Grace Bonilla knows how to get things done. As Administrator of the country’s largest social services organization, she makes sure nonprofits and government agencies get the resources they need—which means struggling New Yorkers get the resources they need. We talk to Grace about the need to serve, the shame of poverty, Law & Order, and the importance of betting on yourself.
You were born and raised in New York?
I was born in Queens. My parents are immigrants from Ecuador and I'm the oldest of four. New York is an interesting place to grow up in. It's funny when I tell people that I'm from Queens; they automatically assume that I'm from Corona or Jackson Heights where there’s a concentration of large Latino communities.. My upbringing was very different because I grew up in South Jamaica, which is a mix of African-American and Afro-Caribbean immigrant communities. So I didn't have a sense of what it meant to be Latina in New York City. I knew that we were different because we spoke a different language at home, and I spent my summers in Ecuador. I felt very much like a New Yorker when I was here, and very Ecuadorian when we would travel. I felt like I lived a bit of a dual life.
Despite the fact that I didn’t grow up in a Latino community, I experienced the same challenges that a lot of immigrant families face. As the oldest bilingual child, I became the holder of the power in the family. I was the one that went to the doctor's appointments with my parents, I was the one that did the parent-teacher conferences for my siblings. That power struggle is something that really resonated with me as I grew up. It’s one of the reasons why when I went to work in social services—language access became such a passion of mine. Why would you ever want to put a child in the position of speaking for their parents? They don’t need to be in a lot of those conversations. It changes the dynamic in a family.
I remember at that time, I felt really important because I would go to the doctor's appointments and translate for the doctor. I think that's where I got my sense of service. At a young age, I realized I had the skills to help other people.
There are many paths to public service, so what made you choose to study law?
This is a little bit ridiculous but I'll share it anyway. I love the TV show Law & Order and Matlock! [Laughs]
That’s not ridiculous; I love Law & Order!
Of course, that’s not the only reason. I love the ability to use other people’s facts to make an argument. I always loved winning arguments growing up, and I think I knew from a fairly young age that I would study to be a lawyer.
My parents were very happy for me when I decided to study law. I always wanted to go into the public realm, but I knew my parents had different hopes for me, so at first I worked as paralegal at a big international law firm. I was there for two years and there were a lot of perks: fancy dinners, car service and meeting people from all over the world. I worked on a lot of cases representing South American clients. But I hated every minute of it.
What made you leave?
I got one case that really affected me. I can’t really talk about the details, but I felt like I was on the wrong side. It was a huge moral dilemma for me. You realize that, despite what may be true or right, you have to defend your client. That was the moment when I knew I couldn’t move ahead in corporate law.
What was the transition from corporate law to social service like?
Initially, I thought I would go into the nonprofit sector and be an attorney for legal aid.
When I was in law school, a lot of my internships were in the public interest arena. I worked for Planned Parenthood for a summer, actually. Another summer, I worked with legal aid at Rikers Island prison, taking down inmates’ complaints about abuses from correctional officers.
I got my first job in social services at a job fair. I was panicking because no one was hiring and so I went to this fair. I met one of the attorneys who works at the Department of Social Services, and he suggested I apply. By that time, I was married and had given birth to my first son while I was at law school. As an aside, no one should do that! The balancing act is crazy. [Laughs]
I applied to the job right after I had taken the bar exam, so my little family and I were about to go to San Francisco for a vacation. We were just about to take off when my phone rang with the job offer—and the rest is HRA history!
The Human Resources Administration is the largest social services agency in the country, and that was really exciting to me. When I started here, I really had to adjust my own feelings around poverty. I didn’t come from an affluent family, and we were fortunate enough that we didn’t need social services. I’m pretty sure that we would have qualified, but my parents refused to apply. I grew up with a layer of shame always surrounding poverty. When I started at HRA, I really wanted to challenge that.
Back in 2004, I started at HRA working for a Republican administration. The commissioners under that administration were very much about making sure people were self-sufficient. But that sort of “pull yourself by your bootstraps” thinking doesn’t account for any understanding of people’s situations. We are the safety net that makes it possible to have a chance. That is a responsibility I and my colleagues take very seriously.
How did you shape your career at HRA over the past 14 years?
My career took weird turns at HRA. I practiced law for a couple of years and then decided that I didn't actually want to do that. I thought I was more interested in policy. So I went to legislative affairs and I did a lot of the work around public cash assistance, child support, and SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program].
Working in legislative affairs gave me some great insight into how things operate throughout the different levels of government: federal, state and local. It’s like a big puzzle, making everything work together. Cities have to respond to federal laws from “above,” and also respond to lawsuits and complaints from constituents. . Working on cash assistance and SNAP really gave me an understanding of poverty at both the national and local level.
I also became really drawn to child support. Having the emotional and financial support of both parents gives children a better chance to succeed. I experienced that support personally.Where possible this is what I want for every child in NYC. The Child Support Program gives us the opportunity to be mindful about the impact government has on the family dynamic. The program is so important because it also allows you to serve families as a whole. Once you have those payments coming in, you can look at the family relationship as a whole—how it’s going to function best for the child. So I worked at the HRA’s Office of Child Support Services for two and half years.
