Bora Lee

MPA in Public & Nonprofit Management & Policy

Bora Lee headshot

Can you tell us a bit about your job responsibilities?

I'm the Chief of Staff at Fifth Avenue Committee. Our mission is to advance economic, social, and racial justice in New York City through integrated community-centered affordable housing, grassroots organizing, policy, advocacy, transformative education, training, and additional services that really build the power to shape our community's future. The organization came out of the 20th century civil rights movement and the fight against redlining in New York City, particularly in Brooklyn. It started out as a group of neighbors that came together and wanted to organize and fight against the changes that were happening in their neighborhood and the lack of investment in their neighborhood. As Chief of Staff, I own organizational development, culture, and special projects, which also includes the advancement of our Race, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (REDI) journey and the launch of our anti-racism journey.

What were you doing before you came to NYU Wagner?

I worked primarily in nonprofit organizations in New York City that serve immigrant communities, particularly Asian Americans. I started in grassroots community organizing and then moved into organizations that focus on policy and delivering social services. It's been incredible to be at organizations that work to serve my ethnic and racial community. I grew up in both Brooklyn and Queens, but Brooklyn is special to me. My parents were small business owners on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn. That neighborhood helped move my family into the middle class, so I'm thankful for the community. When I think about my work at the Fifth Avenue Committee, it's incredible to work for a place where I can serve my geographical community now.

Why did you choose NYU Wagner for graduate school?

I saw graduate school as an investment in my career and my future. I am intentional about being a public servant because I don't take this work for granted. The reality is that I don't have to work a corporate job to care for generations of my family. Because of that, I get to focus on doing community-centered work that I care about. As a born and bred New Yorker, I knew I wanted to stay in the city and Wagner provided a few things that were important to me. One was a part-time MPA program with most of my classes in either the evenings or weekends. Another was the community for part-time students. While it is more difficult to build community among students who are part-time, Wagner succeeded at building a sense of camaraderie. The professors and the courses helped lay out a map of the future for me. At the time, I felt a ceiling to my growth and didn't understand how to navigate it. I wasn’t sure what I needed or who I needed to connect to in order to break through. At some point, I realized that I needed peers outside of my workspace and a range of classes to help show me the bigger picture. Getting a little taste of everything at Wagner - from performance management and evaluation to policy pipelines to financial management - helped me understand how I fit in it all.

How did your experiences at NYU Wagner prepare you for your career?

As Chief of Staff, I lead our REDI journey and am preparing to launch our anti-racist journey. The Diversity, Identity, and Inclusion class that I took with Professor Merle McGee helped me understand and explore that topic in a safe, academic space. Professor McGee was great at facilitating challenging conversations with students from a wide variety of backgrounds and identities. It was incredible to have a professor who was not only able to educate us on the different facets and kinds of racism but also encouraged us to reflect on our own identity and where we fit when it comes to race in the context of America. To this day, I go back to all my resources and notes from that class for my work, and I really hone in Professor McGee's facilitation skills whenever I have to facilitate a conversation with staff on this topic. The Organizational and Managerial Development class with Professor Robertson Work helped me use my community organizing skills and understand how I can translate them into strategic management skills, especially when seeking to build staff-centered organizations. It helped me learn to think about institutions as communities and explore the importance of fostering a sense of togetherness, through honoring staff, in achieving effective and efficient outcomes. I still carry the exercises and frameworks from that class with me now.

What impact do you hope to make through your career and/or organization?

What I love about Fifth Avenue Committee is that we are the square peg that tries to fit in a circle, and yet we somehow manage to expand that hole to make ourselves fit. We do that by building community power and developing leadership within the community. It's not that there isn't authentic leadership already - we just support them in finding their voice and giving them the tools to understand how to navigate the systems and how to bring their voice to the table. We don't try to represent them. We bring them with us. We also do the same with our staff. That’s a legacy I want to continue. When it comes to affordable housing, we’re in a crisis with vacancy rates in NYC being so low and about 50% of the U.S. housing stock in homes of 3+ bedrooms being owned by individuals who don't utilize that space. Fifth Avenue Committee reframes housing for this country with humility and humanity first. We look at racism as a public health crisis - it's part of the housing crisis, and it's rooted in everything that we do in America. We show people how they can be actors of change. We as communities of people must understand how we participate in racism, and also how we can work together to make change.

What advice/wisdom would you share with current Wagner students?

Be brave. There's so much in life that makes us hesitate, scare us, and makes us take our time. While intentionality and time are important, there is also urgency. Being at Wagner is your first step in being brave. Admitting that “I don't know, so I'm willing to learn, and I'm willing to learn from others is the first step.” It’s important to be brave in spaces where you may not feel safe. Start by preparing yourself to feel as safe as possible and seek to engage with people who are not like-minded. Learn to actively listen, centering your shared humanity first. Bravery helps us to maintain a willingness to create change person by person, not to change their mind or to make it about you versus me, but to really understand people, their stories, and where they're coming from. Give space to classmates who may not have the same views as you. Be willing to listen because the reasons why they have different views from you is because of their stories and their history led them here. All we can do is learn. You already took that first step of being brave by being in graduate school, so now let's take it a notch further.

Credits: Interview conducted in April 2024 by Kayla M. Foster, an MPA-PNP 2025 student at NYU Wagner.