I first met Rebecca Krucoff in 2009 through a work colleague during a time when I was very unhappy doing what I was doing. I was beginning to explore other options within the education world and was interested in learning more about the non-profit that she started, The Urban Memory Project, which “encourages city residents to explore the vital relationship between their personal histories and the history of their city.” It sounded like something that combined all of my interests – teaching, New York City history, civic engagement, hands-on learning and cultural awareness – into one organization. I reached out to her and asked her to meet me for coffee, which she graciously agreed to do. It just took that one meeting to fall in love with The Urban Memory Project, but more importantly it allowed me the opportunity to meet someone who took a risk in order to follow what she loved.
The Urban Memory Project is Rebecca, and vice versa. It was built entirely from scratch from her thoughts, experiences, and passion. I admired (and still do) Rebecca’s ability to be self-reflective. Ultimately using her reflections to realize what it was that she wanted to do with her life. In the time that I have know Rebecca, the organization has met both big successes and big challenges – but I’ve been very impressed with the ways in which Rebecca has moved through the challenges versus letting them completely undo her. I wanted to talk to her more about this and share her journey with you…
Can you first give a little background about the Urban Memory Project (UMP) and what made you decide to start it?
Well, the UMP started in 2005. I was working at the New York Harbor School at the time– I was a teacher there. I had been teaching at New York Public Schools for awhile and I was beginning to get a little fried on the whole experience. I loved the teaching of the kids, but I was commuting an hour and fifteen minutes each way to the school out in Bushwick and the job was exhausting. When you are a teacher you are not only teaching but have all kinds of administrative duties – there is just so much that you are doing as a teacher and I was getting a little fried. At the time I was thinking really long and hard about well, I’m not super happy doing what I’m doing right now. What would make me happy? I have journals from that time where I was just constantly writing –
- Ok, I’m interested in this or I’m interested in that?
- My fantasy job would be this _______________.
- If I could create my perfect job it would have this element or that element.
- What am I really interested in? It seems like I’m really interested in this.
I was just scribbling all the time in and I kept going back to this idea that what I really loved was using the community to teach kids about history. I really loved being out in the field with kids, and I loved to teach kids. I really thought that connecting kids to their community was very exciting. I was really interested in issues affecting the community – like community history or gentrification or changes that were going on, and this was at a time when the city was developing really quickly. There was lots of money in the city and the city was literally transforming every day. And so I was beginning to be interested in what was changing and were people being thoughtful about it and what’s getting lost and all these topics.
Just at this time I met Ain Gordon who is a playwright who comes from a very different background in the sense that he is an artist, but he was also interested in those very same issues. He was looking for a way to create work about New York City – a lot of his work is oral history based and so he wanted to tap into a group of people that he didn’t normally have access to and he thought that a school might be the way to do it. So we met and we decided to try a program at the New York Harbor School where the students would study the community of Bushwick [Brooklyn], learn the history of Bushwick and do some oral histories in Bushwick.
So, when you first started The Urban Memory Project you were still teaching at the Harbor School?
Yes, we worked on a semester long project with a group of sophomores who read issues about how Bushwick was changing, interviewed different Bushwick community members, took a walk around Bushwick, took photographs of Bushwick, read a lot about the history of Bushwick – the students learned that it had been a white neighborhood full of Germans and there were brewers there. They couldn’t believe all this happened. They then presented their work in skits and writing and showing their photographs. It was really fun and the kids really got into it, and I thought, “I want to do THIS. This is what I want to do if I can figure out a way to make this work.”
Ain was interested in it, too, and so he and I schemed because I was looking for what it was that I wanted to do. He said, “You know, why don’t we try to bring this to other schools? Why don’t you go out and see if other schools would be interested in something like this before you leave your job?” So, I went to my friend who is a principal in Brooklyn. I said to her, “I have this fantasy job that I want to tell you about that I would love to do.” I described to her basically the school program of the UMP and I said to her, “So, do you think this is a fantasy?” And she said, “No, I would totally hire you because I would see this as embedded Professional Development for my teachers.” I said, “Really?! How much would you pay?” She said, “I would pay you $10,000.” I said, “Really?! Ok!” So, that first year I decided to do it.
So, you left full-time teaching to pursue the Urban Memory Project?
