Fannie Munlin has led a long life of helping others, making her a natural fit to chair the NGO Executive Committee, the liaison for the 1,600 civil society organizations affiliated with the United Nations Department of Global Communications. She is also “the face of the African-American community at the UN,” as she said, as the UN representative for the National Council of Negro Women, a Washington-based group that has held observer status with the UN since 1946.
Last summer, the NGO committee, partnering with the UN, held the annual civil society conference in Salt Lake City, Utah — the first time the meeting took place in the United States away from UN headquarters in New York. The mayor of Salt Lake, Jackie Biskupski, proposed the idea to the UN, and by most accounts, bringing the UN to another part of the country was successful. (There will be no NGO committee conference this year because of the many commemorations that are scheduled at the UN, including its 75th birthday.)
Munlin lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where she was raised in a family of seven — her parents and four siblings — nurtured by an Episcopalian church-centered community. She held bake sales as a girl to help fund her church’s choir and aspired to be a singer. Luckily, she said, the choir director suggested she use her talents in other ways. In other words, she couldn’t sing.
As an adult, she put her generous spirit into paid work, first for the National Council of Negro Women, then for CARE International, then back to the National Council and with the NGO committee at the UN. One major influence on her career was Dorothy Height, a civil rights and women’s rights activist who was president of the National Council for 40 years.
In an interview in early January with PassBlue, Munlin talked about her childhood and her enduring effort to further the rights of all people. As part of her many jobs, she relishes traveling, and she was preparing for a trip to Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February for a peace forum, celebrating the UN’s 75th birthday, among other other topics.
When asked how old she is, Munlin let out a big sigh, and that was that.
The interview with Munlin was held in the National Council office in a building across the street from the UN in New York. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: You were voted into the role of chair of the NGO Executive Committee by the members last year. Your main, immediate task was holding the annual civil society conference with the UN, in Salt Lake City. How did you get elected?
A: I had been working on the committee in another capacity. I was a director for a while and vice chair. And now I am chair. Though I was running against someone else, I guess through name recognition and the fact that I had been at the UN since 1981 and worked on the committee in voluntary positions, I got elected. And I chaired the annual conference in 2003.
Q: The conference was held in Salt Lake City, which was the first time it took place somewhere else in the United States besides New York, although other annual conferences have been held overseas. The UN held a post-mortem media briefing on the event, emphasizing its success. Can you sum up the most important part of the conference?
A: We had a program of 250 workshops covering all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. They covered the issues of climate change, peace and security, poverty reduction, hunger, oceans, all 17. . . . There were representatives from various parts of the world and quite a few American NGOs — from the Midwest, the South, New York, California, Hawaii. It was a great feeling because for the first time, it gave Americans an idea of the nature and the work that the UN does. I had been getting some blowback, with people saying, Why do we need the UN; and we had a lot of politicians questioning the UN, and our current president [Trump] saying, We all just go there and party all day. And I’ve not been to a party since I’ve been at the UN.
But it is a place where 193 member states, all with different traditions, come to deal with world problems. And when we talk about world problems, it is not as if the world is “over there,” and it’s not here, in the United States. Climate change is a reality in America; safe water is a reality in America, health care services is a reality in America. Education is a reality. So, it is not dealing with some foreign issues that does not impact our lives, but all the issues that the UN deals with impact every human life on this planet.
Q: In working closely with the UN, how do you cope with its bureaucracy?
A: I worked with the federal government for a long time [through CARE], so the UN is like a government-run institution. And I’ve learned that the government is like your circulatory system. It has you starting at this part, then some place where you have to go before you could go any further. Once you get through that place, you’ve got to go someplace else before you get there finally, but you give yourself enough time at the back end to go through all these systems without delay. So if you’re going to do a project, you need to start on it a long time before because you’ve got all these checkpoints.
Q: Going back to your early days working in the civil society universe, in your late 20s, how did you get started?
A: I’ve worked in international development for a long time, prior to coming to the National Council of Negro Women. I worked for CARE for many years, where I was the director for the tristate office. My duties were to raise funds for programs in the 75 countries that CARE was operating in, and I did that for about 15 years. Then CARE decided to move its base to Atlanta. And I asked for a contract and they said they couldn’t do that. So not knowing anyone in Atlanta, I decided I couldn’t take a job without a contract. So I had worked with the National Council of Negro Women and went back and asked if they had a position, and Dorothy Height [the director] said that they didn’t have any position open, but if I could raise the funds to pay for my salary, I could get a job, so I decided, I will raise the funds. I knew the organization quite well because I practically grew up with it, and I looked at some of the things that they wanted to do. At that time, one thing that was coming forward was the United States had passed a national seat-belt law, and the laws were going to be funded through the states.
So I found out how they were going to put out a request for proposals. I got all the information I needed about how the program was going to work. I put together a proposal for the very small amount of $200,000. And I got funded for two years. And since the National Council has 250 community sections and 39 affiliated organizations, all of which have international and national programs, I thought it was a good fit for me. And I got the seat-belt contract and went to work promoting seat-belt use in several states.
Q: So your decades of experience of organizing and fund-raising in the nonprofit sector led you here, chairing the NGO Executive Committee. This means managing the needs of a mere 1,600 organizations, operated by people who are passionate about their work, but who, as you said to me, all want to be stars. What’s this world like?
