For Catholic Relief Services' president Dr. Carolyn Woo, the way to lead others is to humbly admit when you don’t know something. “You need to accept the fact that there are a lot of things you don’t know. There are a few things you do know, and you have to use what you do know for the good of others,” she told CNA in a recent interview about her new book, Working for a Better World, published by Our Sunday Visitor. Woo didn’t come to her position by a traditional route; she was on the Board of Directors for CRS from 2004 to 2010, but her background is in business and academia. She served as the dean of the Mendoza College of Business at Notre Dame from 1997 to 2011. Before that, she was the vice president of academic affairs at Purdue, where she also earned several degrees and taught as a professor. But after she missed one of her search committee meetings to find a new CRS president, her colleagues told her she should be open to being a candidate for the position. “I thought somewhere along the line they would send me one of those ‘thank you very much for your interest’ letters. And, it’s just that the letter never came.” It wasn’t until she was one of the three remaining candidates from a pool of some 400 people that she realized she might actually be chosen for the position. “When I was not eliminated, it was like, ‘Aha! Perhaps this might be more real. Perhaps I would have to end up making a decision of whether I would or would not go to CRS.’” So when she took her place in 2012 as head of the 5,000 person organization, she knew she would step aside for those who were experts in their fields. She learned from one of her mentors that “you have to trust that people know what you know and they know what you don’t know.” That’s an approach that CRS has long embraced. The organization goes into a particular area with the support of the local bishop, while also partnering with other, sometimes better established, aid groups in a particular region. While half of all organizations that CRS partners with are Catholic, the other half is made up of other religious groups or NGOs. For example, Woo said, while on a recent trip to Ethiopia CRS was working on reducing harmful practices for young girls such as early marriage and genital mutilation. Although CRS has a strong relationship working with the Bishops Conference of Ethiopia and the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa, they also work with local elders and religious leaders. “To have that type of impact you really have to approach faith leaders of different faiths, because they are the elders and the teachers and it’s their influence and their encouragement that can get these practices to stop,” she said. “For transformation to come, you have to work across the society.” Working alongside members of other religions not only helps provide material support to the local area, but can bring peace and stability to a region as well. “Interfaith relationships are very important,” Woo said. “If those are poor or those are hostile, it tends to break out into violence … wherever there is a relative degree of stability, we want to enhance that stability. We want to enhance that we are not rivals, and we’re not enemies. We work together.” Even though there are always more people in need throughout the world, Woo said she doesn’t get discouraged or depressed. “Mother Teresa was right: she didn’t solve poverty, but all she did was what she could at the moment that the need was there,” she said. “And then there is a tomorrow.” And that’s something CRS has been doing for the past 72 years: doing what they can, where they can. What began as a service to help resettle European refugees from World War II has now grown to serve people in 101 countries with everything from helping obtain impact investing to disaster relief to education. Woo likened CRS’ work to that of planting a seed. It’s a very small task, but when you take a step back and look at what it’s grown into you think, “I didn’t do that part of it,” she said. “That’s what you see all the time.”
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