Yes – that first year I lined up four schools.
That’s pretty impressive – four schools in your first year. Were those all personal connections?
They were all personal connections, but it was a super exciting year. I had a great year with the Project. At the time it didn’t have a name even. We knew that we wanted the kids to do oral histories and to take photographs and to study issues and to present their work about the community and get out into the community, but we were still developing it as we went along. That year we ended up working with a professional photographer, Jackie Neale, who was a friend of Vincent Falivene’s, a teacher who we worked with in Williamsburg. She had connections and decided that we should have a show at the Municipal Arts Society. So, she had her and the students’ photographs presented in an exhibition at the Municipal Arts Society, which she totally organized.
It was at this show that we realized, “Oh – if there is going to be label text mentioning this work that we do, we should have a name for what we do.” So we came up with “The Urban Memory Project.” So – we were first just a project, and then we were a name attached. As soon as the name was attached we were like, “Oh – are we an organization?” So, we became an organization. So, it was very organic.
What was the process of becoming an organization like for you?
We were thinking – ok, if you are an organization then you could get funding to do your work. So, we applied to New York State, got a lawyer and got incorporated. So, we became a non-profit corporation and then we applied for national non-profit status so we are a 501c3 – which means that I can do vending in schools, which means that I ostensibly can get grant money. Then all of the sudden we were this non-profit organization – and then all of the sudden we had to have a board – and then all of the sudden I was a director of a non-profit organization.
So you existed as a program for a year before ever taking this step – in a sense, you had a trial run?
It took awhile, but this was when schools still had money and the economy was flourishing. I got hired back in all of the schools and I added some schools. So that now I’ve been in a whole bunch of different schools until the bust in 2008 when the school budgets got slashed. What’s been interesting is that it has evolved. So, in the beginning it was just a school program. It had core elements that still remain true in any UMP school program today, but things have morphed and changed since the beginning. In the first few years, I would say four years, UMP paid me – and it was like a dream come true.
Right – you quit your job as a teacher, which is a reliable salary, to something that might not be deemed as being quite as reliable. What was the transition like from being salaried to doing your own thing?
I took a pay cut. But – I knew how much I needed to earn and I earned it. I earned more as a teacher, for sure. But – I was happier. So that was a big deal. It turns out that I am very well suited to the freelance life, as well.
Cause – it’s very different! It takes a level of being very committed to what you are doing.
It does. And a level of clarity. I think you need to know what you are good at and what you are not. And I know that I am not good at lots of things, but I feel very confident about what I am good at doing.
With that, in the beginning you had a partner, to a degree, but there has been a lot of it that you have done on your own. So, when you talk about knowing what you are good at and not good at – what are some of the struggles that you encounter when you are, for the most part, working independently by yourself?
That’s a good question. Ain has always been a good thought partner so I feel that when I am confused or need some guidance I can turn to him. He’s a freelancer, too, and he has a lot more experience than I do in this area, so he has been able to mentor me in that way. I also have a board, so I can turn to the board. That is one of the benefits of being a non-profit. The other thing is that – and this is still weird to me – people love the UMP and they want to help. I try to take advantage of those things because I need the help.
Right – the importance of knowing when to ask for help.
Yes- when I am feeling alone, I have to remember that I am not alone. Believing in what you do helps, too. I think I’m really good at selling the UMP because I really believe in it. I’m not selling something that I don’t care about. It’s the thing that brings me joy. I LOVE it and when I talk about it, I light up and people respond to that because I really mean it. I feel that it is an interesting project that people can get behind and so that generates support.
Since we met, I’ve heard the way that you talk about UMP change. Not at the core of it, but I feel that you have worked really hard at fine-tuning your mission, and thinking about whom else you can reach. Can you talk a little bit about how that has grown and changed over time?
Right! Well – I think that is where I was going with the budget thing. I was kind of flying high. It was new and exciting and schools loved me and they had the money to pay for it. It was all fee-for-service and it was great. And then all of the sudden the economy tanked and school budgets were slashed and then slashed and then slashed and then all of the sudden I was struggling to find – well, people were still interested in the UMP, but they just didn’t have the extra money around. I never took it personally, because the money just wasn’t there.
Well, when you are really passionate about something, I would imagine it is actually hard not to take it personally?
