East Harlem Native and Columbia Graduate Raul Porras-Sanchez Centers Humanity Through Social Work

Porras-Sanchez discusses using social work for community impact and what graduation represents for him.

Brandee Sanders
May 08, 2024

For East Harlem native Raul Porras-Sanchez (SSW'24), humanization is a catalyst for social impact. It's something he's witnessed at every stage of his journey. From his harrowing upbringing in East Harlem, where he and his mom leaned on a community of dedicated social workers who provided support as they navigated life's challenges, to working in Washington D.C. as part of former president Barack Obama's administration, Porras-Sanchez realized that the lived experiences behind the statistics and headlines can be used as pathways for interconnectedness.

The soon-to-be Columbia School of Social Work graduate—who will earn a master's degree in advanced clinical practice—is using his work in the social services to uplift underserved communities by connecting neighborhood spaces that have transformed into hubs for mental wellness, clinical therapy, and academia.

Ahead of graduation week festivities, Columbia Neighbors spoke with Porras-Sanchez—who currently works as a Developmental Specialist and New York State Certified Special Educator for New York's Early Intervention Program—about his passion for social work, inspirational local community leaders, and what graduation symbolizes for him. 

What influence did your Uptown upbringing have on shaping your path and leading you to your purpose?

I was born and raised in East Harlem on 115th Street and Madison in Taft Houses. I was raised by a single mom and we were survivors of a domestic violence (DV) situation. My memories of East Harlem conjure mixed feelings. There are memories filled with a sense of community and folks pulling us through our circumstances, but also the trauma that came with our situation at the time. My experiences showed me it really does take a village to raise people up. 

There were so many moments in which I felt like my future was limited based on the circumstances I was born into. At one point, what I saw around me seemed to be what would be my destiny. However, there were people in my community who saw something in me, despite me not being able to see it within myself. 

My community was a source of inspiration to keep pushing forward and create the life I dreamed of. Along my journey—whether it was the work I wanted to do or my sexuality—I was always embraced. Sometimes I ask myself, how does a queer Puerto Rican kid from the projects of East Harlem, who grew up in a DV household, make it to be the first one to graduate from college and get two master’s degrees—one now being from Columbia—and work at the White House? I think a lot of it has to do with community and family, but also really good social workers who understood the impact of the dehumanization of folks who lived in public housing and committed their lives to fighting that.

What inspired you to build a career in the social work space?

When I first started pursuing my undergraduate degree at CUNY, I changed my major three times. The common theme that kept coming up for me was paying it forward and helping folks because so many people had helped me get to that point. Eventually, I landed on public administration. Outside of my studies, I supported the YMCA with their civic engagement work and fundraising campaigns. I simultaneously started doing case work with the New York City Early Intervention program. That was my entryway into the social services space.

Through supporting my community and building connections through service, someone suggested I apply for the White House’s internship program, and I almost counted myself out. The only true interest I had in politics was how it impacted communities like Harlem. I created this narrative in my head that the only people who secure internships at the White House are folks who are politically connected, attended an Ivy League institution, or come from wealth. 

I decided to apply anyway because the president happened to be Barack Obama; the first president in my lifetime where I saw a line outside the polls and a sense of pride and joy in my community in a candidate. I moved through the interview process and secured the position. I thought I was going to have to not take the opportunity, but people in my community rallied around me and helped me make it happen. I transitioned from an intern into a staffer, and a lot of my work had to do with constituent engagement. When they offered me a staffer role, we were sitting in the White House in this room that was used for negotiations during the Civil Rights Movement. It was overwhelming.

"I wanted to be in a space where I could support people in furthering their lives and furthering us as a society. Part of that comes from me fully understanding I was the product of really good social workers."

This experience gave me clarity about the type of work I wanted to do. I was focused on connecting with individuals from across the country who were writing to the president about their concerns. I was getting to know their stories and figuring out how we can use the stories to humanize policy and statistics and help change hearts and minds.

There’s so much humanity behind the policies and the headlines that often get overlooked. It was quite an experience being able to have that be my introduction to how I wanted to have an impact on this world. I wanted to be in a space where I could support people in furthering their lives and furthering us as a society. Part of that comes from me fully understanding I was the product of really good social workers.

 Raul Porras-Sanchez and his family with former President Barack Obama at the White House. Photo credit: Raul Porras-Sanchez

Can you share your thoughts on using social work as a vessel to uplift and empower communities?

One of the spaces I’m really interested in is focusing on cultivating community wellness by integrating mental health support from what I call “alternative mental health providers” into clinical practice. I feel like a lot of our mental health providers in our local communities are not clinicians, they’re barbers, nail technicians, hair stylists; folks who oftentimes are providing mental health support to the people who may not have access to traditional forms of therapy. I have been thinking a lot about how leaders in academia and clinical spaces can work with individuals who are providing alternative forms of mental health.

This idea was sparked during a photojournalism advocacy class I took at Columbia where we had to create a mental health campaign. My campaign, Mental Health Happens Here, showed all the spaces within our community where mental health care is present. Very rarely is it in a clinic. A lot of that has to do with socioeconomic status, the resources that you have, and cultural stigma. People tend to feel more comfortable speaking with the people who know them, sound like them, look like them, and can understand their lived experiences. I think exploring the possibility of this intersection between community resources, intra-community spaces, and clinical spaces would benefit folks.

