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Community House names new director

After serving as the executive director of Queens Community House for more than three decades, Oliver Lewis Harris has retired and relinquished his leadership position to former Associate Director Irma Rodriguez, leaving behind him an organization very different than the one he helped develop in the late 1970s.

When Harris was hired as the executive director in 1978, three years after the group’s inception, the organization was known as the Forest Hills Community House and consisted of two sites — a community center and an early childhood center, both of which were housed on the same block in Forest Hills.

Under Harris’ leadership, Queens Community House, renamed in 2007, has grown to include sites in neighborhoods throughout the borough and helps more than 20,000 people annually in everything from fighting foreclosure to providing counseling for families. The organization operates branches in Forest Hills, Rego Park, Kew Gardens, Briarwood, Jamaica, Ozone Park, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Astoria and Flushing.

“I feel confident that I am leaving the legacy that we have grown together in very capable hands and under the very capable leadership of Irma Rodriguez,” Harris, a Manhattan resident, wrote in a recent letter to supporters. “… Over the years, Irma has provided the perfect balance to my style. She knows the historic subtleties of the organization, and she has a great perspective on what the Queens Community House can be.”

Rodriguez, a Sunnyside resident, served as the house’s associate director for 24 years and became the executive director designate in 2007. She holds a master’s from the Hunter School of Social Work, where she went on to teach courses in community organizing for 17 years.

“As executive director, it is important to me that organizing remains a cornerstone of our agency’s mission,” Rodriguez said. “Providing human services is just one aspect of what we do. The other is combating systemic injustices and engaging in the fight for equality, through which we can ultimately engender long-term improvements in the lives of the people who live in the communities that we serve.”

The Forest Hills Community House first formed to assuage the strife created by some community members’ reactions to the building of the Forest Hills Cooperative, a public housing development at which the group’s first site was located.

“There was a dark cloud hanging over us,” Harris said. “Folks in Forest Hills and Rego Park did not want public housing in their community.” Ultimately, Harris’ work to connect with people throughout the Forest Hills area and in the borough landed him the confidence of residents whose anger over the public housing development dissipated.

The group worked hard to bring together the economically, ethnically and racially diverse residents in the community, and Harris said he was soon able to connect with the borough’s key players who could help him to develop programs to fill gaps in services to those who needed it.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.

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