A: The nonprofit area is really the best way to bring services to our community and to inspire people to improve their lives. It’s the best way to work if you’re concerned about social and economic changes, human rights and civil rights, if you’re concerned about how people interact with each other, how systems impact the lives of people. When I worked for CARE, I traveled to the countries that we were supporting, and I saw the impact of the programs that we had funded in Liberia, Indonesia, Egypt. We did a program in Egypt, where the fishermen at a dam were catching fish and bringing it to the market, but they were throwing a lot of the fish on the shore for fuel, to use it to cook their meals. So I raised funds so that they could get solar cookers to use instead of the fish for fuel.
Q: Tell me about your work at the National Council of Negro Women, where you began your career and where you returned after a long time at CARE.
A: I started working for the National Council in Mississippi, with a woman by the name of Fannie Lou Hamer, in a program on voter rights, some of it related to sharecroppers. Sharecroppers work a farm, but the owner can dictate all parts of your life. You harvest the crop but give half to the owner, and the owner gives you some for yourself, for your renting the land, so you own nothing. So if the owner decides you’re not going to get anything, you have no food. So we raised funds for the sharecroppers to buy pigs. They raised the pigs and pigs had more pigs, and the sharecroppers had protein.
Q: You’re still with the National Council after five decades. Is it like your family? And tell us about Dorothy Height, who died in 2010 in her 80s, having been the “godmother of the civil rights movement,” as President Obama put it, as an organizer, speaker, antilynching campaigner and other social actions. You must miss her.
A: I grew up in this organization. All that I have been able to accomplish, I did by the support of women within this organization. Some of them have past-transitioned, some of them are still around, but the majority of them have transitioned. My undying love is for Dorothy Irene Height, because she saw something in me that gave me an incentive, the courage to believe in myself. That gave me the confidence as an African-American woman, because a lot of things I experienced was people saying, you can’t do this because we don’t hire blacks. Like in one experience, I was hired on the phone for a phone job, but when I showed up in person, I couldn’t get the job, so I said I was going to sue him, because I said my English is absolutely perfect and no one will know what color I am on the phone.
Q: How did Dorothy Height help you deal with discrimination?
A: I remember going into her office, and I had a course I was taking at Hunter College [in New York], and it was a course that I really needed, but I was working during the day and the course was taught during the day. Miss Munlin, Height said, You can do this. I went to her with another problem, when I said I really hated a person, and she said to me, Miss Munlin, it is not the person you hate, it is the act that you don’t like, so you must separate the act from the person. That helped me navigate, because once I had confrontations or differences, I could look at what the person was saying, rather than saying this is actually who he or she is . . . and that interchange could be changed to be one of cooperation, or at least mutual understanding.
Q: It sounds like Height instilled a spiritual core in you to help you overcome the obstacles and barriers you faced as an African-American and as a woman.
A. Self-confidence is really good because even if I did something that she did not agree with, she would say, Did you think of doing it this way? And I said, No, I didn’t; and she said, Perhaps you should follow this line of thinking and the results will be exactly what you want.
Q: So now you have to seek cooperation running the NGO Executive Committee. As you say, everybody wants to be a star. What’s your secret in managing the egos?
A: You have to help everyone find that there is a much larger number, an inclusive way of dealing with anything, without offending.
Q: How do you steer people toward the greater good?
A: First, am I slow to anger because anger blocks you. The one thing that I’ve learned in life is anger is an inhibitor. If you want to get past an issue, you must put anger aside and look at what it is that you’re dealing with, and be honest with yourself, know what you can do and what you can’t do. I have faults, but I try to minimize my mistakes. And when I do make a mistake, I apologize. I don’t hold on to anything negative, I just let it go.
Q: Despite your travels for CARE abroad and work for the National Council, your base has always been New York. Tell me about your family.
A: We’re New Yorkers, but my mother’s originally a Floridian and my father was from Alabama. My father came to New York, my mother came to New York, and they decided to stay. I had two brothers and two sisters, but only one sister left — in New York — and one brother now — in South Carolina. I’ve always been a volunteer. I started off in the church, Episcopalian. I wanted to be a singer, but I can’t sing. I was good at organizing and I had a cake sale for the church choir. I went to all the merchants in the area and got them to donate cakes, and we had a sale, making maybe $600. I wanted to be in the choir and was invited to come to choir for practice, and I got in, going to all the rehearsals, including on Saturdays. But I was not good, not good at all. I was throwing everybody off-key, but I didn’t know that. So the director called me into his office, and said, Fannie, you’re so good at so many things, but singing is not one of them, and I want you to explore all those talents that you have and we appreciate what you do. He didn’t tell me that I was lousy, that I couldn’t sing. So, when I went home, I told my mother, and she said, You have other good talents, just do the good things that you know how to do. So that was it.
Q: How did you get the name Fannie, it’s so lively sounding, it’s so you?
A: My grandfather loved that name Fannie. So I got the name Fannie Mae. And I like my name; you know, a lot of people say they don’t like their names, but I never have said that because it’s my personality. Fannie, yeah, I have the perfect name. My name is absolutely the right name for me.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.