Leslie Faerstein has over 40 years of experience in nonprofit administration. She also has a private psychotherapy practice in New York. Last but not least, she’s the executive director at Amazing.community, a nonprofit organization that works towards expanding the horizon for women in work.
Q. Tell us a little bit about Amazing Community, and how you ended up in this role.
Amazing.community’s mission is to expand the work horizon for women over 50. We work with women and with companies. We just had our two-day Inclusion by Design conference to get human resources, talent managers and business leaders involved in the conversation about what women over 50 bring to the jobs. Women between 50 and 65 are the largest unemployed female population in the United States.
Our founder, Stela Lupushor, figured out a way to help these women get back into the workforce. It was twofold: working with them so they can upscale, learn the skills and understand how things have changed since they last interviewed or wrote a resume; and then, working on changing the whole culture so that women got included.
When I first met Stella I had been out of work for about two years. Before that, I had always been employed and I had only interviewed for one job in my life, because I was always recruited.
I had left my last job because funding had gotten cut, and I wasn’t enjoying doing it. I was about 65 and I thought: “No problem, I’ll get a job”. Well, it wasn’t so easy — I couldn’t even get an interview. It was shocking, demoralizing, scary. When you spend your life in the nonprofit sector you don’t have a pension, or a lot of savings. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t even getting interviews for jobs I was completely qualified for. It took me a minute, but I realized it was my age. Now I was over 65, and the statistics show women working up until 65 years old. Somehow we drop off the scale at that age. There are exceptions, but we’re not being considered for jobs.
Then I met Stela through a mutual friend. I had been doing research and some lecturing on women aging and body image, and Stela was looking to start something for older women, but she didn’t know what yet. When we discussed it, we agreed that it should be a non-profit given what she wanted to do, we could get funding that way. She asked if I could be the executive director, and I said yes.
Q. You also have a private practice. Could you talk about that? How does it connect with the work you do at Amazing.community?
Right after I got my doctorate I stayed home for about two years, because I’d had a baby. I didn’t know what to do at that point, I didn’t know if I had overqualified myself. I went for some career counseling to find out what were my skills, aside from just the title of Doctor, and started thinking about what I wanted to do. Then some physician friends of mine told me about a group that was starting a for-profit clinic, and they needed someone to start it, so I went for it.
At that point — early 80’s — nobody was really treating eating disorders. I got trained by Susie Orbach, who was the mother of feminist thinking in eating disorders — she wrote Fat is a feminist issue back in 1978, which changed my life personally. It was mind blowing, she made me realize that this isn’t just a personal issue — it’s a cultural and sociological issue. I got the training and started building a clinic, but I also wanted to start a nonprofit mental health clinic, because there were many women on public assistance who had eating problems and had been sexually abused — there’s often a correlation between the two — who couldn’t afford to go for individual therapy.
We almost didn’t get our license because at the license hearing a group of white men were the ones in charge of making the approval for the non-profit and mental health clinic licenses. They said: “It’s a white women’s disease. Why should we give a license to this clinic?” But we did get it. And I set up a nonprofit, New York state licensed, mental health clinic, the first one specialized in eating disorders and women who had been sexually abused.
That experience made me see there was a very large group of women who were not being included, who were not getting treatment. People assumed only rich white women had anorexia or bulimia. We trained dozens of therapists and we treated hundreds of women. I got incredibly involved in the whole movement around eating disorders as a woman’s issue, and I also started a private practice because there were women of other means who wanted individual therapy. Eating disorders — compulsive eating, bulimia, anorexia — became my primary line of work as a therapist.
In terms of how it relates to Amazing.community. My whole concept of inclusion and including women who need help of any kind, and the whole idea that I’ve been working on lately around women body image and aging, because in this culture it’s very hard to age.The other day I saw an Instagram photo of one of these older women who dress in great clothes, wearing a T-shirt that said “Not dead yet”; and I thought: “exactly”.
I really started delving into what it’s like to age in this culture and how can we begin to change the way we see aging; to raise women’s awareness that this is natural. There are things that happen when you get older, and no matter how much plastic surgery you have or how much your diet, there are things in your body that are going to start to change — and it’s upsetting. It’s not easy starting to recognize things that slow you down. That’s part of what we’re doing with Amazing.community: we help women talk about what goes on as they get older — culturally, in their peer group, sociologically, and certainly what goes on in the work culture where it’s so much harder.
Q. Last October you had an amazingly successful conference, “Inclusion by design”, where you explored the intersection of gender and age in the workplace and you came up with actual solutions that people could use right after the conference. Tell us more about that and what came out of it.
