Emma Wolfe ’01 Is Back at Barnard

Meet the College’s Associate Vice President for External Relations and Leadership Development

By Mary Cunningham

Emma Wolfe Athena EIR

Emma Wolfe ’01, who first walked through Barnard’s gates as a new student in 1997, has returned to the College after more than two decades working in activism and city government — including 12 years with Bill de Blasio during his tenure as NYC’s public advocate and then mayor. In her role as the Associate Vice President for External Relations and Leadership Development, she will enhance Barnard’s relationships with government officials and expand leadership development opportunities for students, staff, and faculty.

Wolfe filled us in on her time at Barnard and what it means to participate in community activism.  

How did your studies at Barnard inform your career? 
I was in the Urban Studies Program, and it was this great mix of learning how cities worked, the histories of them, and interesting research. In our coursework, we got assignments that forced us out into neighborhoods where we interacted with New Yorkers from all walks of life. The program was a direct pipeline to the work I would end up doing. It really opened my eyes to the different ways that people impact change in urban environments. Once you get a dose of that, it’s incredibly compelling, and I didn’t want to let it go.

What does leadership development look like on a granular level?
It’s thinking about how to move people into leadership roles. To have any kind of functional organization, people have to step up in all kinds of ways. Organizing is not just the things that people often associate it with, like going door to door and getting petitions signed or standing up with a bullhorn. Some of the best organizers I’ve ever met have a real keen sense of how to build a team who can really feel like they’re growing and maximizing themselves. That’s leadership.

Why is it important for Barnard to cultivate relationships with the New York City community?
New York City is a rich place for policymaking and for innovation. There’s such an opportunity for impact. There are people and places in the public and the private sector, plus effective nonprofit organizations and grassroots, that make up the fabric of the city. If we can connect the work that’s happening there with the desire for activism and service here at Barnard, it’s a win-win.

Any advice for students interested in community organizing or politics?
I think it’s important to understand that there are different ways to make change. Students shouldn’t feel like they are pigeonholed into social or public-facing roles. Nowadays, there’s this association with politics and organizing with speaking truth to power. That has a place, but it is one very distinctive place. And if that is not something that you vibe with, that doesn’t mean you cannot contribute. You can do research, you can start up your own company, you can work in public service, you can volunteer, you can organize behind the scenes. The beauty of creating change in New York is there are a million ways to do it.   

Latest IssueFall 2022