Maria Dominguez Gray has been at the Phillips Brooks House Association for going on 25 years, and has been the executive director for 11. She sat down with Fifteen Minutes to talk about what she’s learned in her time as the steward for public service on campus.
FM: You’ve been working at PBHA for almost 25 years, is that correct?
MDG: That’s correct.
FM: That’s crazy. What about this organization has caused you to make it home for so long?
MDG: At the core of it, even though this sounds cheesy, it’s the mission. It’s the fact that I can play a role in making a difference in our broader community. I love the service work we do, I love our community partners, that’s really what my calling is.
I love Boston and Cambridge and have such a personal connection there. But I also love the development, and the learning, and the “aha!” moments, and the passion that students get to fine tune and cultivate and build on through their experience here. And I love seeing where they start on that journey, and where they graduate, and then when they’re kicking butt in terms of changing the world 10 years later. I just love that process.
Because the students respond so much to what the moment is. I think this age in particular is such an amazing age for folks trying to figure out who they are in the world and how they want to make a change in the world. They have such a frontline seat to change, and have the idealism, and don’t have the cynicism yet to not care. And I kind of thrive off of being around that.
When I first got here, they asked me if I would stay three years, and I said yes. And then I went home and cried and said, “I think I lied.”
The work is never quite done. Just when you feel like you’ve figured something out, like, “Okay! We solved this problem,” the next group comes in and says “Why not? We have to do this now more.” We have to constantly do more. And that’s good.
FM: How do you think the landscape of student service has shifted in the past 25 years? What do you notice?
MDG: One of the shifts for PBHA public service that I think I really appreciate is that I think we have intentionally built more opportunities for leadership of students who grew up in our programs and don’t go to Harvard to work alongside Harvard students and I think everyone benefits from that kind of intentional leadership development, and it’s an important part of our program quality, of all the students’ experience because they’re learning from one another.
Just because someone’s doing service doesn’t mean they’re doing good. So I think we’ve built a lot of systems for thinking critically about the outcomes that the folks we work with deserve, the quality of what we’re providing, and making sure there’s training and reflection. A lot of those systems did not really exist before 25 years ago.
What I think has been beautiful about PBHA and other Harvard programs’ approach to service historically — and there are exceptions to this rule — is that what should come first is the impact on the community, and then when we center that, we develop the right kind of student leaders. And I think that as we grow, we want to be intentional about making sure that the service we’re developing is not just about the students.
FM: How many meetings do you have in a day on average?
MDG: Want me to pull up my calendar? You’ll laugh. On average? Six, easily.
I think the good outweighs the bad. But, it’s a little like Groundhog Day, in that there’s constant turnover, and inevitably, because we have limited capacity, sometimes with turnover, stuff can get lost. We saw that in a big way during Covid and the pandemic. It’s an apprenticeship model in so many ways in that the older students start their first year, for example, volunteering at the shelter once a week. And then over time, build more understanding and gain more responsibility, so that by the time they’re seniors, they’ve seen a lot. They understand the policies, they understand the nuance, and then they’re mentoring the first year students. That’s a vulnerable model.
And I think there’s also always an important need to be cognizant or aware of savior complex, or differences in privilege and the reality that all students and all people have their own biases coming into the world.
But, compared to other service models where you may outsource, send an internship to another nonprofit, PBHA is really unique in the country.
FM: You’ve lived in Boston for most of your life. Can you tell me more about your relationship to the city?
MDG: I actually was a Harvard baby. When I lived here, my parents were both in grad school. And then I moved away, grew up outside D.C., and came back for grad school to go to the Harvard Ed School. When I was at the Ed School, I worked in Chelsea with young moms who were gang-involved. After the Ed School, I knew I wanted to stay around here. I was interviewed for a few different jobs, but the ones that really struck me or spoke to something that continues to be my calling was the early years of City Year.
I was like, ‘Oh, you can get paid to do this stuff?’
So I was involved in some early years of City Year, working first in some schools, because I had gone to the Grad School of Education, so I was like, ‘Oh, I want to do something in schools.’ But then as I was doing that work, I realized I love working with 17- t0 24-year-olds.
Boston is a small enough city in that it can be relational. I think that’s harder in bigger communities. I think it’s always important but the relationships are both about the work, but they’re also deeply personal and supportive. When it’s at its best, that’s a big part of the culture of Boston organizing, which I love.
FM: What do you do with your life outside of PBHA?
MDG: I’m a mom of two incredible children who are very creative and in high school. One is a senior and one is a sophomore. Both on IEPs. Quite honestly, most of my life outside of PBHA is supporting them and advocating for them. That’s been its own interesting set of having to advocate within the school systems and ensure they have the supports they need to be seen as the incredibly smart, intelligent, great kids they are. Most of it is just fun. My kids are awesome, my husband’s awesome, I’m very lucky I have a great family. We just like to do stuff together, watch TV shows together. So that’s a lot of how I try to spend my time. A lot of time in community and relaxing and hanging out. Probably not as much anymore, but I’m also very arts-and-crafty. When I can, I do. And I love the beach. And I love to travel.
