I met Taeko Frost when the Washington Heights CORNER Project, the nonprofit where she serves as executive director, was a semi finalist in the NPCCNY Nonprofit Excellence Awards. These awards are given to the nonprofit organizations in New York that have the best management practices. As part of the selection process, the Selection Committee, which included me, visited her offices at the northern tip of Manhattan, where the organization works to improve the health and quality of life of people who use drugs. Frost’s team does this by giving access to clean syringes through street-based outreach and by providing resources, advocacy, and various educational, health and referral services that reduce risks associated with drug use, including HIV, viral hepatitis and overdose.
Frost fits the description of a nonprofiteer I aspire to be: a woman with kind eyes and a bright smile who also possesses a quiet fierceness reserved for anything that gets in the way of protecting the people she serves.
What also inspired me about Frost was that while it was clear what a strong and smart leader she was, it was also obvious that she ran her organization inclusively. When the Washington Heights CORNER Project (or, just CORNER Project for short; “CORNER” comes from “Community Outreach and Resources, Needle Exchange and Harm Reduction”) presented to the selection committee that day, Frost, her board member, a program director, a long time administrative assistant and a part time accountant spoke with equal weight, authority and commitment—also with a good measure of healthy banter.
Frost and her leadership style left me wanting to get to know her better, and led me to contact her once my service with the selection committee ended. I wanted to hear more about who she was, how she came to lead the organization and how she managed to run the organization so inclusively.
Q) You said your CORNER Project career started out as “a girl on a street corner, handing out needles from her backpack.” How did you become that girl?
A) My background is in HIV prevention and reproductive health. When I moved to NYC, I worked for the Community Health Care Network and their clinics in Washington Heights as a health educator. I provided counseling and HIV testing for clinic visitors, which included mostly the uninsured, including the homeless population. Many of them were injection drug users.
That’s when Jamie Favaro, a social worker and the founder of the Washington Heights CORNER Project, came to speak with the clinic director, about a needle exchange program she started. The director said, “You should meet Jamie. She’s young, she’s fun, and her program sounds like something you would be interested in.”
I was immediately sold on the concept of harm reduction and Favaro’s vision of helping people who use drugs overcome stigma and systemic barriers to care in an empowering and non- judgmental environment. It just made sense to me. For some people, you have to make the public health justification for helping drug users, and for some it’s the economic justification. But for me, it just clicked right away. It was like falling in love.
I was in a full-time Masters program while working full time, so time was tight, but I began volunteering right away, whenever I could. I would go to school, work all day, then work the night shifts with peer educators for CORNER Project. I was handing out clean needles in exchange for used ones, and worked to give HIV testing and birth control access to women. Really, I just fell in love. I felt that I was helping to address a serious gap in the community. I was touched, moved and inspired by the fact that I was getting exposed to a world most people don’t get to see.
Then you started with CORNER Project full time?
Favaro finally received funding to hire full time staff. She asked me over G-Chat one day, “Hey, I think I finally figured out how to fund a position for you. Do you want it? We can figure out the title later.” I gave my one-month notice the same day. That was 2009.
Wow, you just knew this is what you had to do. What was your working relationship with Favaro like?
She and I were great partners, and she has become one of my best friends. As the organization’s first program director, I brought my public health background to the table. And Favaro really modeled for me what I call “participatory management,” which is a term for meeting our participants where they are and really listening to their needs.
Our participants do not have good experiences going to other places as drug users. Health providers do not work well with drug users, which makes them further disengaged. I learned so much about listening to those we serve, and our work has really benefited from this way of working.
Then you transitioned to being a young executive director, succeeding the founder. How was that experience for you?
In 2012, Favaro, who had started a family by then, decided to leave the agency. She now works for Injection Drug Users Health Alliance (IDUHA), a coalition of harm reduction programs in NYC.
It’s funny how it worked out. At the time I had been thinking I would need to leave so I can continue to grow in my career but didn’t know how I could abandon Favaro and the organization, and she had wanted to leave but did not want to abandon me. We were both thinking of each other and not talking to each other.
