Sr. Paulette Lo Monaco has been described by the New York Times as “a nun who fought the power.” To me, she is my aunt and a role model. In December she retired after 39 years as Executive Director for Good Shepherd Services, which now has approximately 1,300 employees. She practices Robert Greenleaf’s “servant as leader” model in which listening and building the skills of others is key. I’ve always heard admiring stories from all quarters about her supreme efficacy in politics; more than one person has called her called “a New York City icon;” but I never got the opportunity to see her “at work.” Today, she shares with the CivicList community her insights on decades of advocating for 30,000 people in high-need communities in New York City.
Could you tell us a little bit about your work?
I'm a Sister of the Good Shepherd. Our worldwide mission is to work with girls and women who have really run into difficulty—children, young people and families who have been traumatized by growing up in poverty. For the last 50 years until I retired in December, I have worked for Good Shepherd Services, which started out as a residential program for traumatized adolescent girls but has greatly expanded into community based work. Right now we're in communities that are very under-resourced. We're in Red Hook, East New York, in Bed-Stuy. We’re in South and Central Bronx. We’re in communities where people are really struggling. We offer a number of programs in those communities, many of them based in the public schools, to help young people and their families thrive and have a better future.
I think one of the reasons I have stayed an executive director for 39 and a half years is because my responsibilities were always changing. We always continued to grow. We came up with some innovative program models that have been replicated around the country. So I thought my job was very fulfilling to me. Hopefully it had the benefit is helping a lot of other people at Good Shepherd, both our staff and program participants. And along the way I got to be a pretty strong advocate because it was really needed. When you see up close and personal what some of the challenges that our young people and families are facing, even in the best of circumstances, you know that it's important to raise your voice.
How did you find your voice?
When I was a young executive director, I was trying to get a budget modification through the Administration for Children Services and the Commissioner didn't want to hear it. So someone who was working at ACS pulled me aside and said “Look, if you're going to be a good executive director you have to find your voice you cannot let this happen to you.” I had to really work on myself because--first of all I don't even have a loud voice--but I wanted to hold this position and I wanted to do a good job and therefore I felt like I had to do something to change myself and my reactions. I became very interested in social policy and the impact that unjust policies have on communities where families are growing up in poverty. The communities are not poor, the situations that people are living in are poor.
I wanted to make sure that if I was going to raise my voice that I had something to say; that I wasn't just running my mouth. I think it's a real responsibility that older executive directors have, because sometimes even people who have the role of executive director are afraid to speak the truth to government--afraid their funding will be cut—they go through the same struggles that I went through. But if you are going to be a leader that cares more about the program participants that you're working with, that sees their struggles, you have to speak out.
How do you uplift the voices of others, especially those that aren’t heard?
Really listening is something that I have had to work on my whole life because when I hear of somebody in pain, right away I want to run to a solution. I want to help them. The desire to be of service compels me, so I've had to work on myself to listen and know that my way is not necessarily the right way. I have to hear what other people think. And what and I have found is that my life has been very enriched because I have taken the time to really listen.
We need to rethink our economy, who we value and how we how we reward them, who are really essential to livelihood, for everyone's livelihood.
What’s an example of something that helped you become a better listener?
I think just seeing the ownership that people take when they feel that they are part of the solution, and that they're not just being told about the right thing to do. A couple of years ago we recognized that we needed to do something about racial equity and justice, and we needed to listen more to our program participants, to our staff, and not just rush to tell them what the solution would be. And so we embarked on a whole series of trainings, a whole series of steps, and now we have a full-time director of racial equity We changed our mission statement to reflect their thinking. Why? Because we listened. I listened. The agency listened. And we were able to move. Although I think it's easier to do that internally than to get government to move.
What does community mean to you?
First of all it's my birth family and the religious community that I belong to, the Good Shepherd Sisters. It’s not only Good Shepherd sisters, but our partners in mission, individuals who really share our values, share our mission, share our commitments to justice and peace, and understand trauma and youth and family development.
Today, I continue to live in our residential program where we have 46 adolescent girls living with us, that's another community. When I was working, the other non profit executive directors. Many of us became very good friends because share the same joys and frustrations. And most importantly members of the communities that we work in.
Lots of times what we think needs to be done, what government needs to be done, is not necessarily what the community wants. And so listening to the voices--especially of young people--in the community, to really listen, and then try to respond to meet their needs, not the needs that we think they should have. It takes discipline.
What are you curious about right now?
I'm very curious about what's going to happen next. I think this is such a pivotal point in our history when we can really reinvent what it means for live in the United States of America what it what it means to live in New York City. I live right across the street from a hospital and looking out the window now, there is actually a big oxygen truck, and around the corner a tent set up, and on the other side of the street once in a while you see a refrigerator van. It brings the impact of the virus very, very close to home. I see our staff who are here, taking care of our residents. I see how courageous and caring they are. I see the hospital workers and how courageous they are, putting themselves at risk. We need to rethink our economy, who we value and how we how we reward them, who are really essential to livelihood, for everyone's livelihood.
What's a small scale type of action that you could that you think everyone could take today?
Something we do every night: we go out and we clap. We appreciate. At seven o'clock, we clap for our human services workers. We have some Contemplative Good Shepherd Sisters who are making masks to distribute to our staff. And so little actions like that let people who are on the front lines know “you are valuable, we appreciate what you're doing.” And just stopping on the street when you see a homeless person and asking how they’re doing. I think something has been peeled away in New York City. People are much more aware of others and I hope that this new way of being more considerate for neighbors is something that's going to continue after we come up with the vaccine.
"Stay Well!" on a U.S. Post Office transfer box
One must not be afraid of a little silence. Some find silence awkward or oppressive. But a relaxed approach to dialogue will include the welcoming of some silence. It is often a devastating question to ask oneself, but it is sometimes important to ask--”In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?”