2017 ACTS Spring Banquet Countdown:
Interview with Kathryn Howe Ruscitto
When: Tuesday, April 25, 2017 at 6:00-9:00 p.m.
Where: Drumlins Country Club
Address: 800 Nottingham Road, Syracuse, NY
Price for Single Ticket: $65
We invite you to join us at the 2017 ACTS Spring Banquet. Together we will reinvigorate the fight for social justice.
In last week’s issue of the newsletter, we provided an informative Q&A with the Banquet Committee. This week, we feature an insightful interview with the 2017 Spring Banquet Keynote speaker, Kathryn Howe Ruscitto. Discover how her civic-minded and mission-driven philosophy has inspired successful projects at St. Joseph's Health, on the Syracuse North Side, and even across the world.
Kathryn Howe Ruscitto is the President and Chief Executive Officer of St. Joseph’s Health. Kathryn
serves as a board member of several local and national health care and philanthropic organizations, including the Healthcare Association of New York and the Regional Economic Development Council for Central New York.
She received her Bachelor’s degree in political science and economics from Le Moyne College, and a Master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.
Interview Transcript: April 17, 2017
This interview was conducted over Skype, and then copied onto transcript. The interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
From the North Side to the World
Ryan Ivers (R): Are you ready to begin?
K. Ruscitto (K): Yes
1. Every great dream begins with a dreamer,” said Harriet Tubman. When did you first realize that your dream was to help people?
(K): I think during my time at Le Moyne College. I ran an effort to stop off-track betting, for Mike Bradman, who was a pretty famous Assemblyman in those days. We defeated it, and I think I got a sense then of what an impact someone could have in changing a policy that was not good for a community.
2. Syracuse has many challenges ahead. In your opinion, what is Syracuse’s most serious challenge, and what is our community’s greatest advantage?
(K): I think our biggest challenge is to align around a common vision. Gone are the days when we could say: “I’m from the suburbs,” or, “I’m from the city,” or, “I’m from North Syracuse.” We’re really connected across a much broader region.
If we don’t align on common ground, we’re going to continue to see the city struggle, and it’s going to have a profound impact on all of Central New York. For me, I think our biggest challenge is [also] to understand the importance of alignment and engagement across that much bigger region
3. Barrack Obama said in 2008, “We are the change we seek.” How do you think every citizen can contribute to the dream of a just and compassionate Syracuse?
(K): If you go back to the early 1800’s, Syracuse was underwater. There’s a wonderful book called Pioneer Times in the Onondaga Country. It talks about the fact that if you came to Syracuse and were involved in physical labor, you were likely to contract malaria. Many died from malaria. So, two people approached the Common Council and proposed to simply dig ditches and lower the water table. They did it, and in one year Malaria was completely gone from the face of Syracuse.
Those were two people who had an idea about how to save a community that was really struggling with the amount of disease. Look at what a difference it made. Syracuse became a vibrant community with the Erie Canal running through it. I think we’re very much back in that same situation where we have a crisis in our inner-city, which is caused by many things, but it’s going to require some vision and leadership for us to rally around a common agenda in order to address it.
(R): How do you think someone as busy as a single mother who has five children can contribute to the vision of a better Syracuse? In terms of the little things?
(K): People need to know the opportunities available to have their voice heard. We have a number of wonderful organizations in Syracuse that are allowing for citizen input right now: “Focus,” “Consensus,” “The West Side Initiative,” “The North Side Urban Partnership,” I think there are about 10, and they all have a citizen input component. ACTS is also one of those groups on that list of 10. I think it’s time we pay attention to the agenda of those groups as they begin to weave that vision for Central New York. Any citizen has the opportunity to participate, even if it’s just attending a meeting. Our citizens want that input, and leaders need to make sure to open that door.
4. St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center, where you served as President and CEO since 2011, has become a catalyst for the revitalization of Syracuse’s North Side. Why did you expand the mission of St. Joseph’s from health care into holistic community development?
(K): It became clear that we were making a major investment in the campus and that the neighborhood around us was not seeing the same kind of investment. Quite frankly, it was out of self interest in wanting to make sure the community around the hospital did not deteriorate. After about 8 years we realized that if you want good health outcomes, then you need good housing, great schools, a clean environment, and probably most importantly, you need a job. After all, a job is a way out of poverty. Now we understand that if you want to improve the health of a population, then you have to improve all those social variables. We realized that helping the neighborhood really fit our mission in a way that we had not interpreted before.
5. What does the broadened mission of St. Joseph’s say about the potential for all disciplines and organizations to engender social justice?
(K): Improving the health of a whole community required a focus beyond just health care [for St Joseph's]. I’ll use the example of The West Side Clinic. The economical, easier thing to do would have been to put [the clinic] on our campus. Let the patient come to St. Joseph’s. We made the decision to put [the clinic] in the neighborhood, in the midst of where single mothers with multiple children could easily access the care. It was a homerun.
6. Change can be exciting, daunting, or even frightening. Since the 2016 election, we have seen the ground shift on many critical issues. In your view, what does it take for the social justice community to keep its footing?
(K): I think it’s really important that people feel heard. I lived in a neighborhood with Trump signs and Clinton signs. They’re all my neighbors, but they have different perspectives. I have to respect and honor those other perspectives. If people don’t feel heard they’re going to dig in, and we’re not going to get the collaboration that we need. So, this is either a great opportunity in our history, or we’re going to blow it. I think the way we blow it is by continuing to ignore to each other’s perspectives.