Over the years, I had the opportunity to work in pretty much every single role at the CORNER Project. As a volunteer for two years, I did a lot of street-based outreach and started hepatitis C testing for our population, which is more prevalent than HIV. I think it’s such a luxury to have started as a volunteer and to work as an executive director at the same organization. I know how important every position is to the success of the agency.
I had never heard of the term “participatory management“ until we met. Please tell me more.
At the core of our mission is to meet people where they are and empower them to help themselves. Our participants come to us as they are. It’s important to model that in the way we operate and to incorporate their real experiences into our programs, which means really listening to our clients’, the active users’, perspectives.
Is there example of this that you can share?
This may sound small, but it was an important moment of hearing from the people we serve.
Providing referrals for drug treatment that would be accepted by healthcare providers was a real challenge. The active drug users were often declined, even with a referral on our letterhead, because they did not have any IDs or any numbers that proved they were qualified to receive care, and they were unable to advocate for themselves.
One of our first major investments was an ID machine. The ID with their photos, relevant information and the agency contact information gave our participants the confidence and a feeling of legitimacy in facing health care providers.
The ID, in turn, showed the providers that we had our participants’ backs. It showed them that there was a real place and people they could call with questions.
New York State Health Department or funders couldn’t tell us about this kind of challenge nor could they give us a solution. We could only know it by listening to the people we serve, and it was such a critical piece of the program that led to other important things.
Who are your major funders?
The New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute oversees all state syringe exchange programs and is the regulatory body—they’ve supported syringe exchange programs for over 20 years.
We also have received tremendous support from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In light of the federal ban on syringe exchange funding, we are grateful to have both our state and city health departments in support of our work.
Foundation funding is also critical to support wrap around services, such as our drop-in center, support groups and shower/washer/dryer facility. The MAC AIDS Fund, Comer Family Foundation and Henry van Ameringen have been supporters of our work for some time.
What are your numbers? How big is the organization in terms of your budget size, staff size, number of clients, etc.?
Our budget is $1.3M. We have a full-time staff of 8, a part-time staff of 8, 7 peer educators, a nurse practitioner and a licensed clinical social worker.
In the syringe exchange program, we have 250 unique users per month. Of course we serve a lot more people through one-off programs and events. Last year, we had 2000 unique individuals enrolled in the various services we provide.
What are your thoughts on growth?
In the last three to four years, we’ve pretty much doubled in size in terms of budget, staff and number of people served, and we moved to an office space four times our initial space. Now we can store more stuff! (Laughs.) It sometimes feels like a blur.
We have recently begun doing outreach to a neighborhood just south of us in Hamilton Heights. We want to expand to open another small site there, and then continue to do street-based work there and in Inwood. We’ve already enrolled about 150 people in that area.
We are really listening for the input of the community, both internally (that’s our participants) and externally (that would be Community Boards, City Council, other nonprofit organizations and the NYC Police Department) to guide our expansion. In addition to deepening our services onsite to include more comprehensive mental health and care coordination services, at the core of our work we want to ensure that everyone has a sterile syringe for every time they inject—so we consider horizontal (geographic) and vertical (depth of services) as parallel strategies.
I appreciate your perspective on horizontal vs. vertical growth, and how you are considering the needs of your participants as you expand.
We have this old table we brought over from the old space. We used that one table for everything early on, like taking blood samples to holding important meetings. Gross, I know. (Laughs) That table reminds me of how we all came together to take care of each other: our clients, staff and volunteers.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how much more we do beyond what is “potentially billable.” When people are in a crisis, you take care of them. You tend to under-document when there is an emergency. Each service recipient is a person and not a Medicaid number. It’s an important balance: I want to do right by the organization and do big things, but also have integrity in our work with our clients.
To connect with Frost, find her on Twitter.
To contribute to Frost’s work, click to donate.