Maybe? But, I guess, I know what I offer and I know what I don’t. So – sometimes it is the right thing and sometimes it is not. And that’s okay. One of the challenges that happened after the economic crisis was – what am I going to do since schools don’t have the money to pay fee-for-service for me anymore? So – what are my choices? At that point that was really challenging because I thought, “Maybe I just have to close shop. Maybe UMP had a good run – I was lucky for five years and now I am just done and should pack up.” Of course that made me really sad. But that is when I began to re-think and branch out to my own freelancing. So, I started taking on other freelancing work that was not even related to UMP because I needed an income. At that point I thought, “Should I get a full-time job? Should I try to teach again? What should I do?” But – I didn’t want to do any of those things. I was lucky because I have a very deep Rolodex in New York – I’ve been here 18 years. Well, it’s partly luck and partly that I have been working in the field for a long time!
18 years of working here, but is there anything else that you do to keep up that Rolodex? Networking is so huge when you are a freelancer!
I’m good at reaching out. I make a real point to reach out to people and network with people that I know. When I’m feeling slow I’ll pop an email to someone and say, “Hey! Thinking about you. Wondering what you guys are up to these days” – or – “Can I meet with you and buy you a cup of coffee?” I think part of being a freelancer in this field is just constantly keeping your networks and your contacts going, and I am constantly doing that. One of the ways I have been doing that lately is thinking about whom can the UMP collaborate with? Because after the economy got worse, the people who are giving money these days are giving money to people who are a known commodity. Have a proven track record and have a funding history – and I am not that. I am a small-tiny organization.
Which is so hard cause where do you start? You have to start somewhere!
So, I decided I would try to solve this situation in three ways. The first is that I have decided to collaborate with people who I do have a real, genuine interest in collaborating with but who are also much more substantial then I am. So for example, City Lore and Place Matters. City Lore has been around since the 80s, they have an excellent funding history and they do wonderful work. I love the people who started City Lore. I love the woman who is in charge of Place Matters for City Lore. We have all wanted to work together for years. So we are now meeting regularly to figure out how to work together and what kinds of projects would be a good match and then they are applying for grants cause they have the funding history.
The second way is to recognize that I can’t rely on UMP being my sole income. That used to be true that I could, but it’s not true now. Maybe it will be again, but I don’t know. Obviously I need an income, so I have found ways to get an income that are still meaningful to me and that rely on my skills as an educator but are not necessarily UMP.
The third is that I do other consulting work that comes my way that may or may not be related to UMP. UMP is where my passion goes. So I can do projects that might just cover the expenses, but do them because I really want to do them. What started to happen was that people started to give me work that was super exciting and I realized that it wasn’t teaching but it was still UMP work. So the third way is that I have expanded the mission of the UMP. So, I now have a mission that UMP is not just a school program any longer and that was kind of a no brainer but it was a huge shift. Huge.
So these changes just organically started to take shape?
When I started doing the work, I didn’t want to start an organization. I just wanted to do work that I really wanted to do and organically it moved into being an organization and then it organically moved into being a 501c3 and then its organically morphed into being a mission that can do school programs, teacher programs, adult programs and curriculum materials.
Planning vs. letting things organically happen. I think that can be a tough thing, because obviously you need to plan but I think there is a point where you can over-plan and maybe miss some opportunities. I think it is great how so many things organically happened – is that something that you willfully have done and have been conscious about?
So when I was teaching and wanted to leave teaching, I planned a lot. Once it was like, “This is what I want to do,” I just had to figure out how to do those steps. At first it was, “I really want to teach kids in this way – that’s what I really want to do more than anything else in the world,” and so I put that out there into the universe and also literally put it out there – “Hey, principal friend, what do you think of this?”
So, is it also a matter of the stars being aligned, too? In other words, timing?
Right. But, also I am the type of person who thinks – what is it that I want to do? How am I really feeling here? If I can be clear about what it is that I want to do and put it out there in the universe – it’s about clarifying and believing that things can happen. And not necessarily that they will happen, but I’m not afraid to put it out there, I guess. With the full understanding that it might possibly never happen. But, if I don’t put it out there then it will never happen. I think it’s really important to be clear about what it is that you want in your life. I encourage everyone to do that.
So, how do you go about doing that?
