By Caryl M. Stern
I love the diversity of New York City — where else can you live on a block with people from Afghanistan next door, China across the street, Canada two doors down, Latin America to my left amid born and bred New Yorkers mixed in? Where else can I share neighborhood celebrations that range from breaking the Yom Kippur fast to breaking the daily Ramadan fast; from the party for a daughter’s Quinceañera to a son’s Bar Mitzvah; from swapping family sauce recipes to family baklava recipes sometimes all on the same weekend? That diversity has not only enhanced my life, it has driven my career.
However, it is not just cultural or religious diversity - it’s economic, it’s political, it’s lifestyles, it is the idea that New Yorkers come in all sizes and shapes, religions and cultures, sexual orientations, ages and professions. We may practice different rituals, earn different dollars, eat different foods, or wear different clothes, but whenever the first bars of a song about New York are heard — from Jay-Z to Sinatra, our arms are around one another, and we are unitedly singing our pride of belonging to this amazing city.
I have lived in New York City for almost my entire adult life — covering three of the five boroughs in just under 35 years. In the 1980’s, I made downtown Brooklyn home while I served as Dean of Students at Polytechnic University. Shopping at A & S, eating at Gage and Tollner and breathing in the exotic smells of the spice shops that sprang up on Atlantic Avenue enhanced the excitement of working with a student population that consisted of a huge number of first-generation Americans who were often the first in their family to attend college.
From there, I was appointed to the Brooklyn Borough President’s Diversity Task Force, ultimately propelling me to accept a job creating and building a powerful anti-bias education program: the ADL A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE Institute. It also brought me a move to 28th Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan.
It wasn’t a career change that took me out of Manhattan and into Queens — it was a different commitment: marriage. With my husband, Donald, came a home in Bayside — soon followed by the amazing opportunity to take the helm of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF — the advocacy, education and fundraising arm of the international children’s organization.
Most of the work we do at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF is very community or village focused. Surprising as it may sound given the size of New York City, here in Bayside, I very much feel like I live in a “village.” I love that the principal in our local elementary school knows the name of every child — that our butcher not only knows my name, but follows UNICEF and asks me about it while prepping my order — that our neighbors help one another at every opportunity. I am thrilled that our neighborhood has allowed my children glimpses into life from all over the world. I did not have to teach my kids about diverse cultures — they have been surrounded by them all their lives. For many of the children and families that I’ve met through my travels with UNICEF, that sense of belonging to a community can be a lifeline. In my neighborhood, there is a feeling of safety and camaraderie, which is the same thing that I seek for every child we work with.
I recently had the opportunity to visit a New York City school as part of the launch of our new UNICEF Kid Power program. By getting active with the UNICEF Kid Power Band, kids go on missions to learn about new cultures and earn points. Points unlock funding from partners, parents and fans, and funds are used by UNICEF to deliver lifesaving packets of therapeutic food to severely malnourished children around the world. The more kids move, the more points they earn and the more lives they save.
A team of us spent the day at Public School 242 in Harlem, and it was a lot of fun to be able to talk about this program that we are launching nationally with school children here in my own backyard, in the city that I love. P!nk, one of our newest UNICEF Ambassadors, joined us and she really motivated those kids to get active.
The school in Harlem was the perfect place to highlight what UNICEF Kid Power represents, for the kids who participate and the kids who are helped. It really resonated with these students. One third grader I spoke to told me she was happy to have a chance to give to others. It’s empowering, because it’s about kids helping other kids and helping to save lives. (Our sponsors Target and Star Wars: Force for Change are helping us bring the program to schools across the country.)
In addition, this desire that UNICEF Kid Power taps into — the same inclination that keeps kids Trick-or-Treating for UNICEF every year since 1950 — to me defines the New York spirit. For all the reputation that New York is a tough place, New Yorkers are really compassionate. It is in times of crisis that you see the strongest part of this city. We saw it after 9/11, we saw it after Hurricane Sandy. We know how to rally for the occasion, and we hang together.