Updated: Jan 21
Helen Ho joins Karp Strategies as our newest Director to help lead our work on the BQX and other major initiatives. She brings over a decade in senior leadership roles with the NYC Mayor’s Office, LaGuardia Community College, NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and at the helm of innovative, city-shifting non-profits. Helen has led and participated in consensus-building processes on some of the city’s most controversial and transformative projects. She has expertly driven citywide initiatives from design to implementation - building partnerships, managing outreach, and developing strategies for bringing policy to action.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Helen to learn more about her impressive track record of community development and public policy work throughout New York. Read the full Q&A:
We are so excited that you are joining Karp Strategies as our newest Director. What attracted you to Karp Strategies, and what do you hope to achieve in this position?
As a lifelong New Yorker, I am excited to dive deep into the projects that Karp Strategies is working on throughout NYC’s neighborhoods and beyond. I feel particularly aligned with Karp Strategies mission, values, and data-people-place approach. Data can be a powerful tool, but often there are gaps that paint an incomplete picture. Coupling data with genuine community engagement offers a richer understanding of what makes communities tick. As Director, I look forward to continuing Karp Strategies’ practice of consensus-building through on-the-ground community engagement.
As the former Queens Director of the NYC Mayor’s Office Community Affairs Unit, you led campaigns for special initiatives such as Vision Zero, Paid Sick Leave, homelessness, affordable housing rezoning, and police-community relations. Drawing from this wealth of experience, what do you believe are the key ingredients to meaningful community engagement and outreach?
Too often, projects begin with a pre-defined goal or a fixed agenda that’s been formulated without community input. This leads to one-sided conversations instead of an open discussion. Meaningful community engagement begins with a genuine commitment to listen and learn, and to follow through on promises.
Your track record of community development in Queens goes back decades. Tell us about a special moment or victory that your community was able to achieve.
Victories in community development are often small and incremental. It’s a constant effort, but over time, it can lead to real positive change. One project that comes to mind is the Travers Park Play Street in Jackson Heights, Queens. Jackson Heights is an extremely diverse neighborhood that is at the bottom rung in all of NYC when it comes to available park space. Travers Park is the only park for this very dense neighborhood.
When I was at the NYC Parks Department, we began a process in 2007 to convert one of the side streets into a “play street”, a street that is closed to traffic during certain hours so it can be used as a play area. The community fully embraced the play street, and what originally started out as a weekend-only experiment turned into a full-time neighborhood gathering place, thanks to the organizing and lobbying efforts of the community. The community board at the time was not very friendly to the idea of closing the street down, so in 2010 the neighborhood led a 200-person rally (many of whom were children) and ultimately secured a permanent play street in 2012.
When the play street first started, it pretty much still looked like a street. The community just finished their capital process and now it looks like a full extension of the park. It’s been a very long fight and it still isn’t over. There’s still debate left over about whether cars should have the right of way in one of the park’s egresses.
I’ve come into this project at different points and times. I saw this project start when I was at the Parks Department, and then when I switched jobs to the Health Department, I was able to see it transition from a weekend/seasonal park to a permanent play street. This project is particularly special to me as an urban planner and as a bicycle advocate. I’m always thinking about how small tweaks to the public realm can make a huge impact on communities.
Here at Karp Strategies, we often work at the intersection of the private, public, and non-profit sectors to forge critical partnerships that move projects forward. Throughout your career, how have you seen cross-sector consensus come into practice?
I saw the impact of cross-sector partnerships during my tenure at the NYC Parks Department. There are so many neighborhoods like Jackson Heights that barely have access to parks and other green spaces. This is particularly true in low-income neighborhoods, and for the parks that do exist, they’re often under-resourced. Funding for park maintenance is unevenly distributed throughout this city, and is often cast as lower priority when it comes to addressing a community’s needs. There’s a great partnership between the City Parks Foundation and the NYC Parks Department that helps distribute resources more equitably throughout the city. The partnership enables staff to operate outside of politics to bring resources that lead to healthier neighborhoods.
And last but not least, tell us about one of your favorite things to do in Queens.
The Socrates Sculpture Park is my favorite neighborhood park. I also really enjoy biking from my home in Astoria to Rockaway Beach via Queens Boulevard and Woodhaven Boulevard. It’s about an hour and half ride (I bike slowly). The whole journey is nice and then after a long day at the beach, I like to be lazy and take the ferry back.