellness.

“We look at everything we do through the lens of social justice,” says Wright. “We didn’t arrive at where we are today by accident, and we won’t be able to address the root causes of inequality and poverty unless we know that history. We want to help people who have been marginalized claim their power and accelerate and sustain their economic mobility.”