Since moving to New Canaan a decade ago, France native Fatou Niang has immersed herself in civic work through church and charitable organzations here, learned the nuances of American football— and learned to love it, though she worries about on-field collisions for her son, a New Canaan High School sophomore who plays JV and varsity—and started working as a Realtor, while finding an area nonprofit to which she feels deeply connected.
During the 30 minutes or so that we talked at Dunkin Donuts on Elm Street (our interview is transcribed in full below), at least four passersby stopped to greet Niang and say hello.
That makes her a wonderful candidate for this debut installment of “Faces of New Canaan.” In the feature, we talk to New Canaanites that—through often quiet or unnoticed work or other ways—make up the fabric of our town. Though they may look familiar to fellow New Canaanites, the individuals we profile in this feature are not known because they’re famous beyond New Canaan or prominent through high-profile jobs or elected office.
It’s also a timely interview for Niang with respect to her involvement in a cherished nonprofit, Carver Center. The largest provider of free after-school programs to middle and high school kids in Norwalk, Carver is participating in Fairfield County Giving Day this Friday, March 7. From midnight to 11:59 p.m. that day, Fairfield County Community Foundation and Bank of America will seek to raise $1 million for 300 charities in the county, via the FCGives.org website. The charity that earns the highest number of individual donations (and they can start at $10) will be awarded a special $25,000 prize.
As we discovered during our chat, Carver is not only participating in the fundraising blitz, but also sees the event as an opportunity to spread the word about “We R 1 Voice.” The brainchild of musician Mo Pleasure, We R 1 Voice is a comprehensive, inclusive initiative that uses multimedia and social media to connect young people through song.
We found Niang open, kind, ready to laugh and full of insights on New Canaan’s character, amenities and draw to prospective residents. Here’s our conversation:
NewCanaanite.com: Where are you from originally?
Fatou Niang: I grew up in Mont-Dore.
How do you spell that?
M-O-N-T-D-O-R-E. There’s a little space between ‘Mont’ and ‘dore.’ (Laughs.) And that is in the center of France.
What brought you to the States?
I’ve been in the U.S. since ’96, and we came for my husband’s work. We were in the city before, and then New Canaan.
When did you come up to New Canaan from the city?
Ten years ago. This is my eleventh year in New Canaan. So we moved in here in 2003. End of 2003.
Tell me about your experience here.
I’ve had a great experience so far. Met great, great people and some of them are very good friends.
What were some of your first impressions of the town?
A quiet town. And I’ve seen the town come a long way, where there are many more people who come from abroad now, compared to when I moved in. So it’s interesting.
Do you have family here, you and your husband?
I have two kids.
Are they in the public schools?
Saxe and New Canaan High School.
And you’re a Realtor with William Pitt?
William Pitt Sotheby’s, yes.
Tell me a little bit about your connection to Carver.
When I moved to New Canaan, at that time I wasn’t working, I was a stay-at-home mom and decided to give my time to charity, along with the social life. It was fine, having brunch or lunch with the ladies, but I also needed something else. So I have been there [working with Carver] almost eight years now.
What is your professional background?
I used to do media relations for Disney in France. My background was always in communications, so it made sense for me to help Carver on the communications side. In the beginning I was just getting the center known a little bit better by surrounding towns. People in Norwalk did not know much about it, therefore people in New Canaan had no clue what Carver was.
You’ve been with them a long time. How did you first become aware of it?
Through the Young Women’s League of New Canaan, and also the Newcomers Club of New Canaan. When we moved to town, I joined both of these organizations and I was very involved with them. I was part of the board on both, and I did a lot of fundraisers for them. And one year one of the charities involved was Carver.
There’s a lot of need and nonprofit organizations in the area. What was the connection for you?
Well, I am African-American. Diversity in town exists in origins of people, but not in colors. And a lot of charities I became involved with when I moved to New Canaan were all in different arrays, and Carver was the first one that was geared toward African-Americans and Latino kids in an after-school program. Before coming to New Canaan I was in the city, so I’ve seen that a lot of the kids who don’t have anything to do end up in bad situations, so if you can help change that, being an African-American, it geared me toward Carver. I was doing the Red Cross, I still work with AmeriCares and other charities, but I needed something more.
There are other organizations that serve a mainly African-American population, too. What was it about Carver specifically that drew you?
