Former mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico speaks on ‘Leadership During Crisis’

The keynote presentation was hosted by UMass Women into Leadership

Carmen Yulín Cruz / Mount Holyoke College

Carmen Yulín Cruz / Mount Holyoke College

By Lisa Gherbi, Collegian Correspondent

Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico from 2012-2020, spoke at the University of Massachusetts Monday night on how to lead through a crisis.

Cruz shared her experiences leading as mayor when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017 and highlighted the importance of speaking up and advocating.

“The one thing that I learned is you have only two options,” Cruz said. “You either speak up, tell the truth no matter what the consequences are, no matter how uncomfortable that truth is for some people… or you stay silent and you become complacent with the narrative that will end up only helping those that don’t want to help you… That is the most important thing that I learned.”

Cruz spoke on her decision to continue to speak up and fight for the people of San Juan and Puerto Rico, regardless of those around her advising she stay silent.

“One of the things you have to know in a crisis, the power of one voice can quickly summon many others to action,” Cruz said. “It takes some of us to make sure that all of us become the change agents that we talk about… You may not have a megaphone or a platform, but you have a voice.”

Puerto Rico’s death toll from Hurricane Maria reached nearly 3,000. Cruz emphasized the importance of answering your higher calling and entering public office for the right reasons.

“There is not one day I don’t think of the 3,000. I have a post-it in front of me that says ‘Por los tres mil, Dios está conmigo,’” Cruz said. “For me it was all about being accountable to the people of Puerto Rico… My voice was simply the echo of thousands of voices of my brothers and sisters of Puerto Rico. It began a chain reaction that would galvanize help from the public sector, the private sector and the diaspora.”

The keynote was hosted by UMass Women into Leadership, a leadership training and professional development program that prepares students for public leadership. UWiL introduces students to current leaders and provides students with opportunities to see the benefits of public service.

Michelle Goncalves, executive director of UWiL, spoke on the importance of introducing female students to female leaders like Cruz.

“My personal belief is that students can understand better what opportunities are available for them if they can see people who look like them, have backgrounds like them, are in jobs they can see themselves in,” Goncalves said. “If they can actually see and engage with those people. It makes the reality that they could end up in those positions themselves real.”

Goncalves also shared the significance of the keynote presentation during COVID-19.

“Obviously like everyone else at UMass, our schedule and our plans were all thrown upside down with COVID and so we decided to embrace the chaos and the crisis and see if we can incorporate that into the program,” Goncalves said. “We asked her to speak on leadership during the crisis because we were in the middle and we still are in the middle of this global pandemic and it challenges leaders in different ways.”

“We thought that having someone speak on her experience leading during a crisis during the hurricanes would just be very meaningful to the students,” she added. “They could relate living through a crisis themselves for the past year in a half when their lives turned upside down.”

UMass Women into Leadership alumni Esther Jinn Oh shared her experience in UWiL and the opportunities UWiL has given her.

“I am an immigrant that came to this country when I was twelve without speaking any English,” she said. “Of course I struggled to adapt culturally and academically, but that also meant I did not have any adult figures who could help guide me on the processes of writing resumes and cover letters and searching for internship and job opportunities that a lot of my peers had easy access to.”

“Being accepted into UWiL is perhaps one of the best things that happened to me at UMass,” she added.  “The numerous professional development activities and through feedback I received from Michelle and other UWiL mentors gave me practical, polished writing skills.”

“The workshops on salary negotiations, overcoming imposter syndrome, navigating tough work situations helped me feel more prepared for the real world upon graduation…. I gained so many friends, mentors and connections from the UWiL network. I look up to this community so much because of their work ethic, grit, intelligence and good heart.”

Lisa Gherbi can be reached at [email protected]