CEO: The Work Of CRS ‘Will Affect Your Heart’
Published: July 5, 2012
ATLANTA— In January 2012 Carolyn Woo took the helm of Catholic Relief Services, the international development arm of the Catholic Church in the United States.
A native of Hong Kong, Woo served as the dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame for 15 years before taking the position. She was recently in Atlanta and talked with The Georgia Bulletin about her faith life growing up, why foreign aid is important and how folks can help the mission of Catholic Relief Services.
Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), sits down for an interview with The Georgia Bulletin in the Atlanta regional offices of CRS. Woo was in town for a CRS board meeting and to deliver her first address to the General Assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (Photo by Michael Alexander)
What is a memory of your faith life you treasure from growing up?
I was born and raised in Hong Kong. My parents were Chinese from mainland China. My father was a baptized Catholic who never practiced. After the children came along, I was fifth of six, he did two things: He made sure we were all baptized as infants. And the second one was that he made sure we would go to church on Sunday, but he never went with us. My faith life was not developed at home, but it was developed at school. I was educated by missionary sisters. They were Maryknoll sisters, and they were just incredible. And there is not a week that goes by now when I am not exchanging emails either with a Maryknoll sister, or one of my Maryknoll classmates.
My faith life really developed around the ages of 15 to 18. By then, we knew the Maryknoll sisters so well, there was just a sense that God must be real because otherwise what they chose to do would be pretty bizarre. All of them left home, they left the U.S., and they would go out to the world where there would be difficulties, dangers. They just left a life behind to serve people they don’t know. I got a sense of how real God is to these sisters and therefore how real God is from the nuns. They clearly taught very well, but they also had a sense of joy, a sense of can-do, and true love for the people.
What brought you to the United States and what kept you here?
Number one, the Maryknoll sisters had prepared us so well, I felt very comfortable in English to attend college. Number two, I had watched a lot of Western television, a lot of the shows of the 1960s and felt really drawn to Western culture and third, I felt Chinese women did not have much independence. They were highly dependent on their husbands, without a lot of respect. From the time I was very young, I knew I wanted an education because I didn’t want to be dependent.
Where did you study and what did you study?
I went to Purdue University and studied economics. I only had one year of fees. I needed a scholarship, but I was convinced I would not get it because I had one B. I went to 11:30 a.m. Mass. I had to make a decision whether to go to Mass or go to the international students office because they would close at noon. I decided to go to Mass for this reason. I thought if it was good news, I could go another hour and if it was bad news, I needed to prepare myself. From 12 to 1, after Mass, I had a really good talk with God.
My life at Purdue was really defined by my life at the Newman Center. The first day I signed up for classes, I was lost. I was really sad. I didn’t know how to read a map. I started crying because I was really homesick and I couldn’t even find the right place to sign up for classes so how could that person flourish. The first day they sent me over there and on that first day, the St. Thomas Aquinas Center became home. The priests and staff, they were like my family because I had no family there. They would go to whatever student award banquets and so on as my family. When I defended my doctoral dissertation, they rang the church bells.
What makes a business school Catholic versus a business program at Yale, Georgia State, University of Georgia?
My mission as the dean of a Catholic business school had two legs. Academic excellence is important, just as it is in any secular program.
But the second one is the grounding in faith and that grounding should lead to ethical behavior and the sense for the common good. I worked both of those dimensions.
Name two things you are proud of that you were able to accomplish at Notre Dame business school.
We put mission front and center in everything we did. We did not shy away from our Catholic identity at all. We worked hard to make people understand what is the responsibility of being a Catholic in business. We actually achieved top ranking as a business school as rated by Business Week/Bloomburg.
In my mind, there is no trade-off in being Catholic and being excellent.
Is business education a sector where incorporating faith would require you to be sort of less well respected?
The focus of ethics, when I first came in 1997—and this was after the Arthur Andersen collapse, the Enron collapse—there was a sense of like focusing on ethics, isn’t that a bit sort of quaint. Isn’t that a bit sort of soft? Can these people make tough decisions? It is sort of John the Baptist, if these people want to eat locusts in the desert and cry out, well, I guess that’s OK, doesn’t do any harm. That was a real question.
From the very beginning, I said we were going to focus on rigor and faith, at the same time. Otherwise, one without the other, value without rigor wouldn’t serve any one any good, and rigor without value sounds really like a machine.
It’s really the combination of both. It was really fun and wonderful to see those two things work together and achieve the results that they did.
