THE CONCERT FOR COLLEGE, a community concert organized by two New York City churches, raised $18.86 for Faith Marcus’s college savings. That same $18.86 also went into the college savings funds of hundreds more children who, like Faith, live in the New York City Housing Authority’s Queensbridge Houses and attended elementary school nearby. Maybe it wasn’t much. But it was the beginning of something.

Faith, now an 11-year-old sixth-grader, was part of a New York City pilot program, begun in 2017, to set up educational savings accounts for public school children. In 2021, the program was expanded to include all incoming kindergartners and now serves more than 200,000 students across the city.

Debra-Ellen Glickstein MC/MPA 2014 remembers when, in neighborhoods like Long Island City or Jackson Heights, you’d find maybe one kid out of five classes that had a college savings account. “Now, every kid has these accounts,” she says.

Glickstein helped launch the city program and then founded the nonprofit that works alongside it, NYC Kids RISE. Perhaps more importantly, she has worked tirelessly to build a sense of shared, communal responsibility for the city’s children. Families can save money for their children’s education, but communities, philanthropies, businesses, can all help too, donating to individuals, specific schools, or across the entire school system.

Debra-Ellen Glickstein MC/MPA 2014; Kindergarten Graduation in 2023; scholarship announcement
P.S. 194M Kindergarten Graduation in June 2023 (top right); Debra-Ellen Glickstein MC/MPA 2014 (middle left); announcement of Rise Light & Power Community Scholarship at Queensbridge Houses’ Family Day (bottom right)

“Systems have been created, a social infrastructure has been created across this entire city, so that now there is a way to add more money for kids,” Glickstein says. “But also a message is being sent about what is possible for my kid, your kid, and our kids. This is what we do in New York City, in Long Island City, in Jackson Heights, in East Flatbush—we work together to support our kids.”

The program not only addresses the specific issue of saving for and encouraging education—just hundreds of dollars saved for college is enough to more than triple a student’s likelihood of moving on to post-secondary education. It also helps build intergenerational wealth across communities where it has never existed. And it may also help build a shared sense of community and of responsibility for young people.

Glickstein grew up in the suburbs of New York. She is hard pressed to identify a specific thing that pushed her into a life of public service. It was just in the air that she breathed. “From my family, from my community, from what I had growing up,” she says, “it was just something I’ve always known in my heart that I wanted to contribute.”

“I’ve been very lucky in some ways in knowing what I wanted to do from really very early on in my life,” Glickstein says. “And really the through-line has been working with communities to expand economic opportunities with and for the people that live there.”

“The magic of this whole thing is that, again, the platform has been created and there’s all these different ways people can plug in. And it goes back to kind of the way I view the world—that neighborhoods matter.”

Debra-Ellen Glickstein

After high school, Glickstein deferred college for a year and joined City Year, a national service program founded in 1988 to allow young volunteers to help in disadvantaged communities. She worked as a teacher’s aide in a school in East Boston, seeing up close the challenges faced by young children in a diverse, low-income neighborhood. After graduating from Wesleyan University, she went straight to work for a New York City mayoral campaign (her candidate, the Democrat Mark Green, lost to Michael Bloomberg) and then joined the staff of a newly elected Queens councilman, Eric Gioia.

Glickstein has been based in the same area of Queens ever since. “Some of the best advice I ever got was to find a neighborhood and stick with it,” she says. She was “a young person very eager to figure out how to make government work for folks,” Glickstein says. There was hardly a better place for her to start than Long Island City’s Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in the country.

She eventually connected with a local leader, Bishop Mitchell Taylor, the pastor at the Church Center of Hope International, and a lifelong resident of Queensbridge. Together they created the East River Development Alliance, now called Urban Upbound. The nonprofit has become a community pillar that provided critical services: financial counseling, workforce programs, even a credit union.

Glickstein and Taylor’s work caught the attention of the city’s public housing authority, who brought Glickstein on to try to create similar changes across the entire city. Glickstein was there for several years, leading the effort to transition their work to network-based service delivery, leveraging the assets of the Housing Authority, as well as the rich assets of stakeholders and partners through the city.  She was always aware of the dense ecosystems of institutions and people—in government but also in the private and nonprofit sectors, and in civil society—within neighborhoods and communities. And she constantly thought about how to support people to take advantage of them.