Because it’s geared toward kids, and that’s very important to me, having two boys myself. I think it’s also very important to see that even though we are blessed in New Canaan, there are other people that are less fortunate than us.
Where do you get that awareness from?
I don’t know, I think it’s maybe part of my personality. I like talking to people, I like doing different things. One thing I’ve learned about New Canaan is that people here are very generous with their time and very involved in charities. Coming from Europe, it’s not our culture. We have charities and we help, we send a check maybe once in a blue moon. But here, the fundraising, getting involved 100 percent, it’s more an American thing, and I think I learned that in the city and was able to use it more in a smaller community like New Canaan. That’s what I was looking for when I left New York City, to be less of a drop in the ocean, but more of a community.
I find that too. I grew up in New Canaan and, as a reporter, what happens is you start to build these memories and you see a place maybe you knew as a kid and then you report on it—and everywhere you go, maybe it’s a house you remember that’s being torn down, maybe it’s where a tragedy happened or you know the family that lives in a house—you create these layers of memories that sort of slow down time a little bit. It’s almost like you are living in the moment a little more, not everything is new, and it’s nice.
It is nice. There’s a community here. When we left the city, first I wanted to be by the water. So of course, I wanted to go to Old Greenwich and I didn’t want to hear anything about any other place. I was that stubborn.
You wanted to go to OG.
Old Greenwich, because I wanted to live by the water. And we found a house by the water and all that. But something was missing. It was like, I left the city and I got the same feeling in Old Greenwich, like a mini-version of it. And I thought: What is the point? Then we had a friend in New Canaan who said to come and spend the weekend. We came, spent the weekend. That same weekend we went to Elm Street, it was the summertime and everybody was talking to everybody. I thought, ‘This is what we are looking for.’ We had everything over there [in Old Greenwich]. I mean everything. We were that close to signing.
I used to cover Old Greenwich for the newspaper in Greenwich, and I remember really wanting to live in the Edgewater neighborhood, right there on the cove. It’s a special place. But New Canaan is unique.
It is unique.
Tell me, for someone who isn’t necessarily aware of this subculture in New Canaan, who doesn’t know this world of nonprofits: What is New Canaan’s tie to Carver? Are you standing alone as a New Canaanite who is focused on Carver?
Tell me a little bit about that.
A lot of the organizations that I already was involved with, like the Newcomers and the Young Women’s League, always had been supporting Carver and other charities around here. And I think also the fact that New Canaan has an ABC House here, people are more aware. I don’t find myself being alone on that, Carver. Yes, I have a lot of friends that have been involved and helped me support Carver or been involved with Carver themselves. I know that. Why? Because every time I’m at a charity or fundraiser for Carver, a lot of my friends show up, and I don’t think it’s all because of me and I’m cute and nice. I think they also believe it’s important.
What is your involvement now?
I used to be on the fundraising side, for many years, and then I took a break for two years and this year I’m back again, and now I’m going to be involved in the “We R 1 Voice” project, which is a whole brand new idea to create curriculum through music and arts.
Tell me about We R 1 Voice.
We R 1 Voice was created by Mo Pleasure. Mo has been working with artists like Natalie Cole, Earth Wind & Fire, David Foster, you name it. His idea looks at the whole educational program—they created something called ‘STEM,’ which is Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics—but those are not fun subjects to teach and I think if you can find ways to teach that but still make it interesting enough for kids to focus on it, especially after school, it’s fantastic. And Mo’s idea is to use art and music and to build a program that meets educational needs but is interesting enough to have the kids involved instead of just sitting in a classroom and listening to someone else teaching you. That’s why, when [Carver] reached out to me and described this whole new STEM project, I wanted to become involved.
So, We R 1 Voice is not something just for Fairfield County Giving Day. This is something that will go on.
It will go on.
Because I read that there is a contest built around Fairfield County Giving Day itself.
That’s different, because Fairfield County Giving Day is for many charities in the county. Carver is using this opportunity to also support the We R 1 Voice project by asking them to donate on March 7 for that one-day thing. They’re not asking for $10,000 from each person, it’s from $10 to whatever you can afford, as long as we have the number. It’s to support the Carver Center because, even with the years and how Carver is more known now, it still is not well known enough for being such a big and major organization in the area, it still needs that visibility and We R 1 Voice will help get that visibility.