What made you want to get involved in Catholic Relief Services?
The work observed really transformed me. It deepened my faith to see people do such great work on behalf of the poor. God is always revising our boundaries outward. And I think that is what happened to me, that things that I used to say, like somebody else can worry about this, not me, I think I was truly challenged on that. Your heart really opens.
If you look at the work of CRS, it will affect your heart. It’s so inspiring. And then, when I was asked to consider this, as a candidate—the job was not offered to me, I had to go through the evaluation process like everybody else—I started looking at the materials, and clearly what I bring is not a depth of experience in international development. But it is in strategy and organizational development.
What makes you excited about the position?
The mission. The fact of the ability to make a difference in a big way in people’s lives, whether they live healthy lives or not healthy lives, whether the children have a chance at proper nutrition, proper healthcare or not. Sometimes whether people have a chance to make a new life, to be properly sheltered, clearly there is the survival issue.
Sometimes the question that bothers me even more is when you see people living like animals, that’s a real sort of stabbing, it really stabs at your sense of responsibility and sometimes people live like animals, when they have to eat whatever is in front of them, whether that is proper food or not. When there is no real shelter, when the work they do is what we give to animals to do, like pulling a cart. When people have so little, that the sense of human dignity is not real. And there is something strange that happened to me and, that is, I felt like I really know my students and their parents, and the world that they live in, because I’ve been there for many years. In some strange ways, I also feel like I know these people, the bottom billion; I think they have the same needs, they have the same desires, they have the same dreams, so I felt like these are people I know. In the strangest way, I feel like I know them, too.
Sometimes people treat their cattle and their livestock better than they treat a neighbor.
With the bishops’ initiative with Fortnight for Freedom, they have expressed concern that church organizations have lost contracts because of the church’s position on abortion. What has been CRS’ relationship with the government funders?
Our funding from the U.S. government is for international work. I would say in 2011, we ran into some language that required the provision of contraceptives, which therefore made it impossible for us to apply for those grants. We worked with the different people in the U.S. government to alert them this is what is happening and that language was removed in 2012. We did not have that issue for our international work at this point.
We get about 60 to 70 percent of our funding from the U.S. government.
Our ability to serve the poor and the vulnerable in the world, according to the vision that we have that comes from Catholic social teaching, I think of that as a privilege. And we have to fight for this privilege to be able to serve people with this type of impact and vision of Catholic social teaching. I don’t think the opportunity to do that should be taken for granted. We have to do the best work to demonstrate why we are worthy of that privilege.
In these economic times, some say we cannot afford money on foreign aid. We have enough trouble in our country now. What is the best argument to say it is important that Americans support international development?
People have this mistaken notion that we spend an extraordinary amount of money on foreign aid. Our foreign aid is actually less than 1 percent of the country’s budget.
There are a number of reasons we should support it. The first is, the whole idea of being a human. In the human family, we don’t write off the suffering of other people. This is the quintessential element of being human, is that there is an element of compassion and empathy. I think that is what makes us human.
The second thing is, the type of development work that we do, it builds peace. We now know that the world is an interconnected world, to the extent that development provides long-term solutions. Long-term solutions so people live healthy lives, so that people have productive engagement and they develop assets that develop security (so) they do not want war. Think about the peace dividends that are paid in development work. Why would we not go for it?
The next point is, how much can you cut from 1 percent that allows you to make a difference in the budget and how much would you lose in terms of not spending those resources for these reasons? In addition to the peace dividend, when we think about Africa, that’s an emerging market where most economists think of as our growth vehicles. That is another form of dividend.
The first part is most important, the quintessential element of being human, one of those, is compassion. A sense of, we’re all in it together.
How can Catholics in the Atlanta Archdiocese participate with Catholic Relief Services?
Go on our web—www.crs.org—and sign up for Catholics Confront Global Poverty, which is an email that will come to them and educate them about poverty in the world and how they can contribute advocacy, for example, writing to their congressman, supporting Fair Trade, and so on.
Number two, support our Rice Bowl program in the parishes. That really, really helps. Don’t only donate money but get into the spirit of solidarity and spiritual exercises for Lent, which is fasting, praying and almsgiving.
Third, support our parish and diocesan initiatives when we have Fair Trade programs, when we have speakers, and support our education efforts whether it pertains to CCD or Catholic schools or clergy and deacon training.
I hate to say this, but if they signed up to be a regular donor that would be absolutely wonderful. And then, of course, always pray for us.