Brooklynite at the helm of NYC Service agency

The Brooklyn Paper
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New Yorkers aren’t brutish and short−tempered, and Brooklynite Diahann Billings−Burford aims to prove it.

The city’s newly minted chief service officer is relishing her chance to show that if given the opportunity, most people will embrace a new era of volunteerism.

“One of the great parts of my job is that it takes away that stigma that people place on New Yorkers,” she said.

As the head of NYC Service, Billings−Burford, 37, will oversee implementation of the agency’s nearly 40 initiatives, working with staff members of the existing Mayor’s Volunteer Center, along with Urban Fellows. She’ll also supervise a 200−member Civic Corps, being formed through a partnership with the federal Corporation for National and Community Service and its AmeriCorps Vista program.

“As a society, we will never be as good as we can be if we don’t help one another,” she said. “It’s important for most people to belong to something bigger than them ad something great. Few things feel as good as helping others.”

NYC Service is the city’s response to President Barack Obama’s nationwide call to service, according to the mayor’s office. As agency head, Billings−Burford will reportedly be paid $115,000 a year. Before her appointment, Billings−Burford served as deputy executive director for external affairs at City Year New York.

“I dreamt that there would be leadership in government that would understand the power of volunteering. I don’t think I ever dreamed it would be real,” she said.

From an early age, it seems the Clinton Hill resident has been predestined for a life devoted to service.

As a fifth−grader at Public School 8 in Brooklyn Heights, she was singled out by Prep for Prep, a program that says it identifies the city’s most promising students of color and prepares them for placement at private schools citywide, and boarding schools throughout the Northeast.

“That was the first time I really got to see that an individual or an organization can interrupt the life path of a child,” she said.

Billings−Burford went on to attend Poly Prep in Bay Ridge, graduated from Yale University in 1994 and then went on to Columbia School of Law.

As a White House intern the summer before her senior year, she worked in the office that drafted the National and Community Service Trust Act, which established the Corporation for National and Community Service, and formally launched AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs.

“It was the first time I saw people getting excited about volunteeri­ng,” she recalled.

Given Billings­Burford’s upbringing, her success is all the more remarkable.

She grew up in Clinton Hill, well before its recent renaissance. The neighborhood — whose main thoroughfare, Myrtle Avenue, once earned the nickname “murder avenue” — was rife with drugs and violence.

Her family was not untouched by this difficult environment. A sister who struggled with substance abuse never made it out, dying far too young, Billings−Burford said.

“I’ve taken a long route to get tho this point,” Billings−Burford said after her appointment. “It hasn’t been a straight line.”

And she intends to make the most out of her journey.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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