March is a month-long celebration of women and social workers and at CUCS, we’ve got every reason to celebrate the intersection of the two with all the incredible women social workers that move our agency forward. We’re excited to feature one of them, Alex Francis, CUCS’s Deputy Chief Program Officer, who sat down with us to share her captivating story on the evolution of her career and how it has shaped her into the person she is today.
How did you get started in your career?
My career started on the psychology track. While in undergraduate school, I interned for a psychologist as a research assistant in the psychopharmacological unit at Manhattan Psychiatric Center studying the efficacy of Ziprasidone. Coincidentally, the psychologist I interned for was teaching at NYU while I went there for graduate school. I saw he was offering a course on criminality and violence and decided to take his class so that he could get a feel for me as a student and not just as his intern. That psychologist became my first mentor.
Whenever he would go somewhere and start up a new project, he would recruit me. When he became the director of a pilot re-entry program in Brooklyn, he recruited me to work with him as a case manager and that became my first job. I was working with folks who had a severe mental illness and advocating in the courts at arraignment. Instead of giving them jail time, the goal was getting them to agree to work with my agency at the time to go into treatment. I would help link them to psychiatric services and drug treatment. I did a lot of escorting and spent a lot of hours in the emergency room. I really loved being a case manager.
What did you love most about being a case manager?
I loved meeting people and learning about someone’s story outside of their present circumstances. Nobody says “when I grow up, I want to be homeless” or “I want to be drug addicted.” For most parents, their dream isn’t for their child to be vulnerable in that way and so there’s a story before the point I meet them. I’m always intrigued what that story is and I try to connect them back to that and remind them that these might be your circumstances now but your life had a trajectory before this and there’s every reason to think that you can get back on that trajectory.
After the case manager role in Brooklyn, I became a discharge specialist/case manager on Riker’s Island with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. That’s when I really fell in love with re-entry. For a long time, I thought that was going to be my life’s work.
How did you land at CUCS and what was your first placement?
After a few other roles in-between, I interviewed to be the assistant program director for Riker’s Island Single Stop. I always knew I was going to end up at Riker’s when I left the first time so I was happy when I had the chance to come back as the assistant program director of Single Stop. Once the program director, who was also my mentor, left a year and a half later, I was promoted to Program Director. I had to be talked into it a little bit because I didn’t know if I was ready for that, but I’m glad I did. I was the Program Director at Riker’s Island Single Stop for 8 years.
How did Riker’s shape you personally and professionally, particularly as a woman in that kind of challenging environment?
It’s not for everyone. But for me, representation is very important. The reality is that the majority of the men and women who are in the system are people of color. It’s very rare for them to see folks of authority who are not uniformed, carrying a weapon, or a badge that can impact their lives in a positive way. I found it to be a privilege that I could be in that setting. Not only does CUCS’s Single Stop offer great services, we hold a reputation for the level of respect that clients are treated with.
As a woman working on Riker’s, I’ve never felt unsafe and I’m a small woman — I’m only 5 feet tall! I always see people as people. Whatever can happen to me at Riker’s can happen to me in the psych hospital or it can happen to me walking to work. There’s no reason for me to have a heightened concern working with my clients there than I would anywhere else. I have a skillset that I can call on if I need it. I treat people with tremendous amount of respect and I’m hopeful that that’ll take me a long way in the way that other people treat me. Respect is a really big deal for our clients and the culture on the island.
Your current role is quite different from your past roles. What’s your favorite part about it?
My favorite part of my job is developing the people that I supervise. All of my direct reports have been women and because I’m now a little bit more removed from direct service work, my focus is on my directors and how to prepare them for the next level, how to give them feedback that’s helpful beyond the scope of an immediate project or problem, and something that’s going to help them increase their confidence and navigate professionally as women. It’s because people, honestly most of whom were men, poured that into me and I feel like I have to pay that forward and want to give them everything that I know.
Looking back at your career, what surprises you the most?
I realize that at almost every step in my career, I’ve had that “I don’t deserve to be here” moment. As a woman, I think often times we experience imposter syndrome and I’ve thought to myself “one day it’s going to occur to someone that I’m really not as smart as they think I am and what am I going to do when that happens?”
When I was working at Midtown Community Court as a resource coordinator, the judge that we were working with recommended to my agency that I literally be given the job of deputy director, which at that point was a three-step jump for me. That became my first promotion. Because it was such a big jump, I thought “this is a recipe for failure and there’s no way that this is going to work out for me.” I remember asking the judge why he did that and he said, “I feel like you’re smart and even if you think you’re not ready for it, you have what it takes to figure it out, and that’s not necessarily something that you can teach to everyone.” Yet, even though others saw something in me that they wanted to cultivate and develop, that “I don’t deserve to be here” moment persisted at almost every stage in my career.
What advice would you give young women starting in this field and following your footsteps?
It’s a good time to be a woman. And I say that because growing up professionally, I was always super conscious that the amount of effort I would have to put in is different than other people, as a woman of color and as a woman in general. The way I navigate the world comes with a set of rules: I can’t be too emotional, I can’t be too abrasive, I can’t be too strong but I have to be extra smart or at least seem extra smart because that’s my best chance at succeeding.
My advice for women would be to take the time to get to know what you want and not to rush that process because once you know what you want and you know who you are, you’re in a better position to set the expectations of how others should treat you personally and professionally. You’re in a better position to demand that for yourself. Don’t be afraid to learn from every experience. There is no race, there is no timeline. Seize the environment that you’re in, this is a great time to be a woman.