In my senior year at Hamilton, I landed a community organizing internship at a tiny, non-profit, low-income housing agency in Utica’s Corn Hill neighborhood, run by a Hamilton alumna. I remember the contrast between ivy-covered College Hill and lost-its-luster Corn Hill. The boss was fun and inspiring. She talked strategy with me in the agency’s makeshift storefront office, sent me to potluck dinners at local churches, and had me explore the streets of turn-of-the-century homes, (many vacant) to interview residents about their challenges. It was an immersive education on class, privilege, place, culture and community in an entirely unfamiliar microenvironment filled with character. I loved it.
My professional career, ever since, seems inspired by the chance opportunity I had in college to work for a mission-driven non-profit. After that, I hunted down one authentic context after another for strategizing to solve intersecting problems faced by Americans on the economic margins. Non-profits brought me challenge and responsibility early in my career that seems hard to come by in larger professional contexts. At the HIV/AIDS services non-profit where I worked for a decade after graduate school, there were big, lofty goals, a fast pace, a slim budget, and a family atmosphere. This was an excellent work culture in which to launch a career. My projects were targeted to people experiencing homelessness with dual diagnosis, including substance use disorder, and for those leaving corrections systems. The issues carried an intensity, and the work culture had a necessary sense of camaraderie. In this role, I delved into many sectors of the public safety net including supportive housing, disease prevention, behavioral health, and economic mobility.
The second chapter of my career led me to the homelessness response system for special populations including people with mental illness and disabilities. My role was with a non-profit intermediary, under contract with public health, housing, and mental health agencies, to train local level non-profits how to effectively use public grants. From this vantage point, I followed innovations to the field’s paradigms such as housing first, rapid re-housing, and homelessness prevention. Ultimately, this experience drew me my current role in the population health arena of healthcare where I address the social determinants of health.
For those considering working for a mission driven non-profit, realistic expectations are in order. Such jobs are grant funded, have limits to their stability, and lack a long-term career trajectory. But, they also offer entry level roles with substantive responsibility, exposure to myriad sectors, and a steep learning curve. In my experience, this was a stimulating context. For a liberal arts graduate with a learned passion for analytic thinking, and an appetite for helping people and communities, it was a path worth choosing.
Kristina Hals ’86 received a master’s degree from Cornell in community planning. She works currently on human-service programs that address social determinants of health for Medicaid patients in Massachusetts.