Q & A with Sr. Jean Quinn, bringing congregations together at the UN

Daughter of Wisdom Sr. Jean Quinn is executive director of UNANIMA International, a United Nations-based coalition of Catholic congregations focused on concerns of women, children, migrants and the environment.

The 22 congregations that belong to UNANIMA have "20,000 constituents [who] work in over 80 countries," the coalition notes. UNANIMA's work, the organization says, "takes place primarily at the United Nations headquarters in New York, where we and other members of civil society aim to educate and influence policymakers at the global level. In solidarity, we work for systemic change to achieve a more just world." In short, the coalition brings "their voices, concerns, and experiences as educators, health care providers, social workers, and development workers to the United Nations."

Quinn, UNANIMA's third executive director, has headed the coalition for more than a year now, though she spent much of 2017 working from her native Ireland while she awaited a U.S. visa. She succeeded Ursuline Sr. Michele Morek, who is now Global Sisters Report's liaison to women religious and organizations in North America.

Quinn brings to the job a variety of ministry backgrounds, with a special focus on homelessness in Ireland. She is a founder of the Sophia Housing Association, which describes itself as "a collaboration of religious and lay people working to support the 'out of home.' "

Global Sisters Report recently interviewed Quinn at the UNANIMA offices near the United Nations in New York.

GSR: Tell us about your Irish background.

Quinn: I'm from a border town near Northern Ireland, so growing up during the time of "the Troubles," I knew something about the tensions in a border environment. But I also come from a politically aware family, and I grew up recognizing and being aware of injustice around me.

My mother in particular engaged with those on the margins. She would always say about hospitality in our home: "There's always more room at the table." In particular, she would invite in what we call "tinkers" — nomadic tin makers.

I carried that idea of hospitality with me as I continued my studies in nursing and theology with the Jesuits in Dublin. Through the years, I became more aware of the problem of homelessness in Ireland and also did research on homelessness in Ireland, Scotland, France and the United States, always asking, "How can we do the work of combating homelessness differently, to get at the cycle of homelessness in many countries?"

The result was Sophia, which looked at the problem through families and working with families and trying to strengthen them. I founded it and then became the CEO in 2000. From that experience, I learned about working with government bodies, how you had to set up a model and then get them on board in supporting your work.

What else from Ireland informed your work?

I became involved in Restoration Ministries, a "cross-border" interdenominational group founded during "the Troubles" that has had a big role in normalizing relations between Ireland and Northern Ireland. We were motivated by the idea of bringing together Catholics and Protestants as citizens and asking, "How do we go about hearing each other?"

From that, I learned that we are called to a new model citizenship in the world, and that has direct bearing on my work with UNANIMA. This is a moment to build more peaceful communities in the world, among all kinds of people, and I'm happy to be part of that conversation. It's hopeful. We can change the narrative.

How can we do that, especially at a time that doesn't seem particularly hopeful?

Sometimes, we blame governments for what has gone wrong, and rightly so. But we all have a responsibility to become involved in our communities. It's a moral responsibility. And I think one way to do that is an intercongregational model, which was very important in our work at Sophia. We do that at UNANIMA, where we have so many congregations with so many different charisms still working together. Many people talk about divisions in religious life, but I see the hope in cooperation.

So that brings us to UNANIMA.

On the global stage, I think it's been an interesting time to be coming to UNANIMA. One of our priorities now is connecting to the grassroots in a more formal way and asking what they want brought to the United Nations and asking, "How do we hear the voices of the grassroots more strongly?"

Getting to the grassroots is very important and something I'd like to see more of is actually bring in the people who are living the experiences of poverty and migration to the United Nations. It's one thing to have advocates speak for them, but another for them to speak for themselves. It's important for those voices to be heard.

That's where my passion is, and the UNANIMA board wants me to travel to countries where our congregations are, to be closer to the grassroots. There is a lot of ground to cover. We have congregations in 83 countries, and it's very important that we as a coalition connect strong with the grassroots. That's very important.

What issues will be priorities in the coming year and beyond?

Certainly, two issues that are the ongoing concern are the eradication of poverty and the U.N. debating the compacts on migration and refugees this year, the overall issue of migration. That touches on so many issues of importance to our local communities: Wars, climate change and poverty all connect to migration. Trafficking will continue to be an issue of concern, but migration will become a main area of focus, and trafficking remains part of that.

What does UNANIMA bring to the table, given the large number of nongovernmental organizations at the U.N.?

Every organization is unique. For us, we are 22 congregations from throughout the world coming together, and we bring with us the years of experience of our member congregations. The work they do is important. We can be a voice for a large group of people. And of course, UNANIMA is not afraid to get out and say what needs to be said on issues of importance to us.

A lot of people [outside the United Nations] don't know about UNANIMA, but everywhere I've gone in New York, people I have met unexpectedly, like in church, are interested in how these congregations work together. They say, "I'd like to do something for UNANIMA." That's gratifying.

This marks 15 years for UNANIMA, and that's a good moment to ask the congregations how UNANIMA serves them. I think overall, people are very happy with our voice at the U.N.

But there are always challenges, right? What are they?

The challenges include that we're spread out in 83 countries. Regional connections have to be strengthened, and we want to reinforce the idea that communities should be heard. When something happens in Brazil, for example, that should go into the pot and be part of the dialogue here at the United Nations. It's important for people at the grassroots to know we're here.

You've arrived at the United Nations at an interesting moment. Do you think the U.N. is a place of hope?

Some feel it's a place of hope, and it's true, there is no other institution like it. Others are more skeptical about what the U.N. can do. Now that I've been here, I certainly see the challenges. But I think what you do is focus on small efforts, things that are achievable. Michele [Morek] told me, "There isn't an alternative to the U.N.," and that is true.

[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is cherlinger@ncronline.org.]