Alan van Capelle, who led the Empire State Pride Agenda from 2003-2010, now heads up the Educational Alliance. | EDUCATIONAL ALLIANCE
BY SAM SPOKONY | In a sense, Alan van Capelle’s first mid-life crisis came at the age of 34.
It was then, in January 2010, that he stepped down from his post as executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, less than two months after the New York State Senate had decisively rejected marriage equality in its first floor vote on the issue. Van Capelle’s seven-year tenure – which had come after his years as a union leader — made him the longest-serving leader of the Pride Agenda, but he was still a young man.
“I worried, after I left the Pride Agenda, that I would never again find something that was so personally significant or meaningful to me,” he told Gay City News in an interview last month. “And that definitely would’ve been a better experience to have in my 50s than in my 30s, because I was just nervous that trying to replicate something that meaningful would be impossible.”
Former Pride Agenda leader finds a new home in the quest for social justice
After departing the Pride Agenda, van Capelle became deputy comptroller for public affairs under then-New York City Comptroller John Liu. About a year-and-a-half later, he switched course again to become president and CEO of Bend the Arc, a Jewish faith-based social justice advocacy group.
This year, van Capelle, now 39, took the next leap in his career, becoming president and CEO of the Educational Alliance, a 124-year-old nonprofit social service organization based on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. And for van Capelle, that decision certainly wasn’t just about staying close to his LES home, where he’s lived with his husband and their two young sons for the past three years.
“After all those worries I had [in 2010], I don’t think they’re going to be a problem anymore,” he said. “In my short time so far at the Educational Alliance, I think I’ve been more personally and professionally fulfilled than anything since my time at the Pride Agenda.”
That’s because he plans to bring new life to the advocacy efforts of the organization, which opened its groundbreaking Manny Cantor Center, on East Broadway near Canal Street, in February.
The center is being promoted as a vibrant new source of equal opportunities within a community that includes both ultra-wealthy residents and those living below the poverty line in public housing developments. Along with numerous other services, it features an early-childhood education program that serves both students who come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and those from low-income families receiving federal Head Start subsidies, as well as a fitness center that offers sliding scale membership fees to include low-income residents alongside their wealthier neighbors.
“It’s really an experiment, because there isn’t another facility in this city that is situated at the intersection of several different communities and which is designed to be for everybody across the economic strata,” said van Capelle. “It just doesn’t exist anywhere else in the city, and my hope is that this is a model that can be replicated.”
He explained that establishing the influence of the Manny Cantor Center — and expanding the impact of the Educational Alliance as a whole — will involve a shift in the organization’s approach to communicating with the greater public.
“What I see often in service organizations is that we do a great job of providing services and we do less of a good job of actually telling the stories of the people we’re serving,” he said. “If we tell those stories and we let clients tell their stories, I think we become better advocates. And I think that one of the changes that needs to take place within service organizations is to begin having the conversation not just about feeding people who are poor, but actually discussing why they’re poor in the first place.”
Van Capelle, who remains well connected in the political sphere, also hopes to bring his organization more directly in touch with City Hall — perhaps by bringing City Hall to him.
“I hope the mayor will have a cabinet meeting at the Manny Cantor Center someday,” he mused, adding that, several days after his interview with Gay City News, he would be meeting with Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, deputy mayor for health and human services, who led the city’s Department for the Aging under Mayor Michael Bloomberg before being called up by his successor Bill de Blasio.
And after several years of swapping leadership posts, does van Capelle see himself committing to this new goal for the long haul?
“Yes,” he said. “I want to wake up every day, like I did at the Pride Agenda, and feel like I’m making a difference. And I feel like every single day that I’ve gone to work so far at the Educational Alliance, I can actually say that the lives of people in my neighborhood have been improved. To me, that’s what’s really important.”