Q&A with Caitlin Krenn, MSW ’16
As a Clinical Supervisor at Win, the largest provider of shelter and supportive housing for New York City’s homeless families, Caitlin Krenn leads a team in meeting the mental health and substance use needs of approximately 600 children and adults each day. Above and beyond her job responsibilities, in Fall 2020, she organized a “Civic Engagement Day” across all the agency’s shelters that resulted in hundreds of shelter residents registering to vote, completing the Census, and learning about their local government. She has now been selected by the Network for Social Work Management for a 2020-21 NSWM Policy Fellowship, a program that encourages social workers in management to be at the forefront of policy. She recently spoke to NYU Silver about her career trajectory, growing interest in policy, and how her NYU Silver education and network have helped her in her journey.
How long have you been at Win and what drew you to your job there?
I joined Win in November 2019. I am the Clinical Supervisor at a transitional housing site for families in Brooklyn with 203 units housing over 650 adults and children at any given time. We provide wraparound services such as childcare, education and employment training, and mental health support services. I supervise a team of seven LMSWs who support residents’ mental health and substance use needs. We’re known as the Thrive team because we’re part of New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray’s ThriveNYC program.
Prior to joining to Win, I was a Social Worker at New Alternatives For Children (NAC). I loved NAC and working for such a strong organization truly solidified my social work skills during my time there, but I was at a point in my career where I wanted to have room for growth, particularly in the policy arena. As a smaller organization, unfortunately there wasn’t room for me to do that at NAC. The opportunity with Win was interesting to me because not only is it a large organization with a long history, strong infrastructure, and great reputation, but the Thrive program is still relatively new, so I would have space for innovation and program development. Then there’s the fact that Win is run by former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and has a really robust policy department. I thought that it would take me one step closer to my policy goal, and provide an opportunity to learn from folks who are in that sphere. That has really proved true, and Win is great about giving employees opportunities to step into roles and flex muscles to strengthen their skills in specific areas of interest.
What is your proudest achievement in your first year at Win?
I’m most proud of having proposed and co-led a robust civic engagement support effort at the agency. With the country in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, a reckoning with systemic racism, the presidential election, and the Census, I saw an urgent need for such an effort. I advocated to my Director and our Assistant Vice Presidents about the idea and they not only invited me to submit a proposal, but they allowed me to be at the forefront of implementation!
The week of September 14, 2020, we held Win “Civic Engagement Day” at the agency’s shelters and supportive housing sites to help residents register and make a plan to vote; request absentee ballots; apply to be paid poll workers; and complete the Census. Also during the events, we held book drives and civic engagement education programs for the kids, explaining why it is so important. All of our sites continued to promote voter registration and Census participation until their respective deadlines. Everyone at Win was so thrilled about it and we ended up registering about 500 clients to vote, and over 1,000 adults and 1,300 children completed the Census.
Was your work on Win’s Civic Engagement Day related to your NSWM Policy Fellowship?
I had applied for but not yet been selected for the fellowship when I was working on the Civic Engagement Day effort, but that project and really getting the experience is what got me so excited to lean into the fellowship opportunity.
What led you to apply for the fellowship?
I have been thinking for some time about how to achieve my longer-term goal of moving into policy when I haven’t had formal professional experience in that area to date. I’ve been very much relying on my NYU Silver network to guide me in that. It was actually Dr. Gary Holden, my Research Professor, who sent me the fellowship information and suggested it would be an opportunity to explore research and policy, and help me decide if I want to pursue a doctorate to continue that work. I got really excited about that, and as I did my own research on the fellowship, I found out what it entails and what I would have the potential to study, I knew it was something I wanted to do.
I should note that Dr. Holden taught me everything I know about research. I wasn’t very strong in statistics in undergrad and his class was intimidating because he believes that at one of the best social work programs in the country, it shouldn’t be easy. But if you are willing to work hard, Dr. Holden will work with you and you will really gain understanding of social work research. I worked very hard, he was always willing to meet with me when I felt I needed more support, and I ended up doing better than I could have hoped for in his class!
What do you plan to focus on in the fellowship?
I aim to think more critically about the intersection of civic engagement and housing insecurity and to promote systemic approaches to make sure that housing insecure people have the appropriate information, access, and tools to be civically engaged. I am particularly interested in understanding the reasons for disengagement. I have a hypothesis about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. When someone is coming into shelter, and they are housing insecure and food insecure, they are not thinking about wanting to vote for the next City Councilmember. If I find that is the case, then how do social workers meet clients where they are? What is our role as professionals in bridging that gap and helping clients address and access the things that they do not have the capacity to be worrying about as they enter shelter? This is true of many things, but in terms of civic engagement, it is imperative because the louder this community’s voice is at the polls and in civic spaces, the more likely an elected official is to prioritize their needs in the district’s budget, policy initiatives, and beyond. It’s our ethical responsibility and duty as social workers to grapple with these questions and put systems in place to address this gap in service. That is what I’m really interested in studying at this time.
Were there experiences at Silver that fueled your interest in policy?
My time at NYU was a turning point for me both personally and professionally; it was a wonderful, incredible, life-changing experience. I actually came to Silver very much wanting to be a direct practitioner, and specifically a child psychotherapist. But I became very interested in policy through the teaching and mentorship of my Policy Professor, Dr. Alma Carten, who is now retired. Although I pursued a clinical path out of school, when I got into the workforce it was clear that so many of the issues that I was seeing were the product of larger systemic injustices. And although I love doing clinical work and I still have such an affinity for it, I realized that if I want to make broad systemic change that will impact people now and in future generations in meaningful ways, I need to move into a policy and advocacy space.
Another specific NYU Silver experience that I would shout out was being the Graduate Student Assocation’s (GSA) Advanced Standing Representative. It was incredible to have the opportunity to not only hold a leadership role but also to use it to think critically and innovatively with other folks who are like-minded. We all wanted to take advantage of everything that NYU had to offer, which is so, so much, but also, under the guidance of our amazing advisor, Associate Dean Courtney O’Mealley, to ask ourselves what could be done differently to enhance and enrich students’ experience. Among other things, our advocacy led to a special breakout session for Advanced Standing students at orientation, since that pathway is a unique experience, and convinced the deans to expand their office hours and begin to hold lunch chats and become more accessible to students. The experience really helped me hone my skills in creating interventions on a systems level, even though it’s a very small microcosm of that. It got me thinking about a whole cohort of people and what could I advocate for that would make every single person’s experience slightly better.
You mentioned your NYU Silver network. Can you say a bit more about that?
The relationships that I made specifically in GSA and in classes were just incredible. All these years later, many of us are still in each other’s lives, celebrating our milestones, facing our challenges, and just holding hands and walking through life together ‒ albeit metaphorically speaking during COVID! So many of my opportunities for advancement have come from someone in my NYU Silver network just shooting me an email saying, “hey, did you see this?” I’m so grateful for that because I can imagine I’d otherwise be walking a very different path.
I have to make special mention of three mentors I keep in touch with very regularly, whom I don’t know where I’d be without, and whom I’m very grateful for: Dr. Holden and Dean O’Mealley, whom I already mentioned, as well as Kelsey Louie, who was my Practice professor, and who has done everything from reviewing my CV, to supporting the growth of my network, to bringing me back to NYU every semester to speak to his class. All three of them have just been so, so important, not just when I found myself at a career crossroads, but at every step along the way.