Judy Mayotte is proving that it’s never too late to learn something new. After a long and distinguished career as an author, humanitarian, theologian, Emmy-winning producer, former Catholic Religious Sister, ethicist, and university professor, the 80-year-old expert on refugees and displaced persons has been studying up on climate science. “More and more people are going to be displaced because of climate change and extreme weather events,” Mayotte says. “We just have to become aware, and so I’m doing my little part with that. … And I feel very privileged that I’ve gotten interested in it, I mean how many people get to do what they have a passion for?”
Her passion is evident when she speaks about how climate change is adding to the scale and complexity of human displacement across the globe. It’s also visible inside her downtown Seattle apartment, where it’s easy to find yourself starting at the bookshelf instead of the impressive skyline view outside her floor to ceiling windows. There, behind framed pictures of Mayotte with world leaders — Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Michelle Obama, just to name a few — is an impressively long row of books on climate issues.
She’s taken a scholarly approach to becoming aware — rigorously questioning, researching across disciplines, and analyzing and synthesizing it all into the courses and lectures she shares with community and church groups throughout Seattle. “To be engaged in education still, and to be learning something so totally new and different at this stage of my life … to be able to go off on a whole tangent is just incredibly wonderful,” says Mayotte.
“Tangent” seem the operative word for Mayotte, in a good way. Her life and work tell a story of a woman with a particular talent for suddenly and successfully changing course. “I’ve always kind of lived by the seat of my pants,” Mayotte says. “If I see something that I think is really interesting, I go and do it.”
In college, her interest in Catholicism led her to become a nun, joining the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mayotte believes the 10 years she spent as a member of the progressive Catholic community shaped her into a strong woman with a passion for social justice — characteristics that would determine her later evolution.
She left the religious order to pursue a doctorate in theology at Marquette University. In 1972 she married the love of her life, Jack Mayotte. Tragically, he died of cancer three years later. Channeling his deep love and support for her, she finished her doctorate in 1976 and headed off to pursue a very different career path in television.
Mayotte honed her storytelling abilities as a producer for public television in Chicago and then at Turner broadcasting in Atlanta, and won an Emmy for her writing on the documentary series Portrait of America. And although she was experiencing success, it was during this time Mayotte discovered a new interest in the plight of refugees.
Soon after, Mayotte applied for and received a MacArthur Foundation grant to write a book about refugees, and in 1989 at the age of 51, she left on a two-year journey through the refugee camps of Eritrea, Sudan, Pakistan, Thailand, and Cambodia. “Writing my book, I was out there in the refugee camps with the people, meeting them face to face, she explains. “The contact, connecting with people…that’s what makes me alive, I think.” Her book, Disposable People? The Plight of Refugees, was published in 1992. It established Mayotte as an expert in refugees who would happily jet off to far-flung and often war-torn places when called upon.
In 1993, Mayotte was in southern Sudan (now the nation of South Sudan) gathering information on the refugees of Sudan’s decades-long civil war, when a relief plane mistakenly released an airdrop of emergency food on her group. Judy’s leg was crushed, and doctors had to amputate her lower leg. It was another life-changing moment for Mayotte, taking her out of the field and into the halls of the state department.
And then, she reinvented herself again and moved on to academia. She taught at Marquette University and Seattle University, moving to South Africa and founding service learning programs there for both schools. It was this vision that would become her legacy, passing her approach to life on to a new generation: “What I wanted for those students was to be really engaged, and responsive and responsible global citizens. I knew that most of them weren’t going to go into refugee or development work…but they would have a global sense of service where they could ask the great why questions, and see what kinds of systemic change they could help come about in whatever they did.”
Mayotte is now retired and living in Seattle, but she’s still engaged in the work she has a passion for. She became close to the Tutu family during her time in South Africa and remains so, currently serving a board member emeritus for the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation and the U.S. representative for the TutuDesk campaign, which provides portable lap desks to young learners in Africa who do not have conventional classroom desks. She also plans to continue learning and contributing everything she can on climate displacement. And, if her publisher gets his way, she may even “take a shot at writing a memoir” of her inspirational, tangent-filled life.
Written by Robynn Polansky