Last month on the lush rooftop of the Delancey, a group of youthful New Yorkers gathered for a good cause. It was a summer kickoff event hosted by the “Innovator’s Guild,” University Settlement’s new organization for young professionals. Katie Sexton (pictured, third from the left) is a driving influence behind the fledgling group. A recent college graduate, she also happens to hold a seat on the board of directors of this country’s oldest settlement house. Recently, we chatted with Katie about her path to the boardroom, and about helping to lead one of the Lower East Side’s most venerable social service institutions.
It was in a business class at Yale University that the idea first came to Katie to approach University Settlement. Although she’s preparing to begin law school at NYU next year, Katie has always been interested in service organizations, and has a passion for advocacy. Michael Zisser, the settlement’s executive director, was intrigued by the idea.
It’s safe to say she’s a “few years” younger than any other member of the board. But “because Katie was born and raised in the community,” Zisser says, “she brings an intelligence and understanding of the work we do that’s rare and much appreciated.” The daughter of NYU President John Sexton, she grew up in Greenwich Village, and has always felt “a connection to and an investment in” the city.
Zisser believes Katie’s appointment to the board reflects University Settlement’s determination to cultivate a new generation of committed supporters. “What’s great about having someone like Katie join the board is the potential for a long engagement that can grow and deepen as she grows both personally and professionally,” he says.
The idea behind the Innovator’s Guild, Katie told me, is to make philanthropy accessible for New Yorkers in their 20’s and 30’s. While their first two events have raised some money for the settlement, the real focus is getting new people engaged in the institution’s mission.
Created in 1886, University Settlement has been helping immigrants make a life in this country for generations. Early supporters included Eleanor Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller. Katie has been impressed by the breadth of the organization. 20-thousand New Yorkers every year access a wide range of services, including: child care, pre-school, housing assistance, mental health counseling, college and career preparation, crisis intervention, senior programs, arts events, English classes and afterschool programs.
The Innovators Guild, Katie says, is a way of demonstrating that support for all of these vital programs is not an old fashioned concept. Even as gentrification takes hold on the Lower East Side, she said, it’s clear the community’s needs are only growing. Katie is well aware that many people in the neighborhood blame NYU (and by extension her father) for accelerating the pace of gentrification.
She has vivid memories of the fight over the university’s law school. But she believes it’s important to look at the big picture — acknowledging these concerns and also weighing the school’s positive influences (educational, artistic and philanthropic) in the community.
From a young age, Katie says, her family instilled in her the importance of giving back. After law school, she hopes to build a career in the non-profit world. At University Settlement, she’s getting a good head start.