That was when she came to the Kennedy School for the Mid-Career Master in Public Administration program. The time at HKS allowed her to take a step back. She took a doctoral-level sociology seminar with William Julius Wilson, now the Geyser University Professor, Emeritus, whose work deeply influenced her thinking on urban poverty. She was also a teaching assistant in “Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Private and Social Sectors” (MLD-830), taught by Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy Richard Cavanagh, an experience she found transformative.

Mother and daughter who are part of NYC Kids RISE Save for College Program; Debra-Ellen Glickstein with P.S. 111Q 6th Graders; school officials and students celebration of a scholarship
Rachel Marcus with her daughter Faith, who is now a sixth grade student at P.S. 111Q in the NYC Kids RISE Save for College Program (top left); Debra-Ellen Glickstein at P.S. 196 in Brooklyn, New York (middle right); At P.S. 276K, school officials and first graders from East Flatbush and Canarsie celebrated a $1.2 million dollar investment through the NYC Kids RISE Save for College Program (bottom left).

After graduating, she returned to the public sector, running New York City’s Office of Financial Empowerment, focusing on providing better access to financial services in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. “I wanted to do that because of this idea of community wealth-building and this concept of the way structural systems and whole neighborhoods impact people’s access to financial health and financial opportunities,” Glickstein says.

That is where the city’s Save for College program was born. Launched in 2017 as a pilot program in seven neighborhoods (Astoria, Long Island City, East Elmhurst, Corona, Jackson Heights, Sunnyside, and Woodside), it was an exercise in collaboration. Like all of Glickstein’s professional endeavors, the Save for College program reflected a clear and consistent throughline: the power of place-based community economic development, and the way change happens when different sectors, institutions, and others come together. 

“The program very much draws upon public-private partnerships, neighborhoods, and communities,” Glickstein says. “The story is really about how so many different institutions and people have come together to create this infrastructure. And what we’ve done here is we’ve created, basically, a universal wealth-building platform for New York City neighborhoods.”

With the leadership and support of Jon and Mindy Gray of the Gray Foundation which provided an initial $10 million in catalytic funding, NYC Kids RISE, a nonprofit, was created to manage the public-private-community program. The idea behind establishing a parallel nonprofit was to create more resiliency: an organization that would stand the test of time and that was separate from the oscillations of government. Other philanthropies have jumped in, as have community groups, local businesses, and more.

But also, Glickstein says, “this should never just be a government program. … city officials, the New York City Department of Education, the New York State comptroller, but also principals of schools, faith leaders, community leaders, business leaders—everyone has a role to play in creating this infrastructure.”

After the successful pilot, the program was launched citywide.

“The magic of this whole thing is that, again, the platform has been created and there’s all these different ways people can plug in,” Glickstein says. “And it goes back to kind of the way I view the world—that neighborhoods matter.”

“The story is really about how so many different institutions and people have come together to create this infrastructure. And what we’ve done here is we’ve created, basically, a universal wealth-building platform for New York City neighborhoods.”

Debra-Ellen Glickstein

Rachel Marcus, a resident of Queensbridge and Faith’s mother, who was enrolled in the pilot, and whose two younger sons are now also in the program, says the program is an important building block in her children’s success. Some businesses and community groups are adding small amounts to the children’s accounts each month, and Rachel will log on with them to see the small piles of savings growing.

“It’s been really helpful for them. Sometimes we’ll log on and look at their accounts and I’ll explain to them that this is just the beginning,” she says. An immigrant from Suriname, Marcus was worried about her ability to ever provide opportunities to her children to go to college, given the financial burden. But the program helps. “It’ll be a little less heavy for her and also for us,” she says. And Faith is daring to dream—talking about her ambition to one day become a doctor and working hard to get good grades. 

“There’s probably nothing I’m prouder of than knowing that nearly every kid in elementary school who lives in Queensbridge Houses now has these accounts,” Glickstein says. “Because back in the day with Bishop Taylor, when I was 25 years old and we were building the East River Development Alliance, the question was, ‘How does public housing become a springboard for economic opportunity?’ These are complex questions. It’s not going to be necessarily solved by a college savings account. But now if you go to public school and you live in Queensbridge Houses, you are going to have something for your future. There is now a mechanism for both the government and the private sector and other folks in other systems to drive more money into those accounts. And they don’t have to be places that people have to run away from.”

Banner image: Debra-Ellen Glickstein MC/MPA 2014 (center) with sixth graders from the NYC Kids RISE program. Photos by Jonathan Patkowski, courtesy of NYC Kids RISE

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