7. Speaking of change, there are pivotal developments continuing in Syracuse and Onondaga County. One example is the Consensus Report. With this example in mind, how does an organization like ACTS steward change so that it services the people most heavily affected?
(K): I’ve been very impressed with the leadership around Consensus. I think the report is really much more of a continuum of options than it has been portrayed as publicly. Now is the time for organizations to understand how it will impact the community. For me, it’s a great example of what I started talking about earlier: alignment and engagement. Until we put all the pieces together, we’re going to continue to [have] the “Mine! Mine! Mine!” [mentality]. You know, what’s that movie? The one with the penguins or the birds are flying around and yelling, “Mine, mine, mine…”
(R): Oh, you mean Finding Nemo?
(K): You know, the Consensus Report is a great opportunity for us to take [the advice of] a lot of volunteers from both sides of the aisle. I hope people take the time to understand it.
(R): It’s really an unprecedented proposal that’s reached our table to say the least. By the way, I might drop a video or picture from that part of Finding Nemo. Just right under this question. It will be an important visual cue for people.
8. Anyway, ACTS wants to create more alliances within the community and to work together with more organizations. As a leader yourself, what is your philosophy behind creating friendships? How does that process differ between individual people and entire organizations?
(K): I have an approach that I have used. I "call it up-down-left-right," which is not very elegant, but whatever. Before I approach any problem, I think about who needs to be at the table. Who’s inside the organization, or on the front lines? Who’s in the Community? Who’s from another community that maybe has a best practice? Through this method there is a diversity of opinion, between age, gender, race, religion. If you do not bring other viewpoints to the table, you’re likely to get the an outcome you were not looking for.
9. How does faith and a sense of history drive your career as a civic-minded leader?
(K): I come from a very strong Catholic background. The history of Catholic Social teaching is about justice and service leadership. I may not talk about it a lot publicly. In fact, sometimes people think I’m very financially focused as a leader. But, I figured out a long time ago that, “she who has the money,” can invest in social justice and community programs. I believe in servant leadership, and in using power to benefit others.
10. The defining moments of a leader occur in times of adversity. Can you tell us about the direst adversity you have ever faced and how you overcame it? Tough question...
(K): Yes. It really goes back to when I was in county government. When I first took that job there were several things that needed to happen. At that time they were pretty monumental things: we didn’t have a 911 center, children division and social services were not well run; people were not treated with dignity. It really required taking a different approach to come up with breakthrough ideas. I was pretty young in my career. I think I’m glad I didn’t know what it was going to be like to have to sell [these ideas] to the Legislature. However, it ended up working out quite well.
(R): Thank you for the incredibly thorough answers. We have two more questions. I visited Malta this past January, before the Azure Window (sadly) crumbled. By the way, what a shame, right?
(K): Yes, there has been so much damage to great monuments. By the way, I don’t know if you would have known this while you were abroad, but many of the hospitals in Europe are run by the Knights and Dames of Malta. So in Ireland, you generally will see Maltese Crosses on the ambulances. There’s not as much in Malta anymore, but throughout Italy you’ll see Maltese Crosses in the hospitals because they’re still run by the Knights and Dames. And in Bethlehem, the only hospital where poor Palestinian and Jewish women came to deliver is run by the Knights and Dames of Malta.
11. I actually saw the Maltese Crosses everywhere. Which is why I think it’s so fascinating that you were a member of the Knights and Dames of Malta. Additionally, your international influence stretched to Haiti through your position as Chair of the “National Committee for response to the Haitian Disaster” for the Federal Association of Malta. The mission of ACTS may be to transform Syracuse, but how might our responsibilities to the local community extend to national and international issues?
(K): All we need to do is look around our community at the number of refugees. I’ll use an example: there was a housekeeper whose children were in Africa. This housekeeper was working three jobs trying to get the kids here. I found out about it through the head of housekeeping. I then made a phone call to a good friend who has State Department connections. To make a long story short, the kids were here a couple months later. If I hadn’t made the phone call she probably would have been working three jobs still trying to get the kids here. Those [kinds of] connections and networks are really important in a community and in a nation as diverse as ours.
12. Desmond Tutu once said “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” What would you say to the people who now struggle the most? Whether that's refugees, the poor, or those who've experienced loss.
(K): There are countless examples of people in this community who have become successful. The Lost Boys from Sudan are one of the best examples. They came to CNY years ago from refugee camps. Many of them came to work at St. Joseph’s, and used those entry-level jobs to pay for tuition and go to school. Most are not at St. Joseph’s now because they received college degrees and now run foundations or work for international relief organizations.
I’m not diminishing the struggle that people face, but there is opportunity. The doors are opening for those opportunities, and I see a lot of hope in our community. There is a book I’m reading right now, which is quickly becoming my favorite book that I’ve ever read. It’s by Tom Friedman and it’s called Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide for Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. It’s a fabulous book, and it really gives a context for all the change, all the technology, all the crisis we are experiencing in the world today. Everyone just needs to take a deep breath, because we're going to get through it.
Individual tickets are 65 dollars, with group tickets available for the purchase of tables at the banquet. Additionally, one may also purchase sponsorships or ad-spots to promote their local business or organization.
Everyone is welcome to attend this exciting event, and encouraged to bring their loved ones, friends, and colleagues. The 2017 ACTS Spring Banquet will be both vital and jubilant, with social justice work exhibited through the polychromatic personalities of Syracuse’s people. Next week, we plan to offer you another glimpse into the celebration, when we speak with Kathryne How Ruscitto, the Keynote Speaker of the 2017 ACTS Spring Banquet. See you next week!
Let's Transform Syracuse Together