Soon after a number of years as Deputy Commissioner, there was a change of administration. At this point, I was looking for a new challenge. Mayor de Blasio had named Steven Banks as Commissioner of HRA. It was revolutionary for us, because Commissioner Banks had worked for legal aid for 30 years. That was good for the agency, but part of what I had loved was fighting for people who didn’t have a voice. I wanted to keep doing that, so I left to work at a nonprofit, the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families. I wanted to keep bringing diverse voices to the forefront and I wanted to learn as much as possible about service in that sector. . It was an amazing place to work. Growing up, I didn’t really have a sense of what it meant to be a Latina in New York. It was the first time I’d worked with a staff that were all Latino in service of the Latino Community. It was a humbling experience. I soon realized I had ignored a number of struggles that were unique to my community. Struggles that my own family had and I faced as a woman and a Latina but could not identify it. It gave me a new sense of purpose and clarity that I needed to do more for my own community while also focusing on the common struggles across other groups.
What kind of work did you do at CHCF?
One of my passions was working with family child-care providers. Because our services really focused on Spanish speaking providers, I soon realized that these providers are the holders of our culture in the community for young parents. When low income parents have the chance to send their young children to a quality based program where they know the food, values and language that are important to them would continue even in their absence. This can be so important for a mom who’s from Mexico, for example, because her child-care provider will be able to speak Spanish to her kids, or cook them foods they have at home. CHCF is keeping the culture going, while providing resources that the family needs to be successful. Being an advocate for that was a lot of fun and very purposeful. From the perspective of managing the day to day business like a nonprofit, I soon realized that navigating government funding is very difficult even for the most savvy nonprofits. Like a lot of things, it comes down to race and relationships. Even for me, with all of my government contacts, it wasn't as easy to get that funding and build the reputation of a Latino-based organization. It was frustrating.
That was one of the reasons I came back to the HRA. It gave me an opportunity to improve our relationships with providers. My message to our nonprofit partners would be that they have a right to approach us and tell us what they need even if we don’t see eye to eye.
When did you come back?
I returned in 2017. I actually ran into Commissioner Banks while I was working at the nonprofit and he told me it was time to come back. It was a tough decision, but to be named Administrator at HRA means I could facilitate things on a much higher level.
It was like coming home, but it's almost like coming home after you've been away to college, right? I had grown up, learned more, and came back in a different role. They already knew me, which was a blessing and a curse. [Laughs] Sometimes it’s harder to hold the line because I understand my staff’s struggles, but they also see me as a friend. It’s a balancing act!
How would you explain what you do to someone who didn’t know about the agency?
HRA serves three million people in New York City with various programs, such as Medicaid, SNAP, and cash assistance. There are clients that are falling below certain poverty levels and are receiving all three services. We manage those benefits, and also offer special services to special populations. For example, we have a department that works exclusively with HIV-positive clients. We have the Adult Protective Services program, helping New York’s aging population and those with severe mental illness who cannot make decisions for themselves. We also offer domestic violence support, both shelters for those who’ve left their abusive partners and also community services for those still living with their partners. That is really important work, because we know that domestic violence is a huge indicator of homelessness. So, that work has actually taken a new meaning for me, because it's not just about making sure that our clients are whole and ready to go into the community, it's also making sure that they can avoid shelter and live in their community long term and safely.
Commissioner Banks has actually implemented a new Homelessness Prevention Administration within the HRA, where a lot of revolutionary and exciting things are happening. We provide apartment vouchers to help clients secure affordable housing, so that they can actually live in New York City and they're not pushed out of their neighborhoods. We support clients with financial literacy, to make sure they know how to pay their bills. We’re also working toward universal access to legal assistance. Prior to a year ago, most landlords came to court with an attorney, while 99 percent of tenants showed up with no one. But in the next four years, every housing court in this city will have legal assistance available to New Yorkers facing eviction. We’ve already seen a 27 percent drop in evictions in a year!
Amazing! I didn’t realize the vastness of the agency.
And I haven’t even mentioned all of it! I see my job and my office as the place where we fight for resources and efficiencies our departments need to serve New Yorkers. We work hard to make sure that the goals of the administration and fulfilled and that our staff have what they need to meet the mandate. I also know that representing the best of what we do is a huge part of the job and with this team there is plenty to choose from. . Every department chief I work with has been at the agency for more than 30 years. They know what they're doing, so my job is just to get the challenges out of their way.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Take a risk and always bet on yourself. It applies in so many settings.
Whether it is going for a job you love but wonder if you have all the qualifications or asking a burning question in a meeting that may be uncomfortable but can also open up possibilities for the people we serve. The advice I would give anyone is that taking those types of risks makes you a better professional and prepares you to fully live your purpose.
What does New York mean to you?
I have a serious love affair with New York. I love all parts of the city—the good, the bad, the ugly. I love it! I love the food, the diversity of our neighborhoods, the fact that I have so much more to discover and II love that I see the water everyday from my office. I think I'm in social services because I do believe that the New Yorkers that are the most vulnerable are a key component of our city. They make up who we are in many ways, so I want them to be okay. I want them to have the experience my parents had working so hard to see their kids succeed. To serve this beautiful, complex city is the biggest privilege for me.