BHA Administrator, Bill McGonagle, talks leadership and his own experiences growing up in public housing.
In continuing to recognize individuals as leaders with passions to serve others at the BHA, many consider BHA’s own Administrator, Bill McGonagle, to be a sympathetic leader—demonstrating sincerity and concern for residents since stepping into the top spot in 2009.
However, according to McGonagle, his passion to lead and serve is not just rooted in his professional resume, which is filled with roles in human service, but also derives from experiences he gained while growing up in BHA’s very own Mary Ellen McCormack Public Housing development in South Boston.
Born and raised in a large Irish-Catholic family, McGonagle lived in a small apartment with his five brothers and sisters. Although his family possessed little financially, McGonagle recognized at an early age, the importance of family and community. His fondest childhood memories included bonding with his two brothers at the beach in the summer and being an altar boy at Saint Monica and Augustine Catholic Church at Mass on Sunday mornings.
Though growing up as a teenage boy had its perks in the late 60s and early 70s, young McGonagle witnessed the horrors of drug abuse emerge in urban neighborhoods all over the country, including his own. Consequently, he lost several of his childhood friends to drug overdoses in the late 60s and early 70s.
Shortly after, McGonagle recognized his call to activism which had been influenced by the monumental efforts of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, and countless others who fought for social change during the era.
“There was a sense of social and civic responsibility– a sense of activism that came out of the 60’s around the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement,” said McGonagle. “The social consciousness of most people of the Baby Boomers’ generation was shaped around that decade.”
In addition to the early development of McGonagle’s leadership and activism for social change, he watched his mentor and now, brother-in-law, John Connolly, a young social activist, born to Irish immigrants, form the first Tenant Task Force at the Mary Ellen McCormack development in the late sixties.
Only 17 at the time, McGonagle, developed an interest in improving the quality of the lives of people living in public housing as he watched Connolly vocalize rights for tenants at board meetings McGonagle attended. Later Connolly, went on to become the first and youngest tenant to be appointed to BHA’s board of commissioners in Massachusetts—further inspiring BHA’s Administrator to kick start his own fate to leadership in the community.
While working on his first professional job as a youth director at the YMCA in Allston/Brighton, McGonagle noticed that many youths, particularly from Commonwealth and Faneuil were not taking advantage of YMCA’s youth programs. Reclaiming his values around community, McGonagle and his colleagues outreached in the neighborhoods—knocking on doors in the developments to get youths involved in various and offered programs including gymnastics, arts, and swimming. In the end, McGonagle went on to work for the Boys and Girls Club in South Boston, as a case manager for juveniles in DYS (Department of Youth Services), and then the BHA.
He then worked as a BHA public safety investigator, which he saw as an opportunity to combat violence and drug abuse in developments. While working there, he continued to befriend families from all walks of life, including those whose youths struggled with drug abuse.
McGonagle was then selected for a management training position and went to manage BHA’s housing developments before being promoted to Deputy Administrator and then Administrator.
With values from his experiences growing up in public housing, BHA’s Administrator is known to foster loyalty, hard work and commitment as principles into his leadership and mission to provide sanitary and decent housing for the poor, elderly, and disabled.
Although the well-respected leader considers himself to be “just a regular kid from Southie”, McGonagle finds the resilience of residents to be inspirational and highly influential in how he deals with setbacks in own his role of authority.
“It always amazes me how resilient our residents are in facing enormous obstacles,” McGonagle said, expressing admiration for the people BHA serves. “The things that they do on a day-to-day basis is breath taking and their ability to overcome never ceases to amaze me.”
Coincidentally, the same can be said for the 64-year-old, who just recently celebrated the birth of his fourth grandchild. Many resident leaders have noted that Mr. McGonagle’s upbringing in public housing has played a central role in his concerns for residents.
It’s most certainly evident that McGonagle has developed a deep respect for leadership carried out by tenants, including for those he’s established close and lasting friendships with over the years such as Adline Stallings, Phyllis Corbitt, Betty Carrington, and Jeannie Patterson.
Coming to leadership as one who started out with humble beginnings in the Mary Ellen McCormack development, McGonagle continues to be confident in youths living in public housing.
“There are no limits on what you can do,” said McGonagle. “Young people today can and have the capacity to be great if they’re willing to work for it.”