Ann Marie DiBella is a lifetime Kingstonian — St. Joe’s graduate, a former alderwoman and active Kingston Democrat, as well as a Kingston school social worker. It is said that social workers are the foot soldiers in the war on poverty; while DiBella treated poverty on the front lines, she also chose to take it on by working for public policy changes while she was on the Common Council. And she was nearly a nun!
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Kingston. My parents emigrated from Ireland to Manhattan to Kingston. We lived across the street from Deising’s Bakery, which was a gas station back then. We lived in a large three-story brick apartment building at 106 North Front St. It was on the corner of North Front and Green streets. There was a flower shop on the first floor, owned by an elderly brother and sister, Nellie and Claude Krum. There were lots of small stores and shops, and we all knew each other. It was a great place to wander around as a kid. There were seven children in my family. We walked home for lunch every day from St. Joseph’s School. We knew everyone in the neighborhood. My brothers were “shoeshine” boys at Artie’s and Gene’s Bar and Grill. When I was 10 years old, Urban Renewal bought the building and tore it down to make Green Street wider. It was tragic. And just so stupid.
St Joseph’s Catholic School, Kingston High School, SUNY Albany.
Married to Bob DiBella for 28 years. He is the former director of UCAT. We have one lovely child, Anna, who is 24 years old.
What do you do? How long have you worked there?
School social worker for the Kingston City School District for 18 years.
Have you always been a social worker? Why did you decide to make that your career?
I have practiced social qork since receiving my MSW degree in 1989. I wanted to be two things growing up, either a nun or a funeral director. I guess social work was some kind of weird compromise. It was definitely a “calling” for me.
Why a nun? Why a funeral director?
Strange as it sounds, I was drawn to both vocations for similar reasons. The life of a nun seemed so ordered and calm. I liked the way they all lived together, like a family. I also liked the habits they wore. It wasn’t so much the religious part as it was the communal living, with the routines and rituals they followed. Being a funeral director was appealing for the same order and routine it requires. I liked the way funeral directors conducted themselves with such calmness and confidence. I was drawn to the formality of it all, much like the religious order. Being a social worker is not ordered or routine or neat in any way. I think, ultimately, I just wanted to do something with people. Being a nun was too extreme, and being a funeral director meant dealing with dead bodies a bit too closely.
What are some issues you see in your office with kids that might surprise parents?
How much they desperately want their parent’s approval, and how much they forgive.
What are some of the biggest struggles for students right now? How about parents?
For the students I work with, poverty is the biggest struggle. For the parents I work with, poverty is the biggest struggle.
What do you love about being a social worker? What are some of the difficulties?
I love the puzzle of people, more than anything else. It’s a challenge to help understand why a kid is behaving a certain way. It’s also deeply gratifying and never boring. It’s difficult when I feel defeated by circumstances beyond my control, like the trauma of poverty on a day-to-day basis.
Have you ever cried over a student?
Oh yeah. I just really can’t mention any specific instances. Confidentiality. It’s impossible not to shed tears when you read that a child you worked with years ago was sent to prison in his 20s, or died in a needless car accident or a drug overdose. It hasn’t happened often, but when it does, I just feel heartbroken. I always remember them as little kids playing at recess, laughing with their friends and wanting nothing more than making the next hoop. It can keep you awake at night.
How much of what you see at school drives your passion for poverty-alleviation work and social issues in your personal life?
I see the impact of poverty and inequality daily as a social worker. It completely drives my passion for action in my personal life, now more than ever. Currently, my action is my voice. I refuse to stay quiet when I hear the stereotypes and misconceptions about those who struggle with poverty and racial discrimination
What do you do in your spare time?
There are currently so many causes and actions I would love to take on, but work is my primary focus. I plan to become more involved in immigrant rights, racial equality, and poverty issues once I retire.
I am also a regular at MAC Fitness. My husband and I hike, and love to travel. Mostly, though, I enjoy time at home, puttering, reading, cooking, doing small house projects and watching those crazy Netflix series.
What communities do you consider yourself to be a part of?
Kingston is my heart and soul. I also feel deeply connected to Raharney, the small village in Ireland where my mother grew up. It is in County Westmeath. Most of my relatives still live there, and I have visited several times. It feels like home when I am there.
What is your political involvement with the Democratic Party?
Yes, I am a proud liberal Democrat. I served on the City Council for six years. I have no regrets, but had enough. Having a really thick skin is not my forte, and you definitely need one in politics. I like where the city is headed now, and I attribute the positive changes to the influx of progressive Democrats and a forward-thinking mayor. I also give enormous credit to the “old time” Kingstonians who have invested time, energy and passion in our little town. These are the business owners who kept their doors open during the hard times, and the homeowners who have stuck it out. These are the people who have championed Kingston when it wasn’t the popular place it has become.
Why did you choose to serve as an alderperson?
I chose to run for office because, as a social worker, I went on many home visits to properties that were left derelict by landlords who did little more than collect rents. Many kids were living in unsafe conditions. I wanted to change that. As an alderperson, my first action was to sponsor legislation requiring registration of every non owner occupied property of four units or more. “Landlord registration” enabled the city to track down landlords more efficiently. It also required annual inspections and fees. Needless to say, the law was hotly debated and contentious, but it passed. I am proud of that legislation.
What was it like then, as compared to now?
When I was in office, everyone I served with was pretty much born and bred here. This has changed, and I think that’s a good thing. The “new blood” on the council brings fresh ideas and perspectives, which is always a good thing.
Describe your personality.
Intense. Less so as I age.
What makes your personality intense? What is your best trait? What are you still working on?
I have had a tendency to steamroll through things, sometimes a “leap before you look” approach. I like to get things done quickly, and am somewhat hyper-vigilant. My best trait is my loyalty. If you are my friend, I’m on your side. I am also transparent. What you see is what you get. I’m working on my patience, and on cultivating my “lighter side.”
Favorite dinner spots in Kingston?
My number one favorite place is Le Canard. Jean Jacques just does it right. He is an artist in the kitchen! And those desserts are mouthwatering! I also love a good Dallas hot!
Tell us something that deeply impacted you and changed your life.
The election of Donald Trump. It impacts my life every time I hear his voice, read his comments, and listen to the alt-right nonsense his followers spew.