Q&A / Michelle Casey
CEO, Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York
Photo by kc kratt
A mother of five with a background in public health administration who likes to climb mountains in her spare time, Michelle Casey signed on last fall as president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York. Over the past few months, she has helped the venerable agency (founded a century ago in New York City) weather the acrimony and anxiety of a contentious presidential election and addressed the resulting uncertainty of funding, given political realities. Access to reproductive health care and education as a basic human right is Planned Parenthood’s mission, and Casey is a passionate advocate. She is also a strategic planner, a financial manager, and mentor to a dedicated staff, both paid and volunteer. The Rochester-area resident grew up near Utica, and graduated from St. John Fisher College and SUNY/Brockport, where she got her master’s in public administration with a health care emphasis. Splitting time among three different offices— Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse—Casey approaches her work life with the same qualities that makes her a formidable hiker.
You’re the head of an agency whose mission sparks controversy and even violence in some quarters. You’re also a mom to school-age kids. How do you process it all?
I was happily working as chief program officer for Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency in Rochester, not looking to go elsewhere, when I was recruited for this job. Because it was Planned Parenthood, and I am a longtime supporter, I said yes right away! As far as any security issues, I don’t think the concerns about that could ever outweigh my desire to be part of such an important organization. So I just stepped off the curb. If we don’t do these things because we are afraid, they [anti-choice activists] will have won. Knowing the difference we are making in the lives of women and children is very important to me. And that’s what we talk about at home. During the recent presidential election campaign, I sat with my eleven-year-old son watching the last debate, where a woman’s right to choose was the first topic out of the gate. Having a woman as a major party candidate had such an effect—a lot came out that made me realize we are not as far along as I thought we were, but at least we ended up having conversation about so many things, like sexual assault, what constitutes consent, and access to birth control and health care as a basic human right. My wife, Lynn Cole, is a pediatric nurse practitioner at the University of Rochester. She has four children, and so we have three boys and two girls in our home, ages seven to sixteen. We see all these issues that impact women’s lives everyday, at home and at work.
What is the most important part of your job? Biggest challenges?
Being able to have a leadership presence for the staff, strategically, and making sure we do well for our staff, so they feel valued in their jobs, and contribute at the highest professional capacity and take better care of our customers. It’s all about working in a supportive environment.
Just like at Wegmans, a happy staff translates to the best customer service. As far as challenges to Planned Parenthood? That is hard to narrow down, but I would point to the lack of accurate information that is out in the public sphere. There’s definitely a ramping up of inflammatory rhetoric like we saw last election cycle, turning some against us. But our doors remain open, no matter what, no matter who is in office—though at times it becomes much more difficult. We must continue to respond, to correct misinformation, and to set the record straight. Nobody does more than Planned Parenthood to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies that occur. I believe our charge truly is to think globally and act locally; that’s where we make change. We see it every day in our teen programs, and every other program we run. Along with our medical director, Dr. Rachel Phelps, I am out in the community regularly, speaking. More important, we are getting out the voices of people who have been impacted by our services.
As a self-described “spiritually grounded” person, how do you maintain equanimity in a fractious world?
I love hiking. And music, although the only musical instrument I can play is the stereo. And I love to travel. Last summer, I took the three oldest kids to the Adirondacks, where we climbed four high peaks in three days, and then spent a week on Cape Cod. I am positive and optimistic, but I know that if you are going to move a mountain, better bring a shovel. And progress may be in inches, not miles.
Longtime Spree contributor Maria Scrivani writes about local history and people who make a difference.