Phil Coltoff, MSW '64

Phil Coltoff

Executive-in-Residence, Katherine and Howard Aibel Visiting Professor

“The One Thing I Liked More Than Anything Else”

I grew up in the Bronx in a working-class family that was also very culturally and intellectually curious. My initial interest was in the sciences and I went to college to study biochemistry. I did well, but I never loved it.

Over time I realized that the one thing that I liked more than anything else was working with people, especially children. During college, I worked at local settlement houses in the Bronx and got a lot of positive feedback from colleagues there. I realized this was something I wanted to do. After college and before graduate school, I was one of the first Youth Board workers in New York City in the middle of the 1950s. I worked there for about five years before enrolling in graduate school for social work at New York University.

The School in the ‘60s
The School in the 1960s was full of activity. With the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, there existed a healthy turmoil, and for social work, a field which is focused on responding to community needs, this was very exciting and stimulating.

Also, the 1960s were a time in our nation’s history when social work was gaining more public recognition. During the ‘60s John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy called social welfare the New Frontier. Then Lyndon Johnson became president and called it the War on Poverty. Social work was at the center of this activity—reform-minded and activist. It was concerned with not just adjusting people to a rotten society, but with changing society, changing the institutions within the society. This was very much a part of what we were doing during this time at the School.

My field placement during this time was on the Lower East Side at an organization called Mobilization for Youth. Our mission was to get young people engaged and it was through this process that I really learned how to organize and lead people.

Children’s Aid Society
After I graduated from NYU’s School of Social Work, I worked in a settlement house on the Upper West Side and then worked for a large community center in Queens/Nassau County. After a few years, a former colleague who was the head of University Settlement, called and said, “I’ve just accepted this position at the Children’s Aid Society. It’s been a bit sleepy in recent years. If you come and join me here, we’ll see what we can do about that. The board might ask us to leave in three years or they might ask us to stay forever.”

The opportunity sounded challenging, risky, and exciting. I came to Children’s Aid and three years flew by. Then three years became five, five became eight and then, as it’s said, the rest is history. I became the CEO and ran the organization for more than 25 years.

Full Circle
When I began considering retiring from the Children’s Aid Society, Dean Suzanne England of NYU’s School of Social Work contacted me with a proposition—to come to the School and develop some programs in not-for-profit leadership.

And so, over the last three years, I’ve taught an executive leadership course, which has served close to 200 people, I’m guest lecturing in classes, and I’ve developed a lecture series in Women in Leadership in the not-for-profit sector. While 75 percent of all not-for-profit professionals are women, only 22 percent are executives, which is why I feel it’s important that we offer programs to explore this topic.

Another initiative we’re working on is collaborating with other schools. We recently established a partnership with NYU’s Steinhardt School and created a joint course for educators and social workers placed in public schools. The partnership has been exceptionally rewarding as students learn the vocabulary of the other disciplines and understand how to work together for the betterment of students.

Finally, I teach a course here in partnership with the Department of Education, which trains parent coordinators working in New York City public schools. The purpose of the class is to further parent training to include more complex situations ranging from adolescent sexuality to changing the climate within school buildings.

My experiences at the School of Social Work both as a student in the ‘60s and as a teacher today are invaluable to my development as a professional and person.

A New Book
In addition to my work at the Silver School of Social Work, I’m also working on a new book on executive leadership. I’ve written two books: one on the history of the Children’s Aid Society and one on leadership. Since my last book on leadership was published three years ago, things have changed tremendously. I realized that I needed to update my book to reflect the new economic realities. This updated book, At the Crossroad, will come out in September 2010.

“In and of the City”
President John Sexton says that New York University is “in and of the city.” It’s in and of a city that deals with poverty, with issues of immigration, families who are struggling in today’s economy, with isolated elderly individuals in need of services. The list goes on, and the School of Social Work’s faculty, students and alumni are at the heart of the action, affecting positive change throughout our communities. I think we’re entering a period of renewed activism.