Systemic change takes time, and it takes collaboration. In her 14-year ministry at the United Nations, Sister Marie Elena Dio has forged many connections with other congregations and non-governmental organizations to help bring about that kind of change.
Initially she represented the Sisters of Charity Federation as a non-governmental representative (NGO) to the Department of Public Information of the UN. Later, the role became that of an NGO representative to the Economic and Social Council, a progression which meant that she could make verbal and written interventions. Sister Caroljean Willie, a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati, is the current representative for the Federation, but Sister Marie Elena keeps connected in a volunteer capacity. She contributes to UN orientation sessions offered through the Partnership for Global Justice. When she started in 1997, “It was an opportunity to be more involved in global social justice and it was an opportunity to work with our Sisters toward that,” says Sister Marie Elena, who focused particularly on the issue of international debt and finances.
“Something happened after I got the position that I didn’t expect, and that was an appreciation for the Federation itself. I developed a real love and understanding and knowledge of all the different congregations.” Sister Marie Elena identified the need for each of the Federation’s 13 congregations to have a liaison with her, who would provide insights and assist with communication. That included distribution of monthly action alerts, a practice that continues today. “Every month we would pick something that was relevant at the time and we would ask all of our Sisters to participate in letter-writing campaigns,” Sister Marie Elena says.
“We got a lot of answers back. One time, for example, the director of the International Monetary Fund said to another NGO, We’re getting all these letters on pink stationery from nuns. How do they know about this?’ It was on global debt.”
Sister Marie Elena worked closely with representatives from other NGOs. They shared in lobbying efforts and gave panels and workshops at — and about — the UN. They also shared information and perspectives. She goes on to say: “Others have insights, particularly people from the poorer countries, that we don’t have.” Over time, Sister Marie Elena witnessed a change in how non-governmental input was received. “Initially, when it came time for the non-governmental organization to speak, a lot of the government representatives would just leave the room,” she says. “But over the years we’ve seen things happen. Now our statements get into government papers, some of our statements get into the final documents. Some of our committees now give one of the opening statements at the government meetings. That was just not so when I first went there.”
Looking ahead, Sister Marie Elena hopes that Sisters will raise awareness and motivate people beyond the congregations to become involved. “I really believe it’s the world movement of citizens which is going on right now that will bring about changes,” she says. “It’s not going to be the governments, it’s going to be the world movement of citizens.”