Well, I’m not sure everyone is going to get what they want. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be clear about what it is that you want, but you also have to understand that you might not get what you want. At least for a while. But – if you put it out there – then it’s out there – and you can say, “Alright, it might not happen this year, but maybe five years it is going to happen.” If it’s out there – it’s out there. And I’m going to see an opportunity that comes my way and be like, “Okay – that is going to take me toward that.”
But it goes back to what you were saying about being confident about your strengths and what you are good at doing, too.
Right – I’m like, “Look – I’m going to fight for what I want, so I need to figure out what it is that I want.” My acupuncturist was telling me, “You are creative and you are a passionate person and if you are feeling kind of ‘eh’ it’s because you are doing work for other people right now and not for yourself.” And I know what makes me depressed and I know that it’s when I’m not feeling excited about doing stuff. I’m sure that is true for everybody, but maybe it is not. I don’t know – but for me it has always been true.
But now when I am uncomfortable with how things are, sometimes I don’t know it for a while and I’m just kind of stuck. But eventually I’m like, “Wait-I’m uncomfortable and stuck and depressed! There’s something wrong here.” So then I kind of stop and think, “Okay – what am I feeling that I am unhappy about? ” It might be that I’m not feeling passionate about what I am doing or sad because UMP can’t function in schools the way it used to anymore. And I think about, “Well, okay – what is it that I really want?” And I write down all of the things that I want and all of the things that I don’t want. And I just continually revise those things and think about what is realistic and if this is what I want how do I go about getting this thing?
I also recently hired a coach for UMP that I meet with every six weeks. She is really smart and she helped me totally restate the mission and vision of UMP. And then everything just started going click-click-click-click. Oh – we could do this, we could do this –
It opened your mind to not limiting yourself –
Right. I think it is mostly you can’t be afraid to say what you want. And not necessarily out-loud. That’s why I like to write stuff down, because it is hard and scary to say it out-loud. But, I think, you have to be willing to admit to yourself what it is that you really want and if you do it alone – if you do it on paper or in a journal – then nobody else has to see it, nobody else will judge it. You can be free to say exactly what it is that you want and just get it out there. And then I’m just the kind of person that believes that once you get it out there on paper you can figure out how to do it. But, that stated, I want to say again that you can figure out how to do it, but it might not happen for a really long time. Like it’s not going to happen tomorrow – well it might happen tomorrow, but likely, no!
- If somebody says, “I want to be happy” – or – “I’m unhappy.” Then it’s just asking, “Why?”
- What are you unhappy about?
- What makes you unhappy?
- What do you imagine will make you feel happy?
If people are saying, “What will make me feel happy is to be passionate about what I’m doing or to feel valued.” Well, then those are good starts. And then you just probe –
- What feels meaningful to you?
- What gives meaning to you?
- What makes you feel full of joy?
- Where do you feel valued?
- What are your strengths?
And then you just start listing that stuff out. You are never going to get everything that you want, but how do you start figuring that out? I think it is just a process of constantly reflecting and being honest with yourself about what it is that you want and being patient because it’s not going to happen right away. But also believing that it NEVER going to happen if you are not honest about it.
I feel that whenever I speak about the UMP to others it is always met with the same sentiments – “that’s amazing!” Or “that’s really interesting!” And I think this is because of several reasons, but one that always comes to mind is your focus on community. How do you create community in a city like New York, which is so big? The whole point of UMP is that it points out that communities in NY change and shift so much. I feel like there is something in your work that people just connect with.
And that makes me feel happy and successful. That is great. The fact that you can say that…I’m like, “Ok! I’ve been successful.”
NOTES of Reflection:
- The idea of first testing something out – Rebecca tested the program while she was working at Harbor School, which gave her some time to reflect on what it was that she wanted and see what it would look like in action. This connects to the idea of just giving something a try without it having to be something BIG. What are the positives to testing and evaluating as you create your bigger vision?
- The importance of using your network to get something started. The four schools she worked with her first year were people that she knew. How can you tap into your already existing networks to build a new network?
- JUST START – In the 1st year that the program was being developed, they were still working on it. They didn’t wait till every single detail was figured out. What are the steps you can take to just get started?
- Importance of being patient while all the while writing down your thoughts, ideas, and goals. What does your list of what you want and don’t want look like?