New Social Services Chief Starts Out Listening

Paul Bass PhotoMartha Okafor responded to a question Wednesday with questions. That was, in effect, was her answer.

Okafor arrived in City Hall for her first day in one of the new Harp administration’s most important jobs: community services administrator, AKA social-services chief—the top mayoral aide in charge of dealing with public health, housing the homeless, reaching at-risk teens, serving the elderly, guiding prisoners into productive lives back in the community.

In an interview in her second-floor City Hall office, Okafor was asked what specific plans she has for tackling those challenges.

Her first answer: She has no specific plans. She first wants to listen to people. That’s how she does business. Over the past 22 years, since immigrating to the U.S. from Nigeria, Okafor has put plenty of plans to work, in Harlem, in Connecticut state government, most recently in Georgia. “I may have an idea what worked well in Georgia,” she said. “It may not work well in New Haven.”

“I would rather listen first to what people are saying” here, to seek “solutions to problems coming from the people experiencing them,” she said.

Okafor ended the interview by asking the questions, about the prime human-services challenges facing the city: What are people most concerned about? Who’s working on what problems?

That’s what she’s been doing so far—asking questions—and that was the broader answer to the specific-plans question: She will take her time and talk to people before telling New Haven how to fix its problems.

Okafor, who came across as relaxed and open in the interview, arrives in the job with the resume, and expectations, usually attached to someone who has big plans and lots of answers. (If you don’t believe the hype about the resume, click here to read it.)

In that sense, she reprises a role played in City Hall 24 years ago by another social-services hotshot. Then, too, a newly elected African-American mayor, John Daniels, took office with a mandate to tackle difficult, neglected poverty-related issues. Daniels lured Audrey Rowe, a nationally acclaimed social-services guru then from the Rockefeller Foundation, to the community services administrator (then called “human resources administrator”) slot, historically a local patronage hire. Rowe had big ambitions. But she left a year later when then-Gov. Lowell Weicker lured her to become his state social services chief. (Rowe is now a top food and nutrition official in the Obama administration.)

Mayor Harp, remembering a close working relationship she and Okafor had when they worked together at the state Capitol, wooed her hard to take the job. Harp convinced Okafor to leave a high-profile public-health job in Georgia, where she directs the behavioral health section of Morehouse School of Medicine’s Satcher Health Leadership Institute (run by former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher)  to return to Connecticut. Okafor’s husband and 14-year-old son will join her here soon, too. (Her two older kids will be in college in the fall.) Okafor also helps the National Institute of Health develop plans to tackle the social-emotional and early brain development challenges of disadvantaged young children; she designed public-health programs for universities nationwide. Before moving to Georgia, she was a top administrator at Connecticut’s state public health and social service departments.

Why would she leave that for the New Haven job?

“I love what I was doing in Georgia. I love my boss [Satcher]. To me, [the new job] is an expansion of what I’m doing. In New Haven I have an opportunity to contribute to a life span, from birth to the elderly ...”

Upon further discussion, it became clear that her personal relationship with Harp was a key factor. The two worked closely on issues like early childhood development, welfare reform, and Medicaid when Harp was a leading state senator and Okafor an administrator.

“It’s the mayor’s vision and commitment that convinced me to come. She’s going to make a difference,” Okafor said.

Harp returned the compliment in a conversation Wednesday afternoon. “She really is committed to helping people and solving problems,” Harp said of Okafor. “She brings a calm intellectual approach to problems as well as a real strong sense of compassion, and the ability to operationalize responses to problems.”

In state government, Harp recalled, Okafor “worked really hard with maternal and child health issues. She also did work in the Department of Social Services in the implementation of what was really a difficult welfare reform. She did it in a way that really took into consideration of the people who were impacted as well as the policy makers.”

Harp predicted that Okafor’s background and skills will help New Haven land money from new sources to tackle challenges like infant mortality, health disparities among racial and economic groups, and prison reentry.

New Haven took the lead on tackling infant mortality with a community campaign launched some 25 years ago. That led to years of declines in the rate of babies dying here. In recent years the rate has started climbing back up.

Okafor also steps into the hot seat for New haven’s growing concern about homelessness. A 100-day community campaign is seeking to house 75 percent of the city’s chronically homeless. Meanwhile, activists have twice brought protests to Mayor Harp’s office over the annual spring closure of the 88-bed overflow shelter on Cedar Street. Two weeks ago they erected a homeless encampment on a city-owned lot (pictured) on Rosette Street in the Hill; Harp ordered the encampment dismantled.

Okafor said her immediate plan for addressing that issue, like other other issues, is to talk to everyone involved.

Her first job upon coming to this country from Anambra State in Nigeria was managing a program in Harlem for young adults with psycho-social health problems, helping them function better in society. She was asked what she learned in that job and in her subsequent work. “Every human being wants a job. Every human being wants to be healthy and happy. Every human being wants to have a sense of worth, a sense of purpose, feeling connected and respected,” she said. “What they need is to be encouraged and to be supported” in the quest to succeed.

Asked what she enjoys doing in her spare time, she mentioned reading (recent books that had an impact on her: Stephen R. Covey on leadership, Richard Gerson’s Beyond Customer Service), dancing, “meeting with people,” and praying.“My spiritual practice is really my base,” she said. She sees the new pope as a model: “He loves to serve. He loves discipleship, to engage people. He gives people hope, which I love to do.” As her plans for New Haven evolve, she will have lots of opportunity to do that.

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posted by: Honest in New Haven on May 29, 2014  6:16pm

If Harp is serious about the commitment she made to Mrs. Okafor, I hope she doesn’t hamper her with dead weight Deputies who are patronage appointments.

posted by: Billy on May 30, 2014  12:31am

Welcome, Ms. Okafor. I wish you all the best as you take on this important role in a critical time for our city. I look forward to working with you.

On that note, any details about when and where Ms. Okafor will be “listen[ing] to people”? Will this be a process of talking to the usual suspects, or will there be a concerted effort to talk to people whose issues and struggles Ms. Okafor’s various departments will seeking to address? There’s a lot of wisdom outside of the endorsed social service structure. I hope there will be venues for people with that wisdom to share it.

posted by: Frank Columbo on May 30, 2014  3:41pm

Honest in New Haven-

Hoping Ms. Okafor will be permitted to decide
that any “dead weight” deputies or department heads within CSA be jettisoned.