FM: Is there an art project that you’ve made recently?
MDG: I think the most recent was a painting at the beach a couple years ago. I haven’t done anything super recent. It’s a place that I always want to carve out more space for. I bought oil paints five months ago to try doing it again and it’s still sitting there. I used to make little gifts for all the people here before I had children. This is not a good example because this is the one that got left that wasn’t very good, but I made these little PBHA candleholders that I used to do.
FM: Can you tell me about one of your favorite spots or neighborhoods?
MDG: That’s a hard one. So many to choose from. One of my favorite spots is actually in my neighborhood, I live in Fort Hill, Roxbury. There is a Fort Hill park. It’s at the top of the hill and it’s part of the Emerald Necklace.
When you’re up there, you have a view of the city. It’s a really pretty, small little park with an old water tower.
FM: Have you done any memorable site visits recently? Maybe from the summer?
MDG: Yeah so many! I feel like especially with SUP and summer, the years all blur together. The images that consistently stand out are children, there was one third-grade class, they’re doing long division, and all these kids were raising their hands like they were going to jump out of their chairs to answer long division questions.
I swear every time I visit a SUP camp I still am amazed.
Again, it’s imperfect, but there’s so many of those moments where I leave in awe. On those site visits, sometimes there are senior counselors who I’ve known most of their lives. And that goes back to that original thing of what keeps me here. This person is the most amazing powerful person ever, and they’re talking about how they’re going to be teachers, they’re going to have so many children over their lifetime. It’s that kind of ripple effect.
FM: What advice do you have for students who are preparing to volunteer in communities that they are not from?
MDG: You’re not from here. Be yourself. Be humble. But part of being yourself and being humble is doing your own work to be aware of your own biases and assumptions as you’re coming in.
I often say for students in all leadership positions: when you’re making a decision about whether to be at a program or whether to do something different: what’s going to matter five years from now? Because there’s a lot of false urgency that can come into your life as a student, and I’m not advocating for not doing everything you’re supposed to do as a student, but I do think there are some moments where if a child needed you and you stayed a little bit longer, or if you didn’t feel so stressed out about homework and you just said I’m going to go to that community event and get to know people, that’s an important part of your education that you’ll remember more than 5fiveyears from now. More than if you spent another hour on that pset.
I think perfectionism gets in the way of letting people be part of communities.
FM: What is something that goes on behind the scenes at PBHA that you wish more people knew about?
MDG: I wish more people knew about how intentional and how hard the officers and staff work to make things happen and how much they so often just come from a place of integrity. I also think that alumni especially, but also community partners, don’t know that PBHA is a separate 501(c)(3) and that we have to raise a lot of our own money, and we definitely have some support from Harvard, but we still have to raise $2.5 million a year. And that most of that money raised goes straight to programs and supporting students.
FM: What do you think is the greatest thing you’ve learned from your work with PBHA? Or something you couldn’t have learned elsewhere?
MDG: I may have been able to learn it elsewhere, but I will say when I started working here, I thought this was the dumbest model I’d ever seen, in that I think the level of student leadership and ownership gave me pause. Because it’s a little counterintuitive. But what I saw what’s possible, and the impact over time, that was compounded by students getting together to create Y2Y or the stuff in the classrooms that we talked about or the finance systems, I realized that there is a level of kind of — if you don’t go to the shelter, then the shelter doesn’t happen, for the PBHA shelter. If you’re volunteering at a soup kitchen, it's nice, you’re a volunteer, but It’s not the same level of ownership and investment. I think when that level of responsibility is there, of course scaffolded and supported.
But I think it's just amazing what’s possible. And I don’t think I would’ve understood that coming from a more traditional AmeriCorps model, which is more top-down.
FM: You’ve been talking a lot about these almost twin notions of idealism and cynicism, or this kind of jadedness that you just mentioned. It seems idealism is really important to you, and something that you five very motivating and grounding in this kind of work. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Where does the idealism go, I guess is my question, you know, how do you preserve that?
MDG: That’s a good question.
I do think the fact that I work with young people, people younger than me, is very helpful. And cynicism may not be the right word.
If you think about it, if the folks in your nonprofit are the same people year after year, after a while, you might be exhausted from trying to make those things better, right? Maybe there’s a complacency around it, too. That’s not intentional, they can just come with it. And I don’t think the student-led model allows you to be complacent.
FM: If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about how PBHA runs, what would it be?
MDG: Better institutional memory systems. And capacity so that people wouldn’t be so stretched thin all the time.
FM: Where do you see yourself in five years?
MDG: I don't know.
I think that's important to not get too comfortable. I’ve been here 25 years. I mean, I’d still be doing this work.
So, you know, who knows? But I’ll still be here somehow. Whether that’s in this role, or just as the number one supporter and cheerleader.
—Associate Magazine Editor Maya M. F. Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.