From movement leader to executive director

Haydee Morales
Haydee Morales
Argenis Apolinario
Haydee Morales

From movement leader to executive director

Haydee Morales talks to NYN Media about her journey from reproductive justice advocacy to heading Casita Maria, an arts-based program for Bronx youth.
January 19, 2022

Casita Maria, founded in 1934 by Claire and Elizabeth Sullivan, was recognized as the first charitable organization to serve Latinos in New York City after its programming started out serving newly arrived families from Puerto Rico. Today, the after-school enrichment program that offers recreational activities for youth in the Bronx continues to serve mostly Latino kids from the borough. In 2020, the program had total revenues of more than $3 million and over 100 employees. 

Haydee Morales, Casita Maria’s Executive Director, joined the organization in 2015. Prior to that, Morales spent 13 years as Vice President of Education and Training at Planned Parenthood of New York City, now known as Planned Parenthood of Greater New York. During her tenure there, she grew the education department and expanded their programming, which served more than 25,000 people across New York City. 

Morales sat down with NYN Media to reflect on her time in the reproductive justice movement, her accomplishments and the legacy she hopes to leave at Casita Maria.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Take me back to how your story started. Where are you from? Where’d you go to school? 

I was born and raised in El Barrio, right in East Harlem, Spanish Harlem, and lived in public housing. Wagner Projects was the name of the project. I went to what was [one of the] worst high schools in New York City. It was five blocks away from my home and it was so bad that we were the last graduating class. It was 1982, and I remember going to the guidance counselor and the person said, “Well you'd be a great secretary, you don't have to worry about college, you know? You'll be fine. Don't worry”. There was no, “Let's get these applications out the door,” or anything like that. There was that narrative that had been written for me by institutional racism and it wasn't a journey to further education. So I went home and talked to my family. My parents had a third grade education. They were Puerto Ricans who came to New York in the 1950s and both of them had gotten as far as third grade formal education in Puerto Rico, but they had a PhD in humanity and heart. They knew that education in this country was what was going to help their children. 

My sister had gotten into NYU on a full ride and had also graduated at the same high school five years earlier. So my sister said, “Well, just apply to one at least, you know?” It was kind of like a dare. I went back to the guidance counselor and said “Just let me apply to this,” she said “All right, but you know you're never gonna make it, don't get your hopes up.” Honestly, I don't even know how I got it because it was a failing school, but I was smart, and I had that intuitive intelligence. When I got to NYU on that full scholarship, I think the program was the Higher Education Opportunity program, I had no idea what I was doing. I was at NYU, I was super poor, I remember having one token to get to school. I could either walk from El Barrio to NYU in the village and then I had that one token to get back home, or I could take the token and get to school and then walk back home. That was how poor I was.

And then I left, and I went to work odd jobs. I remember working for a bank, I worked in a thrift shop, I worked in an ice cream shop, I worked in a donut shop and I said, “This is not going to work.” I applied to school again to go to college. I think I had some friends that were in Hunter and I got in. There was this place called the Center for Puerto Rican Studies and when I entered that space and started to take courses on Puerto Rican studies, all of a sudden, my education was about me and it made sense. I got my undergraduate degree in community health education, and then from there I went to a school called Audrey Cohen College, now called Metropolitan College, and I got my master's in human service administration.

What inspired you to particularly devote your life to nonprofit health work?

I was a community health education major. I remember I wanted to do medicine too, and I remember taking the classes, and we had to do an internship at a hospital. I remember going to my first patient and I had to do his bed change and do the dressing on his wounds since he had been in a shootout. And so I did the bed and took him to the restroom, and put him back on the bed, then I had to change his dressing. He had a colostomy bag and he had like all these bullet wounds in him and I remember passing out. I said “There goes my career in medicine because clearly I can't see this.” So, because I couldn't do direct healthcare, I decided to do the health education route. And then remember, being in the community, there were always health issues. Whether it was the whole wave of HIV/AIDS and all that funding that came into our community, I worked in that field. There were always issues around pregnancy. I remember one of my internships was this thing called a teen pregnancy network, so it was also informed by where the health dollars were being distributed to and what was happening in those communities. I'm from East Harlem and crack comes into the community, there are tons of issues around, addiction and then HIV/AIDS and so on and so forth. And so that informed what I was sort of doing based on the jobs that were available.

