A guiding charity

Michael Goar, recently named president and CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, has a personal background that in some ways sounds fairly typical for an alumnus of Minnesota State Mankato. In other ways, though, his story includes hurdles and hardships faced by few of his peers.  

A graduate of Washburn High School in Minneapolis, Goar received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls before pursuing a master’s in public administration at Minnesota State Mankato in the late 1980s. While not insignificant, those details on this resumé belie the struggles he dealt with in childhood.  

Until age 12, Goar lived a life marked by hardship in South Korea, where he experienced homelessness and poverty while in the care of his birth mother and, later, while living in an orphanage. As a biracial child—he was born to a Korean mother and a Black father—Goar faced discrimination that compounded the everyday challenges of poverty. Eventually he went to live in an orphanage that housed only biracial children and children with disabilities. 

Michael Goar, President and CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis

“One of the things that I learned really young, being in the orphanage setting and being in that environment where you’re never welcome, you really have to persevere and also be adaptable to your circumstances,” Goar said during a recent interview.  

Those early years, he explained, had a great deal to do with the direction of his adult life, which includes a 30-year career largely focused on improving the lives of children and supporting people in need.  

“It created my foundation for future work and studies, because I was faced with a lot while growing up in that environment as a biracial child,” he said. “Whether it was with schooling or housing or constantly being bullied because I looked different, those issues were ever-present in my life.” 

His personal history now informs his approach as CEO at Catholic Charities, one of the state’s largest nonprofit organizations and, with a history covering 150 years, one of its oldest. When he officially took over in early January, Goar became the first person of color to lead Catholic Charities, which, through the work hundreds of employees and even more volunteers, provides housing and food assistance to about 25,000 people each year.  

“I have a debt to repay, and I will never be able to fully repay it. But I am going to try and do my best to provide what I think is what I owe to my parents and to our community in a very impactful way,” he said. “I truly believe in public service and being able to provide options to our community members who are faced with housing challenges, food insecurities and other challenges in their lives.” 

Goar’s career began with a job offer while he was still in graduate school at Minnesota State Mankato. Immediately after graduation, he went to work for the state, where he served for a decade in labor relations for the Minnesota Department of Employee Relations and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities before moving to the Minneapolis Public Schools in 1999 as the district’s executive director of labor relations.  

While with the Minneapolis district, Goar worked alongside Dr. Carol Johnson, who gained a national reputation as a leader of large urban school districts and who would become an important mentor to him. When Johnson took the top job in the Memphis City Schools, Goar followed and served as chief operating officer for the district, and four years later, he joined the Boston Public Schools as COO when Johnson took over as superintendent there.  

After five years in Boston, Goar felt the pull of home and returned to Minneapolis. In 2013, he was named interim superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools. He led the district for three years before leaving public education for a job in the nonprofit sector, taking over as CEO at Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities. In nearly five years with that organization, Goar oversaw significant growth in the number of young people paired with mentors—from about 2,500 to 4,000—and the graduation rate among those students reached 89 percent. That success helped him emerge from a huge field of candidates to lead Catholic Charities.      

Neither the arc of Goar’s career nor his commitment to work that serves the greater good have come as a surprise to people who encountered him during his days as a grad student. Dr. Michael Fagin, professor emeritus in the Department of Ethnic Studies, has known Goar since the two met at a Twin Cities event in the 1980s. It was Fagin, in fact, who suggested that Goar take a look at Mankato as he considered his post-graduate options. 

“I saw leadership qualities in him from the time I was recruiting him to become a Maverick here in graduate school and extending to him a graduate assistantship,” Dr. Fagin said. “Michael has excellent interpersonal skills and he accepts people with a positive regard for who they are.” 

Goar recalls his years in Mankato fondly, and he is quick to express gratitude to the University, which provided him a graduate assistantship that included a tuition waiver and a monthly stipend to help with living expenses. He counts his experience in Mankato among the ways he has benefitted from a community that supports people as they raise themselves up.  

“Sometimes I sit back and I reflect on my childhood, where I grew up—from an orphanage in South Korea to here, now that I am in this position with Catholic Charities. It’s amazing, you know?” he said. “I shake my head at how blessed I am, and, by the grace of God, I’m here.”