Tiffanie De Gannes ’11

In 2007, Tiffanie De Gannes ’11 had just finished her associate degree at Metropolitan College of New York and was deciding her next move. She was working as an executive assistant at the engineering firm of former New York City transportation commissioner Sam “Gridlock” Schwartz ’69. Schwartz encouraged her to seek out a bachelor’s degree at his alma mater, Brooklyn College. After graduating with a B.A. in political science, De Gannes earned a master’s degree in urban policy and leadership at Hunter College (CUNY) and now works at the Ford Foundation. She also serves as mentor for young students via iMentor, a mentorship program provided by the New York City Board of Education. Mentors assist high school juniors and seniors with successfully navigate the first and second years of college.

De Gannes credits the mentorship she received from her Brooklyn College family for steering her into a career she loves and volunteering for causes close to her heart.

Why did you choose Brooklyn College, and why political science?

After earning my associate degree, my boss, Sam Schwartz, suggested continuing my education at Brooklyn College. When I stepped onto campus, I didn’t realize there was this kind of experience in Brooklyn. Honestly, I am from the inner city. I’d never attended college on a “traditional” college campus. Here was this place steps away from the subway and bus stops.

Who were some of the people who shaped your experience here?

Once I enrolled, I met with an adviser and asked, “Which major doesn’t require math?” She described political science to me, and it sounded fascinating. So I took a class with Professor Hussein Faraj. It was amazing how he could take complicated material, like the history of the Peloponnesian War, and show how the outcome and events surrounding it resonate today. Professor Paisley Currah was also one of my best teachers. He opened my mind to seeing things through a wider lens.

How did you come to work at the Ford Foundation?

After working for Sam, I got a job in the office of Hunter College’s then-president, Jennifer Raab, as her assistant. While there, I saw how people were giving money to colleges. It sparked my curiosity about that kind of giving. In pursuing my master’s degree at Hunter College, I took an intro course in philanthropy and was intrigued. I mean, you’ve heard of the Ford Foundation, but do you know the intricacies of grantmaking or social justice? A peer in the office got a job at the Rockefeller Foundation, and I realized I wanted to work at a foundation, too.

Then a job opened up at the Ford Foundation. The recruiter was straight with me and told me it would be challenging. I told the recruiter that she could hire someone smarter than me, or someone with a fancy degree, but they will never outwork me. And there are plenty of folks at the foundation with Ivy League degrees. I was not intimidated and was just as confident because of Brooklyn College’s reputation for turning out folks who become tops in their field.

What are your responsibilities at the Ford Foundation?

I’m director, project management on the IT team, which includes lots of change management around technology and system change. It is what it sounds like: how we manage change. For instance, how do you prepare an institution like Ford with 10 global offices to change its grantmaking system? That’s going to change how you work, how you engage in the conversations you have, the processes that go with that, and the tools you use. I say, let’s talk about how we are going to introduce the new system. Let’s get you comfortable with the concepts. Let’s look at the workload impact. Let’s look at all of the interdependencies for that work. What are the risks of this change? It’s a newer role at Ford and for me as I entered my eighth year; it is not one they’ve had before, but it’s one they knew they needed.

You’re also on the New York Foundling’s junior board. What brought you to that organization?

I was raised in foster care and adopted when I was eight. I know how hard it can be. When I hear people say they were raised in foster care, there’s always a question as to how your life could have turned out and a stigma attached. I am vulnerable but also confident enough to say here is my story and here is how it helped shape me, instead of “Woe is me, I went through foster care.”

I was born to a mother who was addicted to drugs and had four small children, including me. She didn’t know what to do. Years later, she said the best thing she could do was put us in foster care. I was very fortunate to have been adopted; my siblings, unfortunately, were not. My adoptive family had very strong values around education. My parents—particularly my mother who had grown up in and experienced the challenges of the Jim Crow era of segregated America—used to say you can’t be a Black girl in White America without an education, and that is something that struck me even after she passed on.

Then I got into my career and saw the Ford Foundation’s impact on the world. When you work in a place like Ford, you begin to see how much more you can do as a human being. I thought about my impact and what I am doing in the spaces that are important to me. And what’s important to me is kids in foster care. There aren’t enough people in positions who are vocal and saying, “Hey, I’m part of this tribe. I’m part of this community.”

What work do you do as a junior board member?

The junior board is aimed at fundraising and making sure kids have additional funds. Of course, you get funding from governments or donors or things like that. But how can we find extra resources for things like the holidays? We do a big thing at Foundling called Camp Felix, making sure the kids can have an authentic camping experience with outdoor activities, arts and crafts, music and dancing.

You also make time to give back to Brooklyn College. Tell us about that.

I’m on campus every semester at the Magner Career Center with Natalie Guarin-Klein and Pamela Brown. I do webinars, as well as in-person exploration discussions, attend the job fairs, and have participated in career panels. I’ll continue to do so to show students how far a degree in the arts will take you if you are committed..

Working at a place like the Ford Foundation showed me not only how I can help do things like raise funds, but how I can help, period. Some people will look at me and consider me successful, but I’m always asking myself, “How can I take what I’ve got and help the next generation?” Every day I ask, “What can I do?”