Can you talk to me about what led you to Planned Parenthood? And what was your proudest accomplishment, having been there for so long?

There was a job that I had before that, which was at the March of Dimes, and I had a horrific experience with a white person there who stated that the Latinos at the March of Dimes didn't know what they were doing. I went to the other Latinos there and I said, “We’ve got to say something, this is not okay!” The administration didn't really do anything. And so I said, “It's time to leave.” I was dealing with a national program there around prenatal care for Latinas. The prenatal care rates were low, and I was supporting this national effort to get this curriculum out to educate Latinas on getting early prenatal care at the U.S.-Mexico border and Puerto Rico and across the U.S. So I was really disappointed. But I saw this position for Vice President of Education and Training at Planned Parenthood of New York City, interviewed, and got it. Then I remember having the weirdest experience of being in meetings and people would say, “Oh, you're the one that got the job?” And some people would go as far as saying, “Well, you're the diversity hire,” straight to my face. And those microaggressions or straight on macroaggressions from some white people was sort of the welcoming conversation from these folks. And that continued for 13 years. It didn't stop. 

What I'm most proud of is just being consistent and grounded in diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice before diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice was on everybody's radar. I remember when George W. Bush was president, it was really hard because the funding got cut big time or got moved away from Planned Parenthood. So I was really proud of still figuring out how to continue to raise a $4 million dollar budget for my department. And we continued to figure out how to raise that funding and bring those resources to underserved communities. When Obama came into office, they put out a competitive grant and nobody believed that I could come up with a competitive program. I designed this program, it was super competitive, and it got funded. It was a national thing and very few people believed that what I had conceptualized would be funded, but it did get funded for like four years and it was millions of dollars. It was making sure that Planned Parenthood of New York City was doing education programs in the Bronx, out in Brooklyn, and in communities of color. And so one of the things I'm really proud of is that during my tenure there, I think the number was 25,000 a year, professionals, parents and young people were getting evidence-based, developmentally appropriate, sex education and resources, and I feel good about that.

I'm curious, what inspired you to make the switch from reproductive health to arts programming in the Bronx?

I really had grown tired of the many layers that you're battling when you're an executive and at a big nonprofit like Planned Parenthood. So I had to deal with staff who were having issues reporting to a woman of color, and then I had to deal with the protesters in front (of Planned Parenthood), and I was one of the main spokespeople at Planned Parenthood of New York City as well because I was bilingual. So, in addition to doing education, I was super connected to the communications team and being the voice of Planned Parenthood of New York City and doing media and interviews in Spanish and English television. I also had to deal with death threats. 

But I also think Planned Parenthood does such important work. It was beautiful and there were amazing people there and amazing work happened, but it was exhausting. My commute to Planned Parenthood was like a three hour commute. So I was exhausted from work, I was exhausted from the commute. It was too much.

Then I found this job, which was three miles from my home. There's some science that says that the happiest people have a 20 minute or less commute from their job. So that took down my commute from three hours to like 15 minutes and it made a huge difference. It was like quality of life, you know. And then it was Latino centered. So that was a real plus. So now I would go from sort of this predominantly white environment to a more Latino specific, people of color environment that was all about culture. I didn't have to fight to bring up culture. I didn't have to battle to center the conversation on that given we are in a community of color. So it was a given. 