And Mo Pleasure is a big name.
He’s worked with Ray Charles, Christina Aguilera. Mo is a musician with his own band, and he was lucky enough to be cast with Michael Jackson for a last concert, but sadly, of course, that did not happen. But the whole band did stick together and now they will be supporting Carver, so when people donate on March 7, they will have a chance to be in the video tribute recorded by [Mo Pleasure] for Michael Jackson. [Note: Carver also is running an auction for a chance to play on stage at Carnegie Hall.]
When does We R 1 Voice come to that point?
We already started the work, it’s in process.
Tell me more about you in New Canaan. What do you like to do in town? What are some of the town amenities that you take advantage of?
The Y. I do go to the Y a lot. The Racquet Club, because I play tennis. I go to the Congregational Church, I’m involved with the church, I’m an usher and a Stephen Minister.
Stephen Minister. We help the ministers in helping people from the church, in difficult moments. The minister cannot be everywhere at the same time, so according to the needs of the person, we may accompany the person on their difficult journey. It’s completely private.
You give a lot, between Carver, other organizations and the church. What do you like to do for entertainment. Any favorite restaurants here?
Elm. Rosie’s. I mean, you cannot go wrong in any restaurant here. Chef Luis. Le Pain Quotidien. We are blessed in New Canaan: I think we have some of the best restaurants in the area and a lot of people commute to dine in New Canaan.
That’s sort of new since I grew up here.
Oh yes. Even since I moved to town it’s new. All the sudden there was a new wave of very good restaurateurs that moved in.
What else do you do here?
Tennis is really my main activity to relax and enjoy. I do USTA competitions. I have two teams I play with, and we play in USTA sports mainly.
So you’re pretty serious?
I started playing when I was 15. I think I’m a decent player.
I started working two years ago, because my second kid was out of West School, so all of the sudden I had more time and so it was time for me to get involved with something else and work and Carver are good.
What areas do you work in, as a Realtor?
New Canaan and New York City, because I’m licensed in New York also.
It’s always interesting to meet new people here. People come from everywhere to New Canaan.
And this is why when I tell people I live here, and they say ‘Oh it’s not diverse, how do you live there?’ And I say, it may not be diverse color-wise but it is diverse origin-wise. People are coming from all kinds of spectrums and all over the world, which makes the town open. Not everyone born and bred in New Canaan, so you meet all kinds of different people.
It’s true, and you find that many people who have ties to New Canaan, maintain those ties.
Yes and you notice people do come back. They say they grew up here and they go away and come back.
As long as the family kept the house, you can come back.
That’s true, though the market has changed a lot. It dipped a bit and now it’s coming back up again. But yes, the entry point in New Canaan is hard. That’s why sometimes Darien may do better than us at the entry level, where for $600,000 or $800,000 you can buy a place that’s move-in ready, whereas if you pay that in New Canaan, it’s a fixer-upper or a teardown. We don’t have a lot in the middle. It’s tough for people who grew up here as kids and want to come back, and I haven’t been here that long. Ten years is nothing.
Well get ready, because your kids will say, ‘Don’t sell the house.’
Well right now, my 15-year-old is more like, ‘When can I leave?’ He’s looking at college and freedom. I have two more years with one son at the middle school and then I have a sophomore, so two more years in high school.
Are your kids involved in sports here?
Yes, my older son plays football at the varsity level.
Oh he plays for Lou Marinelli?
He’s been playing for Marinelli.
In varsity, he’s a lineman. Left tackle. In JV, he can be lineman or wide receiver. And on the sophomore team he was always wide receiver or tight end.
When did he get involved in the football program?
Fourth grade. He did a whole year of football then, and stayed with it.
What did you know about American football before you came here?
What do you think?
I love it. I love it and I’m scared of it at the same time, because I learned football from my son and I’m not a master but if something is happening, I can call the play and I see what they’re doing. And I really love it. But I still hate when there are collisions. My son was very lucky in the youth program here.
What was your favorite sport back home?
Nadal on the guys’ side and Serena Williams on the girls’ side.
I love Serena. The way she plays and the way she is smart about the ball. Yes, she’s a strong player, a strong woman. And when it’s not working, she may sometimes get in her own way. It can be hard to get back to basics. But the times that happens compared to when she is on her game, it’s amazing.
I know what you mean.