Meet Lori Benson, Parks' Visiting First Deputy Commissioner
Two weeks ago, Parks bid a temporary farewell to First Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh and welcomed in his place Lori Benson, director of fitness and health education at the Department of Education. This switch was part of Mayor Bloomberg’s “First Deputy Exchange” initiative, a program he originated at his financial services firm, Bloomberg L.P. Because of the program’s success in fostering innovation and communication between employees, top city officials are now following suit in order to gain a new perspective on important city issues.
Benson has taken over Commissioner Kavanagh’s office while he spends his three weeks at the Department of Environmental Protection. “This office feels like a really big family,” she said. Compared to the Tweed Courthouse in City Hall Park, where the Department of Education is housed, the Arsenal is less concrete and more integrated into its natural surroundings.
“It’s also not a bad way to start the day—looking at the sea lions outside of the window,” Benson said while looking out at Central Park behind her.
Benson’s work at the Department of Education focuses largely on combating childhood obesity, a problem that she says is nation-wide, but that especially affects New York City. About 40% of students from kindergarten to eighth grade are overweight or obese, and one in five public school children come into kindergarten already obese. These numbers, she says, are not improving. The three weeks that she spends at the Parks Department are mainly concentrated on developing joint initiatives and starting a dialogue between the two agencies in order to better fight childhood obesity in New York City. The Department of Education already works closely with the Department of Health, but Benson considers it “a natural progression for Parks to be intertwined in that conversation.”
This conversation is already beginning, and Benson says that she is finding “new connections in every meeting” that she attends at Parks. Most of the ideas that are being discussed are still in early planning phases and cannot be fully divulged, but Benson says that she is looking at ways for both agencies to pool their resources in finding effective remedies to fight childhood obesity.
“What are our assets,” she asks in coming up with new ideas and innovations, “and where can we overlap them?” In coming up with solutions, she hopes that the two departments can by synergistic in their approach, including utilizing Parks facilities for physical education. Benson was surprised when she learned how much territory falls under the Parks Department, a great deal of which can be devoted to exercise and physical education time in public schools.
According to Benson, the experience of having two departments come together has been very helpful. Halfway through Bloomberg’s initiative, she said that she is having “deeper conversations with people who I probably should’ve been having conversations with all along.” The “natural connection” that her work at the Department of Education has with the Parks Department, not to mention the “shared client pool” of 1.1 million public school students in New York City, have resulted in work that she hopes will carry on after her three weeks at Parks is up.
“There are a lot of conversations that are just starting,” Benson said, “and I hope to continue them.”
Written by Kimberly Hanson
QUOTATION FOR THE DAY
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
(1818 – 1895)