What led you to Columbia specifically?

I grew up not too far from Columbia and many folks within my neighborhood viewed the school as the entity that was gentrifying our community. These were observations and stories that were rooted in oppression. I never thought I would ever be at Columbia, have the opportunity to attend the University, or quite honestly even want to attend the school. I felt like I didn’t need to go to an Ivy League institution to make an impact.

The turning point was when I moved back to New York City from Washington, D.C., after working in politics. During the pandemic and the social justice movement that was happening around George Floyd, it became clear to me that collectively we’re not going to have the world we want unless we’re all involved and we listen to each other.  A friend of mine who is a Harlemite and a professor at the School of Social Work, Dr. Tiffany Younger, asked if I would come into their class to share my experiences and connect with her students. After having a chance to connect with students and faculty at CSSW, I realized this is an institution that’s filled with folks who are trying to have an impact, move things forward, and use the brand this institution has to get folks to listen to them and change things for folks in my community and around the world. 

It’s important—even in times like now when Columbia is in the headlines—to know the institution is filled with folks who are dedicated to social justice, making the institution better, and as a result making the community better.  That's what led me to apply to Columbia’s School of Social Work. Whether it's humanizing the folks inside of an institution or humanizing folks in the public housing developments of East Harlem, there’s so much potential for humanity when we look to be curious and embrace each other.

"Whether it's humanizing the folks inside of an institution or humanizing folks in the public housing developments of East Harlem, there’s so much potential for humanity when we look to be curious and embrace each other."

Reflecting on your time at Columbia, what are you most proud of?

I was raised by a single mom, but I was also raised by an amazing abuela. My grandmother came to the United States from Puerto Rico when she was in her early 20s and had dreams of continuing a career in nursing, but was told the credentials she earned in PR weren’t enough to be a nurse here. She ended up going into retail to make ends meet and later started working as a lunch lady in an East Harlem school. My grandmother, who is now 82 years old, will be able to see me walk across the graduation stage. That is what I’m most proud of. 

For most of her life, she’s been in East Harlem within the same five-block radius. Columbia was always that shiny castle on the hill she thought no one in her family would ever access. Aside from that, having her be able to see I’m starting something I’m so passionate about, that centers people and the community she dedicated her life to, is special. Additionally, being able to graduate from this program knowing the work I’m going to do next is for and with the folks I grew up with, within a community that is my home, is rewarding and exciting. This is a milestone moment, not only for me but for those who supported me along the way. I want to give a big shout out to my loving husband Ruben Porras-Sanchez—who has been my rock and always believed in me even when I doubted myself—and my wonderful family and friends.

Is there a local Uptown-based community leader whom you admire?

Over the years, I’ve developed a lot of respect for NYC Council Member Carmen De La Rosa. She’s always on the ground listening to folks, and there’s no issue that’s too big or too small for her to try to find a solution. In many ways, I tend to forget she’s even in office because she’s committed to being a member of the community first and centering that. She’s been consistent. She was even at my wedding. I admire the work she’s doing.

There are a lot of folks in Harlem who I have been able to meet as humans first and not the offices they hold. First Deputy Mayor of New York City Sheena Wright’s kids and I are very good friends. I spent time growing up in her home, not having any idea of the impact she was having on the city. Being able to see folks like her from a young age who were fighting the good fight inspired me to work for the community. 

What are your favorite Uptown places?

This Dominican spot called Floridita. It’s 24/7, always open. What I love about that place, aside from the amazing food, is that you can go there at any time and the minute you go in you’re transported into this world that is filled with joy. Folks are always singing, dancing, and eating. Another place I love is Charles Pan-Fried Chicken. Part of the reason why I love it, aside from the amazing food, is because of Charles’ story. It's a staple Harlem story more people should know about.

A third place in Northern Manhattan that has brought me the most joy and peace is Inwood Hills, which I discovered during the pandemic. It’s the only natural forest in Manhattan and it’s right next to Columbia’s football field. If you go into that park there are hiking trails you can get lost in for hours. During the pandemic, I was living in Washington Heights near Columbia’s hospitals. It was just days and days of hearing nothing but sirens which can negatively impact your mental health. I found myself getting lost on those trails and being one with myself. The park is such a gem that many people in the community don’t even know about.

What is the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?

To create spaces in which you can allow the folks around you to be their authentic selves. By doing that you also create a space for you to be your authentic self. Another piece of advice that ties into that is owning your impact. My former boss, President Barack Obama, has said a lot of profound things, but one of the pieces of advice that resonated with me was to dream big dreams. Once you fully become okay with allowing yourself to dream big, you unlock so much potential for yourself and those around you. That’s one that I center in my life.

What’s on the horizon for you after graduation?

I want to focus on leading psychotherapeutic work with families. I want to be a part of healing families and supporting them in healing themselves. It all ties back to the fact that between birth and the age of 18, I didn’t have stable housing, and our home was quite violent. I realized how important it is to make sure parents are also helped. A lot of the services in our local community are very focused on children and youth and not enough on parents—they deserve help too. I want to support folks in my community by helping them realize their potential and motivating them to create the lives they dream of for themselves, their children, and their community.

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