Camden Calling

Nonprofit president and CEO Kathleen Noonan ’89 leads by taking a back seat

By Tom Stoelker

Kathleen Noonan rooftop

The first palpable experience with racial injustice for Kathleen Noonan ’89 was, of all places, at a courthouse. Her mother was seeking alimony from her father, a New York City police officer who made it clear that he would not fully support the family going forward. But that wasn’t the only affront. As she and her mother — the only white people there besides the lawyers — sat in the court’s waiting area, one of the administrators, also white, ushered them ahead of the many Black families. (Capping it all off, once inside the courtroom, the 13-year-old Noonan wanted to speak in support of her mother but was told by the judge that she could not participate in the hearing.)

Years later, when she was a candidate for the position of president and CEO at Camden Coalition in New Jersey, a healthcare nonprofit advocating for individuals and families with complex health and social needs in a mostly Black and Latino city and around the country, the interview process made it painfully clear to her how there should have been many more qualified candidates of color applying for the position. Once again, she was at the front of the line. She got the role and is determined to change the status quo at the organization going forward.

“I am a white woman, running an organization in a place that is mostly nonwhite,” she says. “I feel a very, very strong sense of responsibility to groom a lot of our staff here for leadership positions.”

The coalition’s role is that of supportive liaison between the area’s many health systems, community-based organizations, government agencies, and, most importantly, patients. Prior to heading Camden Coalition, Noonan spent a decade as an administrator at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), often working directly with the CEO, which made her appreciate the nimble qualities of smaller community-based organizations in addressing health crises.

“[Working at the hospital] really showed me what a hospital could do, and all the value they could bring, and really what they couldn’t do, and so the idea of coming to a community-based organization was very appealing,” she says. “We have incredibly good [vaccine uptake] numbers from COVID in Camden city that we’re really proud of. … Our numbers outpaced national numbers.”

Outsider on the Inside 

Growing up in a big Irish Catholic family near the beach on Long Island, Noonan rarely saw people that didn’t look like her. Her community and her family shared a culture where the “troubles” of Ireland were far closer than the other side of the ocean. Her grandfather was a member of the Irish Republican Army, and dinner conversations often included recollections of the Great Famine of the 19th century. It was an upbringing that rarely exposed her to people from outside of her community, except when folks from the city came out to the nearby state beach during the summer. Then she saw the rich mosaic of humanity that New York City is known for. Her neighbors were none too fond of the sight, she says, but she loved seeing people different from herself. Ultimately, however, it was the sight of fathers playing with their children that struck a chord.

Noonan’s curiosity about other cultures and about ideas would soon propel her to Barnard, where she encountered people from all walks of life for the first time: not just different ethnicities but also different financial backgrounds, religions, and political affiliations. This was a large shift for a first-generation college student whose mother’s annual salary was equivalent to a year’s tuition.

She eventually homed in on a psychology major and studied under J. Lawrence Aber, the internationally renowned child psychologist, and began working at the Toddler Center. Aber encouraged her to think more about policy, procedures, and children’s rights. By her senior year, she’d taken a job at Bank Street College in their department of public policy, which ultimately became her focus.

She skipped summer vacation and took a full-time job right after graduation. From there, she moved to the Citizens Committee for Children of New York, an advocacy group that sent her out to site visits in the South Bronx at the height of the crack epidemic and the AIDS crisis. She visited and worked in dozens of day care centers and therapeutic nurseries and learned how to just “be” in a community.

“Sometimes, I’m sitting next to a 4-year-old who doesn’t speak, or I’m sitting next to this other child who can’t walk, and you just sort of develop a way of learning how to communicate,” she says. “I had a little boy in one of my classes who no one could understand what he said, but I could understand him perfectly.”

Fully focused on policy, Noonan attended Northeastern University School of Law to get her J.D., quickly followed by a period in corporate law, concentrating on real estate. While many of her peers felt guilty about going into corporate law, she had no such qualms. The student loans had to be paid back. In addition, she says, she remained zeroed in on state and local, not federal, policy. “I wanted to be closer to where programs were implemented,” she says. “I also trained as a mediator and had many pro bono clients.”

While her experience in law and at Children’s Hospital made her an ideal candidate to head up Camden Coalition, it was her deft touch with families that helped convince her Camden colleagues to hire her, as site visits were a very important part of the interview process.

Homing In on Policy

In 1999, her mother was diagnosed with cancer, and Noonan left corporate law to care for her before she died. During this time, she also took stock of her career and decided to take the full dive into public policy related to kids and families, which brought her to Children’s Hospital to research the “social drivers of health.” Together with a pediatrician colleague, David Rubin, she founded CHOP’s PolicyLab, whose mission is to achieve optimal child health and well-being by informing program and policy changes through interdisciplinary research. 

“We were looking at kids who had a lot of issues that were not necessarily driving the balance sheet of the hospital, so we were not looking at cancer, cardiac care, or the like,” she says. “We were looking at kids who had domestic violence in their lives or mental health issues.”

Her switch from research to enacting and advocating for policy at Camden Coalition has finally brought her full circle. She says she goes to the community meetings and events and has worked the vaccine lines. But she empowers her staff to lead at most onsite events.

“Taking a back seat to them is really important to me,” she says. “I like to be involved in our community meetings without being central to them.”

And, yes, of course, there’s the fundraising, and other boards that she sits on. After years in Morningside Heights and then corporate law, she’s as comfortable in the C-suite as she is at the local bodega, though she says in the end she prefers the bodega. She recalls a story of being at an academic meeting and hearing a professor who should have known better refer to an underserved neighborhood as not being a “nice place” while presenting his research.

“It was in one of those beautiful rooms with paneling, you know, lots and lots of pedigree,” she says. “I looked around this room, at many people who I considered to be complete overachievers, who would go to the head of the class, stepping on whoever they needed to step on to get there. And I thought, ‘Well, actually, this place is not nice.’ Because I can assure you, if I go back to Camden, and I stop in the bodega, I’m going to meet more nice people there than I am here. That’s somebody’s home. Right? So don’t, don’t talk about it that way.”

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