I think for me as someone who really wanted to center her work unapologetically for young people of color, who were having these incredible disparities in health, education and a lot of other things, being in that environment really worked for me. It's the first and oldest Latino charity in all of New York City, founded in 1934 to serve Puerto Ricans who were coming from the island to New York City. And it started off with a volunteer group and a church. And so way back, they started like this volunteer group and then they got a railroad apartment and then they bought a building and then they partnered with NYCHA and they were a community center and then they had senior contracts and they had senior centers, and they became a settlement house, and it just grew and grew and grew. And in 1961, they followed the Puerto Ricans who were being pushed out of East Harlem. They bought a property on Simpson Street, where we are now. It used to be a synagogue because the Bronx had a large Jewish population and so it was called the Hunts Point Jewish Center and they operated out of the Hunts Point Jewish center, which they owned up until the early 2000s when they knocked it down in a partnership with the Department of Education. They then constructed the building where we are now. That's our headquarters. It's 90,000 square feet. It has a gallery. It has a dance studio. It has a school there. Casita Maria's there. It's just an amazing place to run a program out of. Beautiful, right? 

I bring over 30 years of nonprofit experience. I think this is year seven for me. I really see it as a children and family organization where we use culture and the arts to serve. That's sort of the framework. And so the children will come in, they get homework help, they'll get tutoring and then they're off to learn how to play the piano and the violin. They're doing musical theater, dancing and singing. We have a department that does creative arts and we have a gallery with different exhibits, and we have a culture festival and we have musical performances and really just using the arts as a vehicle to bring out the creativity that the Bronx is known for and that our communities are known for to help on that journey to success. That's really how I see the work that we're doing. Throughout my career, I’ve been very clear about what I know and what I don't know. I think that's a really important indicator of a good leader. And so what I know is nonprofits, so my role is really centered on governance and ensuring, nonprofit compliance, the audits, budgets, operations, all that. And then I have really amazing people who oversee all the arts and education pieces of it. It's really an amazing team. It's an honor because it's a historical organization.

What excites you about being the Executive Director of Casita Maria and what do you envision for Casita Maria moving forward?

Before the pandemic, I would sit in my office and have a really hard day and then I would go out and there would be 15 kids, playing the violin and I would just sit there and it was important because it's like a purpose. I'm there for these children, for the children and their families. The same way my mother had been there to use her privilege of the English language to translate a housing application for a neighbor. I'm using my privilege of education of three decades of nonprofit experience, of everything that I know to give these young people the level of excellence that they deserve. So for me, it's staying the course and one thing that I miss is coming out of my office and seeing the children dance. They have to be six feet apart and there’s just so many challenges to this. Having said that, when I do leave the office and interact with the children, even though they're masked up, I can still see them smile through their eyes. They have figured out a way that even though their beautiful faces are covered, they can still connect through their eyes and show me that they're smiling through their eyes and that they're having a good time. So, it just keeps demonstrating to me the resilience of our young people and our families that I already knew because I was one of those kids. I grew up in public housing. I know what it is not to have things. I know poverty, because I lived it. My family lived it. And so for me it's not what I read in a book. It's not what I learned getting a degree. It's what I lived. It's my lived experience. So the fact that almost 30 years later in my work trajectory I can still connect to that is what continues to fuel my work. 

For Casita, one of the things that I honor is making sure that I teach younger people who are committed to the nonprofit world and service. I'm teaching them what I know, the good, the bad, and the ugly about the nonprofit experience. So, we'll talk about governance. We're talking about operations. We're talking about human resources. We're talking about development. We're talking about programming. We're talking about community needs assessment, elected officials, and their part of that conversation. I'm not siloing it because I want them to understand and to see the whole picture and to know what it is that I have learned. If we go back to the conversation of legacy it's not what I take with me and my experience. It’s what I leave. For me, one of the most joyous things would be to leave young people who have this commitment to being in service with the knowledge that I have gained throughout all these years. That would be the joy for me and for Casita Maria to go into its 100th year – first century – as a strong viable organization delivering excellence to the community that relies on it so much.

Angelique Molina-Mangaroo
previously founded and was executive director of The Wealthy Youth Project, a financial literacy organization interested in addressing issues faced by women and girls of color. She also was a reporter for the Hunts Point Express in the Bronx, served as a Young Women’s Advisory Council Member on the New York City Council, and has worked with several nonprofit organizations, among them Planned Parenthood of New York City and the Legal Aid Society.