What These Consultants Did on Their Volunteer Day

The city's public housing is falling apart, but a crew in Brooklyn did their part to spruce up a corner of it

Audrey Fox, third from left, worked with her colleagues to install shelves for computers (Photos by Steve Koepp)

Audrey Fox, who works for the global consulting firm Accenture, had a literally passing acquaintance with the Farragut Houses. “It’s on my bike ride. I’m a bicycle commuter and I pass this building all the time,” said Fox, who rides from her home in Bedford-Stuyvesant to Soho, where she works as an interface designer.

Today was different. This time she was inside the houses, along with about two dozen of her Accenture colleagues, refurbishing and repainting the community center on their annual day of service. “It feels good to do work that’s relevant to my borough,” said Fox.

The Farragut complex, like most of the buildings owned by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), is in a crisis of disrepair and neglect. The cluster of ten buildings in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, constructed in 1951-52, were the subject of a short film last year titled The Forgotten Farragut. About 3,400 residents live there, the majority of them in poverty, in sharp contrast with their neighbors in next-door Dumbo, where the median household income is ten times higher.

Brandon Edmonds, right, a consulting analyst at Accenture, rolled on paint in the center’s art room

New York City is nearing an agreement to spend $1 billion to start fixing NYCHA, but in the meantime, the Accenture volunteers were doing what they could to spruce up several rooms in Farragut’s community center. Alis Cambol, a senior design-and-innovation principal, used a roller to help put a fresh coat of paint on the walls of the art room. Young residents of the houses had picked out several bright pastel colors, which were creating a kind of Easter-egg theme as the paint went up. “It’s really nice to meet people from different parts of Accenture who are like-minded and want to give back to the community. I’ll probably do this again,” said Cambol, who lives in Fort Greene.

Accenture’s staff gets to choose what they’ll do on their day of service. Today, about 400 employees from the New York staff of 5,000 were spread out across the city, volunteering for tasks ranging from computer coding to trash pickup to renovations, said Lynn McMahon, managing director of the New York Metro Office, who was wearing a red T-shirt like the rest of her crew. While Accenture at large has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to philanthropy, she said, the volunteer work is important because “people like to do things that are hands-on.”

Bhavana Smith, an Accenture senior manager, drilled through cinder-block walls to install shelving

Fixing the community center, where young people gather, fits the company’s social-responsibility goals, which include a focus on education. “A lot of what we do in New York is to make sure people are prepared for the work force,” said McMahon. The company’s New York offices are in Manhattan and New Jersey, but Brooklyn was a choice for many of the volunteers. “A large part of our population lives in Brooklyn,” she said. “Hundreds and hundreds of them.”

The Farragut center is one of four operated by Brooklyn Community Services that includes a program called Cornerstone, which offers youth activities, workforce development, community events, and community building. Rebuilding Together New York City, which partnered with Accenture to fix up the Farragut center, is a non-profit focused on free home repairs and a wide range of other projects to help low-income New Yorkers, depending on “what the community needs,” said Kimberly George, Rebuilding Together NYC’s executive director.

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A case in point was the Farragut center’s gym, which had been out of commission for ten months because of a huge hole in the middle of the floor, possibly from water damage, said George. There was no NYCHA money to fix it, but Rebuilding Together came along and replaced the floorboards and put a new coat of paint on the walls. Today, the repaired gym was ready for action again.

Meanwhile, Accenture consultant Bhavana Smith was operating a large power drill to bore holes in cinder-block walls, which was turning into a long, grinding process. “This is hands-on at the place where it’s needed most,” she said. “We’re putting in workstations for computers–or we’re trying to put in workstations for computers,” she said, getting back to her noisy work.

Steve Koepp is the editor of The Bridge. Previously, he was editorial director of Time Inc. Books, executive editor of Fortune and deputy managing editor of Time.