We never expected it to be as successful and powerful as it was, we had never done this before. There were lots of things that came out of it, and most of them will be published at inclusionbydesign.org. We’ll have panels posted there where people can see what came out of it. The most powerful thing was the way people — and there were men, as well as people with physical disabilities, from the LGBTQ community, people of color; old and young people. There was an incredible span of diverse populations, and everybody was talking to everybody. I’ve since heard how many people connected and have maintained contact; they felt they had finally found their community, and for some of them it was the first time they had really felt included. As for the men, they didn’t really know what the situation was, and the conference made them aware of it.
What came out of Inclusion by Design was a sense of community — everybody was asking what the next steps were, when are we doing this again. We’re having a follow-up on December 5th, and there we’ll plan for what we’re going to do on Equal-Pay-Day, April 2nd. We’re going to keep the movement going. The conference gave people hands-on experience on things like design thinking, or sense-making, as well as the opportunity to listen to some top people in their fields talk about the real situation with older women and work.
Q. Before joining Amazing.Community you were heading up a fascinating nonprofit: Musicians On Call. Can you tell us about that?
Musicians On Call was founded in 2000 by two young music industry entrepreneurs. They were taking musicians to Memorial Sloan Kettering to play in the common area, and one day there was a patient who was too sick to come out but wanted to hear some music; so the nurse asked if they could bring the musician back to the room. They did it, and they saw what the experience of one-on-one was like. Many groups play in hospital lobbies and waiting rooms, but nobody was doing this — taking a musician to patients’ bedsides to play — so these two guys decided to start a nonprofit that did just that. That was the one job I ever interviewed for, and I was hired to start the nonprofit and grow it. It was an incredible experience, I was there for nearly 14 years, in which time it grew from one program at Memorial Sloan Kettering, to 50 weekly programs in six cities.
We had a trained volunteer guide in every hospital who would accompany musicians into the rooms, but he or she would go into the room first and say “we have a volunteer musician, would you like to hear some music?” If they said yes, great. If they said no, at least we gave them some sense of agency, because when do you get to say “no” at a hospital? So that’s what we did. The mission was to bring live and recorded music to the bedsides of patients of healthcare facilities. Back in the day we had CDs and we put together CD pharmacies: we worked with all the big record labels, they sent us CDs — we had around 20 thousand CDs in the office. We would pack up a couple of hundred with Discmans, when we could still get them, and send them off to the hospital so patients could listen in emergency rooms and surgery in their beds. It was simple, but it was amazing. To the point where I left we played for about 450.000 individual patients over 13 and a half years. Simple and powerful.
Q. Through Amazing.Community you’re working with women, helping them develop skills to make them better suited for jobs. You also work with the organizations and companies that generate jobs, so that they can better take advantage of the skills of these amazing women. What can we expect next from Inclusion by Design and Amazing.community?
One of the things we need immediately is some funding — fundraising, sponsorship grants, corporate social responsibility, etc. because that’s the way we’ll be able to grow and do our work. Right now it’s just Stella and me, and a wonderful group of volunteers who are helping us.
Our plans now are twofold. One is certainly to follow up from Inclusion by Design, as I mentioned, on December 5th. It’s a follow-up but we’re also planning for the future, and we want to see what people have done since the event. Then, as I said, we’re planning for Equal Pay Day on April 2nd.
Right now we’re working on building a chatbot — The Amazing Bot — for women who are out of work and are looking to get back into the job force, who have a job but are looking to pivot to something new, and also women who want to become entrepreneurs. We want to co-create, with women over 50, a chatbot that gives them resources, gives them a little nudge to get those resumes out, for example, and asks how can it help with that. That’s really exciting because we don’t really see other organizations working on technology this way.
This is a whole new world for me, I never thought I would be interested in it or understand it. Now I can build a basic bot, I studied Introduction to coding, and I’m 68. It really isn’t about age.
Q. Since you started working in this field, have you see any changes or anything exciting that you want to share?
Honestly, the most exciting thing is Amazing.community. People send me studies, I look online, and I see a lot of statistics that are a little depressing. I don’t see a whole lot that’s happening. The McKinsey report that just came out basically said that there isn’t happening much in terms of including women; and that’s why Amazing.Community is one of the most exciting initiatives right now, because of what our mission is and because of the people who are joining us. Men, women, young, old — all sorts of people who believe in what we’re doing and really want to help grow the movement and change the culture. We’re reminded of those days in the 60s, when I was growing up, when people really thought they could change the world. We can change the world, and we did in a lot of ways back in the day.