Five Questions with Ira Yankwitt
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Executive Director, Literary Assistance Center
"Purpose is the fuel, the energy that drives us."
Ira Yankwitt is the executive director of the Literacy Assistance Center, a New York City-based, not-for-profit organization. Working in the field of adult literacy education since 1993, he’s dedicated to strengthening and expanding the adult education system. For Ira, advancing adult literacy as a core value in our society and a foundation for equal opportunity and social justice are key areas. A longtime advocate for the expansion of adult literacy services, Ira plays a lead role in the New York City Coalition for Adult Literacy (NYCCAL), and was the chair of NYCCAL’s predecessor, the NYC Grassroots Literacy Coalition.
What does purpose mean to you?
In my organization, we talk a lot about mission. Our mission functions like the shoulders on our highway and the guide on our road. But purpose is the fuel, the energy that drives us. It’s the internal spark that makes all of us get up in the morning, work late into the evening and feel commitment and passion toward everything we do.
How does purpose play a part in your daily life?
There are days that my work speaks directly to my sense of purpose; when I’m advocating for increases in adult literacy funding, training new leaders, or connecting our field to broader social justice movements. Then there are days when my work is largely administrative and operational. My sense of purpose is what makes the latter days feel as valuable and important as the former.
How have you seen purpose evolve or change in your organization?
Since its founding 36 years ago, a primary focus of my organization has been training adult literacy teachers; our sense of purpose came from supporting, strengthening and building the confidence of the teachers that we work with. This is still very much a core part of what drives us, but our sense of purpose has also evolved to focus more broadly and boldly on equity and justice for the students and communities that these teachers and their programs serve.
Describe your leadership philosophy.
“Empower your people.” I see my role as giving my staff the respect, trust, and autonomy they deserve and offering them all the support they ask for and need. Their depth of knowledge, talent, passion, and driving sense of purpose take care of all the rest.
What career advice would you give your younger self?
It’s the same advice I give to my younger staff members and, truth be told, to my older self today: Always lead with “Yes!” When you’re offered an opportunity, always see the possibilities to make an impact and to better fulfill your sense of purpose, rather than to immediately jump to all of the challenges and obstacles. You can always go back and reconsider, but you can never go back and open a door you’ve closed, locked, and walked away from.
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