International Socioeconomics Laboratory
International Socioeconomics Laboratory

In Conversation With Matthew Longo, Program Manager of the NYC Department of Buildings


Matt Longo is the current program manager of youth and industry engagement at the New York City Department of Buildings. Before that, he worked for the Skadden Arps Honors Program and Legal Studies, an academic program at the City College of New York. It aims to increase diversity in law schools and the legal profession overall by working with students from diverse backgrounds to ensure they have the experience necessary to succeed in law school. Before that, he was a writing instructor at CCNY, particularly for students in the master's program in public policy.

FINXERUNT: How does the work you do empower the youth in your community?

LONGO: In my current job, I work to develop programs for students interested in careers in architecture, engineering, construction safety, inspections, sustainability, public policy; just a whole array of other careers vital to the work of the Department of Buildings. In program development, there's also the overarching goal we have to seek, to work with students who otherwise would not have access to professionals in the field or access to in-depth curriculum on previously mentioned topics. We have our DOB Scholars Program, for example, which is a semester-long curriculum and professional development program. For CUNY students interested in the agency's work, we meet weekly and try to create a forum where students can learn and also engage with professionals, and we do have a segment of our internships each year that tie directly into this program. We seek to hire students out of our academic programs, and we've been quite successful at doing so. For example, we have this large networking event as part of that program, which we are in the conclusion of. As of now, these students who previously graduated through the DOB Scholars Program now have full-time jobs at the agency in various roles. They speak directly with our current DOB scholars, which is a nice moment that can happen at the end of that program. For the college folks, we have enrichment programs that incorporate students from all New York area colleges in a 10-week curriculum. This year, we held that enrichment program twice, once in the summer and once in the fall virtually, obviously due to the implications of the pandemic. For the high school students, we developed our Youth Leadership Council for Sustainability and Construction Safety which is primarily a vehicle for students in Career and Technical Education (CTE) who wish to gain insight into things like sustainability in the context of a built environment, forensic engineering, architecture in the context of regulation, and construction safety. In this program, we provide students with a detailed curriculum that we develop with our professionals in various disciplines. The exciting part is that at the end of the program, the students develop their own presentations based on that material. Students are split into groups based on topics of their choosing, and we work with them to develop these outreach presentations on a piece of the curriculum of their choosing. And then, they deliver these presentations to representatives from a number of different city agencies, representatives from their schools, and, of course, various members of the Department of Buildings. It's a pretty exciting and impressive feat that the students achieve before they even graduate high school. In addition to all the academic programming for the college folks and the high school students, we also host fellowships, internships, college aids, and a whole slew of roles at the agency for students to start to develop the necessary infield experience in their chosen profession to succeed once they graduate. We also collaborate with the Department of Youth and Community Development: their ladders for Leaders Program for some replacements. We collaborated with CUNY’s internship programming, the CTE: Current Technical Education, high schools, internship programs, you name it. All in all, it's a multifaceted approach. And in my role, I'm doing everything I can to build out these programs and make them as meaningful as possible, and the careers of the students that we serve.

FINXERUNT: Why did you choose to pursue youth engagement as an occupation?

LONGO: That's a really good question. That question took me the longest to answer. When you get into your work, you aren't always thinking about your motivations for doing it because you have so much to do. I can't every morning say, “Why am I answering this email right now?” The idea of service in my professional life is important to me. It's really hard for me to feel satisfied with a day of work if I don't feel like I contributed to a student's success in some way. Because I viscerally remember the anxiety of being a student in high school or college, that feeling of like, “How on earth am I going to get from point A to point B in my career or life?” or even more common, “What is point A? What's my destination?” The anxiety that comes from those questions can really freeze up your decision-making and start to dig into your self-esteem. And I remember all of those feelings, and fortunately, I had people over the course of my life who helped me out of those experiences and helped to guide me to where I wanted to go. I want to serve other people in that kind of role now, and it wouldn't feel right to me to receive that level of kindness in my own life and then not turn around and give it to somebody else.

FINXERUNT: How have your previous experiences, occupations, or employment prepared you to serve the youth of your community on career development?

