Daughter of a wealthy industrialist, she married, raised a family, and then chose to enter the field of social work and dedicate her life to serving her community.

Revered by many throughout Houston, Maconda B. O’Connor was born on May 4, 1930 and passed from this life on May 19, 2012.

The Houston Chronicle and others have listed her long list of achievements.  She received over two dozen awards and honorary degrees, served on Houston’s and the nation’s most prestigious boards, and founded or helped start innovative programs dedicated to helping people improve their lives. As Angela Blanchard, president and CEO of Neighborhood Centers Inc., was quoted as saying, “There isn’t a place to go to in this city where you can get help that she didn’t help nurture.”

A colleague introduced us while Maconda was completing her doctoral studies at Smith College. She was looking for a research project for a required internship, and the colleague suggested my grant from the National Science Foundation might meet the requirements. Maconda was immediately interested in my project and, over time, in my work. She provided or helped arrange financial support for my research every year since.

Saying she supported my work, though, doesn’t quite get what she meant to me. We became friends. I loved her – still love her — dearly. We shared a similar fire for helping others improve their lives, and for setting up systems and organizations that would foster people’s growth and development. I see the world differently because of her, approach my own work differently because of her, have a deeper commitment to what I do because of her.

For me and many others, she has been an inspiration and a model of personal achievement and success. Following are some of what we can all learn from her:

 

It’s never too late to follow your path.

Married at age 19, Maconda finished her associate arts degree a year later, raised four children as a stay-at-home mom, and, after the children left home, decided to follow her own path of self-development. In her early 50s, she returned to school and completed her bachelor’s degree. Three years later, she received a Masters in Social Work from Smith College, and 13 years later, at the age of 68, she received a PhD in social work.

How could she embark on such a new endeavor after her children grew up? Fortunately for the rest of us, she knew she had many more gifts to give.

 

Seek out challenging new experiences

Maconda had a zest for life and adventure. She became an American Leadership Forum Fellow at age 64, participating in its year-long personal development curriculum. The height of the program was a grueling climb to the top of a mountain in the northwest.  “Did you really make it to the top of the mountain?” I once asked her. Her eyes lit up as she nodded.

A few months ago, she was talking with two friends about their bucket list. One said he wanted to go sky-diving. And so, the three of them signed up to go tandem sky-diving together.  The youngest of the three was 73, Maconda was 81. I was among those who went to cheer her on. The joyful expression on her face as she landed on the ground was priceless. Someone asked her had she been afraid. She said no and she would do it again. Later, her personal assistant Gretchen Walter quoted her as saying before the jump, “It will only be a mistake if I don’t come back.”

 

Give back

Maconda often talked about her father’s commitment to philanthropy. Giving back to the community in which they lived was a solemn responsibility that he instilled in his children.

Giving back meant more than financial support. Maconda gave extensively of her time, talents, and finely honed skills as both a clinical therapist and policy advocate.

During the first few years I knew her, she was dedicated to developing the Burnett-Bayland Home as a model detention center for boys within the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department. She worked hand-in-hand with Linda Crocker, then Superintendent of the facility, to develop it from a warehouse for children to a nourishing, nurturing environment where children could grow.

Together they designed and Maconda funded more than 50 programs in that facility, including drug and alcohol counseling, therapy, peer mediation, and photography and art shops. If a kid needed money for clothes or books or tutoring, he got it. Youth with special promise received tuition and expenses for college.

Maconda also provided direct clinical services to the youth at BBH and other facilities. As Gretchen Walter put it, “When BBH has a kid that no one can handle, the phone will ring.” Imagine her, a wealthy older White woman, with a unique ability to turn around delinquent street-wise, impoverished Black and Latino boys by listening, caring, and astute, guided questioning so that they could clearly see the consequences of their choices. How did she bridge all those differences?

 

Embrace differences, don’t minimize or ignore them

Maconda grew up in two worlds. She was born into one of Houston’s wealthiest families and was heavily influenced by her family. As a young child, though, she would hang around the kitchen and listen to the conversations of the household staff, where she learned about their joys and tribulations.

Traveling between the kitchen and the parlor, Maconda had the unusual opportunity to see and feel the different realities that the people in these two worlds experienced. A passage in one of my favorite books, The Little Prince, states, “it’s only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Maconda learned to see rightly with her heart.

I don’t mean she didn’t see color. Maconda did indeed note people’s age, color, social class, and other differences. But she saw these characteristics as the exterior housing in which a human being lived – like the shell of the clam. A shell may be beautiful in its own right, but what she paid the most attention to was the pearl – the person — inside.

This showed up particularly in her work at BBH with the youth detained there. One year, I asked Maconda to speak to one of my graduate classes. In explaining her interest and connection with youth, she told the students, “Adolescents are in living color while the rest of the world is in shades of grey.” She delighted in the newness and discovery of youth.

 

Emphasize changing systems, not just individuals

Maconda understood the power of systems change, and with the backing of her family’s prestigious Brown Foundation, she helped launch programs and initiatives she believed in. Barnett-Bayland Homes was only one these. Three other notable initiatives are the Houston A+ Challenge, the Collaborative for Children, and Children at Risk, highly innovative programs dedicated to improving the quality of education and children’s services in the Houston community. She supported many more programs, including the student scholarship fund at my academic affiliation — University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.

Her doctoral dissertation research provides a unique illustration of her commitment to systems change. She used her research to develop an innovative diagnostic tool for clinicians to determine how well troubled youth could manage their own emotions rather than resort to violence. To quote her in a paper summarizing her research, “Are they more likely to throw a tantrum reminiscent of a two-year-old, or can they walk away from a bothersome protagonist?” The proper diagnosis would increase the effectiveness of the treatment plan because it would properly target the youth’s emotional needs.

What did she draw on to develop this tool? To quote her again, “The research presented here is rooted in 15 years of work with adolescents in the proverbial trenches of a county juvenile probation department, and four years on the Texas Protective Regulatory Services Board.”

In other words, her dissertation brought together the breadth of her span from philanthropist to clinician to program designer to policy advocate to researcher. For her, it was not enough to work directly with potentially violent youth. She was also concerned about providing the proper tools and resources to those who were responsible for the youth’s care and development and doing the research to make sure the tools worked.

 

Give for its own sake

Maconda’s humility was legendary. A decade or so ago at an American Leadership Forum dinner in her honor, her friend, Andrea White, said, “Maconda leads because she’s passionate about children. She doesn’t make a big noisy show of a new project. She just starts doing what she thinks is right and after a while people notice and join her.”

As a philanthropist, she frequently made anonymous donations. She gave to causes and people she believed in and that was enough.

She has left an indelible mark on the Houston community and those who knew her and loved her. I will cherish her memory forever.

 

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Filed under: bridging differencesconscious use of selfinfluencing othersinitiating changemaking positive changesstrength-based

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