Stephan Russo’s Four-Decade Commitment to the Upper West Side

Stephan Russo in his office at the Goddard Riverside Community Center office on Columbus Avenue. | JACKSON CHEN
Stephan Russo in his office at the Goddard Riverside Community Center office on Columbus Avenue. | JACKSON CHEN

BY JACKSON CHEN | It was 1975 when Stephan Russo, fresh from a two-year stretch as a Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia, settled on the Upper West Side. Though his new neighborhood starkly contrasted with the South American barrios he had recently worked in, he was eager to continue his work in community organizing and empowerment.

With no small amount of pluck, Russo sought out an opportunity with the Goddard Riverside Community Center, what was then a 16-year-old nonprofit serving the Upper West Side out of small brownstone.

“So I walked into 161 West 87th Street, gave them my résumé, got an interview with the director,” Russo recalled. “I said ‘Wow, this is going to be a long shot because they’re not going to hire me, I’m this white, middle-class kid who’s just come into this neighborhood.’”

But to his surprise, Bernie Wohl, who was then Goddard Riverside’s executive director and would soon became Russo’s mentor, offered him the newly created job of youth outreach worker.

Russo recalled his earliest days in that role, walking the streets between West 86th and West 96th Streets, approaching neighborhood youth in the streets, on playgrounds, and at the area’s public housing complexes to introduce them to Goddard Riverside and find out what needs they had. The neighborhood during that era was no stranger to local kids dropping out of school as well as gang-related activities, Russo said, with many of the youth he met alienated from basic pillars of growing up like support in their homes and in the classroom.

“They thought we were cops,” he explained. “Here it is this young white guy and my partner. They wouldn’t trust us. Eventually, we would wear them down.”

Conversations followed a typical pattern, Russo recalled.

“Oh, you’re here again.”

“Yes, I’m here from Goddard Riverside Community Center. What are you doing? What’s up? What’s going on?”

“Why do you want to know what’s going on with me?”

It was only through his and his partner’s persistence and suggestions of group outings — with an occasional bribe of free pizza, Russo admitted — that the barriers eventually came down.

“Over time what happens is kids get to know you, they trust you,” he said. “But you have to go out and enter the space, you have to enter the territory of that young person so they can really trust you… and it takes a while.”

Forty years later, Russo, who for the past 18 years has been the executive director of a larger Goddard Riverside Community Center — which now has its home base at 593 Columbus Avenue at West 88th Street — still appreciates the work on the streets that he insists was the key to his success in making him and the agency leaders in the community.

“What does it mean now 40 years later, now I’m running this organization for the last two decades that has 26 programs and all these different sites from early childhood education to senior programs?” Russo said. “[Being] a 25-year outreach worker going out to the streets and working with those kids, that has made me a better executive director of this larger agency.”

Since then, Goddard Riverside has expanded to offering programs for all ages alongside its original youth programs with a staff of 447 — 267 full-time and 180 part-time—and a roughly $26 million budget, according to its latest annual financial disclosures.

Stephan Russo, with a scrapbook that includes pictures from his days four decades ago in the Peace Corps | JACKSON CHEN
Stephan Russo, with a scrapbook that includes pictures from his days four decades ago in the Peace Corps | JACKSON CHEN

Having built field experience over near a quarter-century before stepping into an executive role, Russo said, he’s able to understand the challenges and difficulties his staffers encounter. And despite his role as executive director, he doesn’t shy away from showing up alongside his staff members from time to time, whether the occasion promises warm feelings or potential conflict.

In one recent instance, a tenant in one of Goddard Riverside’s housing programs, aware of his title, screamed at Russo. But he also had the chance last week to visit the nonprofit’s daycare center to join the children and their parents in a Thanksgiving potluck lunch.

More often, though, Russo’s packed schedule restricts him from being in the field as much as he’d like.

“One of the challenges is you move away from the direct work with the people that you want to help,” Russo said of how his typical day has changed over the years. “But my attitude is you use the same skills whether or not you’re running a meeting of the board of directors or whether you’re running a meeting of 10-, 15-, or 16-year-olds.”

After running and caring for Goddard Riverside for nearly two decades, Russo is now just a few footsteps away from passing the baton to a new executive director. Reflecting on his legacy, he said he is proud that he’s been able to grow the organization while staying true to the principles he was introduced to when he first started at the agency as a young man in his 20s. Under Russo’s leadership, the nonprofit has expanded its programming to reach all ages, from their early childhood education centers for those under five, to providing home-delivered meals, low-income housing, and a senior center. Spread through 21 locations across the city, the 26 Goddard Riverside programs also cover legal representation for tenants in affordable housing, supportive housing for homeless adults, and college prep and counseling for school kids.

“The word social justice means something here because every one of our programs and what we do is to try to create a fairer and more equitable society,” Russo said. “Sounds grandiose, but I think it’s one of the guiding principles.”

With no set termination date, he admitted he’s looking forward to taking a breather, but said he would be available to help Goddard Riverside with any transitional needs. From Russo’s account, his may be big shoes to fill in a job he described as a 60 to 70-hour commitment every week — by choice, he emphasized.

Betsy Newell, president of Goddard Riverside’s board of directors, said she got to know Russo when he started as a young outreach worker and watched him gain mastery over the ins and outs of every program at the nonprofit.

“He’s a social worker by training so he is deeply committed to helping people,” Newell said. “I think the biggest part of his footstep is Stephan knows everybody in the neighborhood… he’s constantly stopped by people, the families, kids, the elderly.”

Newell said the board voted on November 30 to approve a new executive director, who will be announced on December 1, the day after Manhattan Express went to press. She acknowledged Russo would be a tough act to follow.

[Editor’s note: On December 1, the Goddard Riverside board announced the appointment of Roderick Jones, the currently the president and CEO of Grace Hill Settlement House in St. Louis as Russo’s successor.]

With over 40 years of community service under his belt, Russo has built an organization likely to ensure that his contributions will endure. Over such a long span, he explained, he’s been able to appreciate the changes that have transformed Goddard Riverside.

“People’s involvement in this place really, really is meaningful, and you don’t see that over a couple of years,” Russo said. “But having seen it over a long period of time is extremely gratifying. In this kind of work, if you really want to make a difference in people’s lives or deal with some of these social issues, you have to see it over time.”