One of the nation’s oldest human services organizations — one with a special connection to the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” — began a historic leadership transition this month. Kimberly Hardy Watson will soon become the first woman of color and first former foster youth to lead the Brooklyn-based child welfare and juvenile justice services provider Graham Windham.
A Brooklyn native, Hardy Watson assumes the roles of president this month and CEO later this year, after 11 years with the organization and 37 years in New York City’s nonprofit sector. She also once created a support program for mothers and daughters incarcerated together on Rikers Island.
The 215-year-old nonprofit Hardy Watson will soon lead counts among its co-founders Eliza Hamilton, widow of Alexander Hamilton, one of the colonial-era architects of America’s democracy.
Graham Windham is responsible for roughly 600 of the city’s 8,000 foster care placements. The agency also runs a K-12 school for 300 higher-need students in the New York City suburbs and also provides foster care prevention services to hundreds of families throughout the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem. Its innovative initiatives include a community center in the Bronx with a unique emphasis on child well-being, and a mentoring program for court-involved or at-risk youth up to age 24. Graham Windham’s outgoing president, Jess Dannhauser — a former child welfare official under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg — raised philanthropic funding for both initiatives.
Hardy Watson is replacing Dannhauser at a historic moment for struggling families and for children in foster care. In addition to the pandemic causing historic job loss, illness and death, a racial justice uprising over policing has prompted louder calls for major reform of child welfare practices.
In a recent interview with The Imprint, Hardy Watson, 57 described being raised in Brownsville by young parents struggling with alcoholism. A cafeteria worker at her school eventually connected them to the city’s child welfare agency, which resulted in a short stint in a foster home, which Hardy Watson described as a positive experience for herself, overall.
“I was extremely fortunate, we had a wonderful foster mother, the family was very kind to us,” she said. “This woman became like a coach to my mother.”
But, while Hardy Watson also emphasized how far the field has come since she first entered it as a professional in the 1980s — when foster parents could reject children who were too dark-skinned — she also stressed how far it still has to go. In many ways, the child welfare system is far more punitive than when she entered foster care herself decades ago, she said, with court-enforced monitoring of families more common, intensive and enduring.
The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
We’ve reported on widespread hesitation among frontline staff in the child welfare system and significant efforts underway to convince them to trust the science around vaccine safety and efficacy. How is the vaccine rollout process going with your staff?
We did a poll at the start of the first vaccine presentation which was on Jan. 11, and we have another one planned for June. In January, we found 75% of our staff responded they either were not going to take the vaccine, or they weren’t sure, which we took as a no.
And where folks were least likely to take information from was the government — the health department, or CDC, places like that. Our staff came to us and said we need more information. They said, “We understand there are some governmental entities that are going to mandate us and require us to do it,” which is not true. The city and the state have not mandated folks to do that.
So we convened a series of panels. We had experts in public health, medicine and social media, to talk about the information that’s circulated on the media and how credible it is or isn’t. We’ve got a psychologist who is going to be presenting. And we’ve got a natural medicine doctor who is going to talk about keeping the immune system strong.
For those who are saying they are not ready to take the vaccine, there is a great deal of resistance and reluctance, particularly in Black and brown communities because of the historical context around vaccinations and experimentation on Black and brown people. And we understand that, information is critical. All of us need that information.
Are there any community leaders you want to hear more from, in terms of promoting the vaccine and convincing people it is safe and necessary for everyone’s health?
It’s not a single voice, it’s got to be enough voices. But let me say this: I think it’s in the faith-based community. I’ll be bold and say that. A good many of our folks are strongly connected to their faith, and faith-based organizations. There is a very strong belief in the faith community, particularly for Black and brown people, that this vaccine is somehow dangerous to them and their interests.
I think having faith leaders speak up and speak loudly, this is a vaccine like other vaccines, we’ve been here before. People are dying every day from this disease. It’s a scourge for Black and brown communities. The vaccine’s intention is not to harm or to kill but to actually preserve life.
Your predecessor Jess Dannhauser had high praise for your efforts leading your organization’s dramatic shift to help families adapt in the early days of the pandemic, including repurposing your facilities and delivering technology to families. What else did that require?