LONGO: I spent many years at CCNY, and my time there definitely showed me the sheer amount of work it takes to keep an academic program afloat. The issues and concerns of the students often drive programmatic revisions on a frequent basis, so everything we work on needs to keep evolving, along with the needs of the students we work with, in the industries. If we stay static in our programming, we become less and less helpful in the lives of our students. Also, it takes a little while for programs to pick up steam, and sometimes you get lucky. And something that is immediately popular in the curriculum, flows naturally. But often, you're tweaking everything as you go. So my prior work communicated the need for constant revision. And of course, constant diligence with the oversight of the programs is necessary to pick up on the need for revisions. There's really zero room to coast in program development; you can't kick back. And the second you become complacent with the program is the second it starts to deteriorate, and become less relevant in students' lives. I have a taste for perfection. With program development and program oversight, you have to be able to be very clinical with the details, and then also be able to step out periodically. Have that small, small vision to say what is the overarching goal again, and then zoom back in. Stepping back and forth, I mean, is sometimes disorienting. Because I'll be doing something as detailed as reviewing a student's resume. Not even necessarily for hiring or something like that, but to just help that student get where they want to go. I'll go from that to working on figuring out the budget for some massive program that we're trying to build out. Jumping back and forth between the minute and overarching goals is probably the most difficult part of the job.

FINXERUNT: Could you tell us about a time when you faced a challenge in your managerial career and how you grew out of this failure or success? How did it encourage you to pursue further goals in the process or change direction and divert to another goal or process?

LONGO: That's a really good question. I think before I answer it, I'll also say there is no one defining moment of that, you know? I think sometimes when I was younger, I saw it like: you know there'll be some failures in a professional life that would then change that person. Since direction helps them to improve their work in some way, it is constant. Like there's a constant process of somewhat missing the mark. Sometimes you miss it more than other times, and it's very memorable. But no one is succeeding on a 100% kind of basis. Pre-pandemic we were working on building out a program that we felt would be very valuable in students' lives, and due to the nature of the pandemic, we needed to pause that work for the time being. I initially felt a bit discouraged, but then I actually started listening to the advice that we sometimes give to students. With these professional endeavors, you can use the experience of that previously stalled work to rebuild an idea into something even stronger than it was before. As things now gradually approach some version of normality we will now be able to develop that concept into an even better program. Sometimes in these career development kinds of roles, you can get lost in the kinds of things that the students are often getting lost in as well. It's not like that feeling ever stops. Hopefully, you just get better at realizing when you're feeling stuck, and maybe it's self-imposed. Maybe there's a way to get out of that--that discouraged feeling.

FINXERUNT: What is your main goal/priority at this point in your career? In other words, what do you hope to accomplish out of your experiences with the youth as part of the Department of Buildings?

LONGO: It's gonna sound complicated, but I think, to build academic programs that are sustainable, that can live on their own with a shifting staff. What I mean is, often valuable ideas and programs can be tied to only one or two people, and the rest deviate from these or simply don’t live up to the required standard. I want the programs I work on to be able to stand up without me, and I think that means they'll last, not that I'm going anywhere in the near future. But I think in order for a program to be successful, it can't be tied to just one or two people. It might sound strange at first, but I want these programs to be able to survive without the guidance of a few people. It also connects to trust too, like trusting others you know, with these ideas. Sometimes it's like it's your baby, this concept or program, or something that you really, really believe in. I think early in my professional life, I had a harder time giving that stuff away in the sense that I felt I needed to do everything, and that's just not possible. Number one, you will burn out if you retain this mindset, and two, you can’t commit to it because nobody has all the skills necessary to make something successful 100% of the time, it just doesn't make sense.

FINXERUNT: Could you provide an example of civic leadership in your work? It could be any special anecdote or a memorable experience while working with your students.

LONGO: There's one image that I always think about, particularly if I am feeling rather discouraged. If something didn't go the way it was supposed to go, one of my favorite memories would be seeing a student who had worked through our DOB Scholars Program by working through an internship, working through college aid experience, every single step of our program, and finally landing a full-time position with us. All this took place over the course of about a year, and I saw that individual patiently explain an idea to the youth relevant to civil engineering to a student who had been in one of our high school internship programs. Keep in mind, this was in our office, pre-pandemic. Watching this, I felt like I was just sort of watching this process happen passively. I felt as if I was watching our programming come full circle, and this was something I was very proud of, to have been a part of all of the work that it took to get to that small instructional moment between any two people. That's an experience, or rather a moment I cherish having seen.