‘I Never Allowed Myself to Be Swayed by Other People’s Doubts’

Lisette Camilo, commissioner at the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, in her office. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Lisette Camilo is the last one in the line of pictures of commissioners adorning the main entrance of the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS). The daughter of Dominicans raised in Washington Heights is the commissioner of an agency key in the coordination and functioning of the city’s administrations, and she is the first Latina to hold that post.

A lawyer, Camilo has for years been devoted to public service in the city, although she started out working as a legal adviser in the union Unite Here Local 100 and as an immigration attorney in a law firm.

On International Women’s Day, Camilo explains that in the administration she has found “the support and backing to be able to do the best job I can do.” Also, she says, “I’ve been fortunate to have supervisors, managers, who have recognized my work and the fact that I love to learn, that I take ownership of what I do, and because of that I have had the opportunity to bring out the best in myself.”

Many women lack references and mentors at high posts. Is that the case for you?

I have been very fortunate in that respect. Before being DCAS commissioner I worked in other departments and had many women supervisors. I worked for Christine Quinn and my direct supervisor was a woman. I think the government, as an employer, is ahead of the private sector. And this agency has had women commissioners before.

What do you think teenage girls need to see in women in leadership positions such as yourself?

I read an interview in which Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that when she started her legal career there were virtually no women around and, sometimes, you need to be a little deaf and not pay attention to what others say…stay focused on your goals and on doing your job the best you can. You need to meet people and talk and develop beneficial relationships without abandoning the course you’ve taken. I think I did that without directly thinking about it. I never allowed myself to be swayed by other people’s doubts, I never allowed myself to move away because something was difficult. If things are difficult, you need to at least try. This is one of the traits of women who get to high places; they don’t allow others to put barriers in their path, and if you stumble, you have to get up and keep going. You can’t give up hope or lose focus because of a failure.

Should Latinas be more “deaf”?

I think so. There are still some prejudices going on, and you still need to be a little deaf; keep going, know what you have inside and, if you need to ask a question to clarify something along the way, ask.

Has the fact that the previous City Council speaker was a Latina (Melissa Mark- Viverito) elevated the range of possibilities for Latina women?

Of course. When I was a student in college I never saw Latinas in leadership roles. I didn’t think that I would be seeing that over time. There are more and more of us and this gives high hopes to young people and those who are considering what they want to do. To see somebody who looks like you, who has a similar story, leads you to remove all doubt that there are things you just can’t do because you are a Latina. And this will improve with time.

How do you see the future of Latinas in New York?

There’s no doubt that we are going to see a lot of success. I have been working for 10 years in government and there are more Latinas every year, more of us starting at intermediate levels. They are smart and very motivated to make changes in our community. It is something that fills me with pride and happiness because every year I see more Latinas in offices working for really important causes in our community.

What do Latinas contribute to the administration?

There are many studies that state that successful organizations are also the more diverse ones. Having different points of view will always be a way to resolve a problem more successfully because you take into account different data, experiences, points of view. When the mayor says that he wants a diverse cabinet it is for this reason. Also, this is a majority-minority city, and this diversity of opinion necessarily affects the political decisions that we make and implement.


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