Our families needed food. We got food from the food banks of New York, and we even purchased food from large vendors and packaged it ourselves. We found out from staff which families needed it and we made curbside deliveries.
At the beginning of this pandemic, it was frightening, people did not want to leave their homes. And they couldn’t leave their homes because they had children, and they were afraid to be in public. No one understood how the virus worked or how anyone really contracted it at the time. Remember at the beginning, we didn’t even know about wearing face masks.
We had courageous staff who didn’t think of themselves at all in the midst of this — they jumped right in and packaged food and delivered foods to families that were about to go hungry. Isn’t that what social work is supposed to be all about?
You’ve been described as a historic figure for taking over this foster care agency as a former foster youth yourself, in the 1970s around age 8. How does that inform the work you’ve been doing and will do in this new role?
My father was a laborer. I always remember him having two or three jobs. He had a drinking problem, and my mother developed a drinking problem. The violence we saw growing up — I think now, my God, where was child services for us, in a preventive way?
I remember this really distinctly, playing with toys, being interviewed by social workers – I didn’t know who they were at the time. At the time, I remember my mother saying she needed to do this because she was not taking care of us properly. And she wasn’t. But she said she’d work really hard to get us home.
For her drinking, my mother entered into therapy, she went back to school, she got a college degree. We got the help, and we came home, and we didn’t need the system again. But that’s not how it works today. Today, that cafeteria worker who referred us would be a “mandated reporter.” She’d have to call the state, the state would have to send someone to the home. And far more times than not, it doesn’t need to rise to that.
I think absolutely child services are necessary — but it doesn’t always have to be this high-level, punitive way. And unfortunately, typically it is. We can say whatever we like, but families stay under the microscope, the surveillance, one way or another. We don’t come in and help and then leave.
When we talk about dismantling racist systems, those are the aspects of it that really have to change.
What do you see as the significance of this moment, as the first Black woman to lead an organization that has been historically white-led?
It’s complex. I never had aspirations of leading Graham or any other institution. I’m sure a lot of that had to do with not seeing too many examples of Black women or women of color at the top levels. At the three agencies where I worked, they were all headed by white men who had been in their roles for a significant amount of time.
Jess and I had been talking about this transition for years, never knowing COVID was coming. But it became even more clear last year, as we were beginning to shape out our vision for vision 2025, that the one to lead through that vision needed to be someone of color. It needed to be me.
And I can tell you, it was quite the struggle on a personal note because in this field, we’re trained to believe you need the academic underpinnings, the Ivy League degrees. That’s what qualifies you. But someone who was like me who had had a previous experience with the child welfare system, who still lives in an underserved community, who is very plain-spoken, I’m not who they are looking for.
Seeing the events of the past year meant really feeling that I have the experience, I am built for this. I’m built for these times that are coming. We are further along than we were when I first started in 1984. In 1984, we were still in a time where foster parents could reject a placement because the child was too dark-skinned.
What lessons did you draw from working in foster care at a time when more explicit discrimination was allowed?
Over time there’s been a recognition and an acknowledgement that the racist and obviously discriminatory and biased ways that Black and brown families are treated in foster care or child welfare has to end. The way forward though, is the question. Whatever it is, whatever we decide to do, has to be sustainable. It can’t be something we start and don’t finish.
I’ve seen this happen too many times, where really thoughtful or innovative practices or models were implemented, and then the administration changes. All of a sudden there’s no more dedication or funding for that model or that practice. And it really is a shame.
Given what you said about how you never expected to be in a leadership position like this, can you tell me about the day you found out you’d gotten the job?
It was Jan. 7 when the board members let me know.
Right after the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol?
Oh, I know, so many emotions!
I’m not someone who is usually at a loss for words, but I could not put into words how this is a sacred privilege. I feel so honored to be responsible and to lead the work for people that I love so much. Our families and our kids. I see them and I see myself, I see people I know.
Given your background as an ordained minister, tell me about how your faith informs all of your work.
My faith absolutely informs my leadership and my hope with families. It should be compassionate and unconditional, and there should be love at the root of it. Everyone doesn’t have to believe that, but I do. Treating our neighbors as ourselves as we’d want others to treat us is not only for the people we serve but the same is extended to my staff. I think and hope they would say that about me.