Would the world be different?

If I had retired this week at age 65, would the world look different?  A reflection by Volunteer Executive Director Susan Adele Huizenga

‘Social’ Work Story

This week I had the pleasure of meeting a Social Work Graduate Student at a Middlesex County Candidates Forum focused on Housing. We chatted about how we each became aware of policy, how social systems are interconnected and how better awareness of policy changed our perspective on ‘social’ work. I told her I was in the first Bachelor of Social Work Program at S.C.S.U. I did not tell her that I listened to insightful advice: “You take the work home. You might want to consider a different career.” My dad was wise.

I shared my favorite bus story with her. We both knew the link between employment and housing security is transportation. I repeated my story to a candidate. He heard it from his lens of corporate-private partnership. That is not how I was trying to tell it. The partnership came into existence through advocacy based on true stories. As we parted I said: “If you win keep coming to these gatherings to hear people’s stories.”

I was hired by the new nonprofit new Blue Cross Blue Shield of CT (BCBSCT) in 1980 to work on manual systems. The recent corporate merger of Blue Cross of CT and Connecticut Medical Services (CMS/BS) was six months away from a major systems integration two years in the making. No one had yet done workflow analysis or forms design. A consultant, a few front-line managers grateful for help, and I began the mission critical work. Our work flow costs savings outcomes with work simplification designs were phenomenal. More than 100 times my salary, to be saved annually. However, my team’s outcomes were rolled into the larger system project outcomes as if they were part of the original plan. They were not. Workflow changes were an afterthought and non-automated work simplification, a bonus. The many layers here: pay equity, headhunters, how to listen and to whom, and teamwork. All for sharing another time.

I had no idea my career would become decades of merger work. I also did not know I had been hired at 20% below pay-grade until years later when a corporate-wide pay level adjustment was mandated. It was a nonprofit after all. Even with the title Methods Analyst I saw myself as a people’s advocate. I merely had a new focus: improving healthcare systems. I had just served two years in VISTA in criminal justice on a poverty level stipend. I took public transportation. I enjoyed it. Still do.

The Bus Story

I was interested in nonprofit work so I applied for an analyst job at the new BCBSCT. It was also in the News that there was a bus from downtown New Haven to North Haven for city residents. The relocation of CMS jobs could disenfranchise many workers. Leaders in the City of New Haven hammered out a corporate ‘commitment’ to provide transportation of city residents to the North Haven campus of BCBSCT.

It turns out that I was the only salaried person on this bus. When the bus was late others were docked for late arrival to work. I brought this to the attention of Human Resources as an ‘injustice’. Employees arrived at the bus stop on time. They had no control over the bus. I was told with your attitude you will be lucky to last two years here; and with emphasis “As a salaried employee you should be grateful for the bus-ride benefit.”

Ultimately, I prevailed. It helped that I had built strong relationships with the Legal Dept. in my merger work. I suggested a public transportation route modification as a way to improve worker satisfaction, increase productivity and keep their commitment to the city. It was a win for all including public transit. The CT Dept. of Transportation rerouted a public bus to the North Haven campus and corporate subsidized monthly bus passes to keep their original commitment to the city. My role in the change was never made public. However, within the community where it counted, the people on the bus, it was no secret. I remember telling my dad this advocacy/analyst bus story. He replied.

It appears you take your life’s work to the job.

Work must be more than a paycheck

For me, retirement from for-profit corporate work was not about a vacation life-style to come. My retirement decision had several layers of ‘social’ complexity. One moral complexity was that decades of mergers had swallowed up nonprofit BCBSCT into one of the largest for-profit health insurance company’s in the nation, Anthem, Inc.

The timing of my decision was interwoven with a business need to redesign a critical inter-state system for which I was both ‘institutional knowledge’ and daily ‘finger in the dyke’. The project was my dread, my leverage, and truthfully my ‘proof of excellence’ to myself. If I committed to this high-stakes aggressive merger project for which I could choose my own systems team, I would be less available for community service of any kind for almost two years. This was 2009. The work landscape was unsettled. There was another round of lay-offs for which I obviously was not a candidate, off-shore team negotiations and jobs I felt I could save in my departure strategy. Merger work most often meant people losing jobs. Every merger had taken away a part of me because I got to know the people whose lives were uprooted.

My dad, for whom I was then the caregiver at my residence, advocated “Give the company the finger!” I reassured him my decision would be about all the people: him and I, my co-workers, front-line teams and Anthem Members in several states. When I declined his furtive advice to leave them owning it; I was trying not to calculate in ‘the people of Wallingford’ in my claim of “all the people”. Quite frankly I did not want to care about them. I was wounded by the sucker punches and tired of, in my opinion, self-serving users of frail community resources since 2005. I reminded him that them never really own it when a vacuum is created. It is the day-to-day laborers that take the hit, or as was the case with WPAA, committed to the ideals volunteers.

A few weeks of intense job-strategy termination, or not, conversations with my direct management and their management ensued. I did take from dad’s playbook. I threatened to leave 18 months sooner than I ultimately did. Ironically, or as I have come to call it serendipitously, during this very time another in-town Wallingford building came up for sale. My next-steps in life choices became more complicated. I felt I could no longer ignore the ‘people of Wallingford’ in the making of my decision-making even thou most had no idea who I was.

A Collective Crisis of Confidence Story

The future of WPAA was fragile in 2009. At best it would be more of the same with less, or just, less. The volunteers with whom I served as their Cable Advisor were challenged by an impending 60% rent increase (not a typo) for the 128 Center St location, a changing cable TV landscape, volunteer burn-out or flame-out depending on one’s perspective, a very public ‘failed‘ attempt to own a community building on the Parade Ground and loosing the funding adjustment for the 60/40 sunset docket. (PURA #10-03-02)

I personally was conflicted. The politics of aspiring leaders, the naysayers of the attempted acquisition of the historic Constable Roger S. Austin House at 41 So Main St (regrettably not listed here) and the subsequent threat to WPAA funding (PURA #99-10-05) as orchestrated by the Mayor which remained unchallenged by local town leaders, exhausted me. It was another episode of me against the town’s legal team because I handled these types of matters. This round I won. WPAA was eligible for all subscriber fees because WGTV was not compliant.

I was not sure if I was up for what another Community Building Project would require of me. In my opinion, for WPAA to be viable there was 20 years of lost potential as a community entity to overcome; thus the metaphorical project name. Only two people in town truly understood the bedrock on which Community TV was founded. One, to this day, must be publicly mute. There was more than a building to renovate and reinvigorate.

Never-the-less I scheduled a Community Building Committee Meeting to see if there was any life left in that team for a go at a different property. The team was fragile. The architect, painter and landscape designer decided to drop out. The attorney, tech support and my husband were willing to give it another go. A walk-thru was scheduled with the realtor to see 28 So Orchard St., a cow barn in 1924 masquerading as a in-town business location 260 steps from the then current Center St. location.

Important Rooms Story

First and foremost adaptive renovation of 28 S Orchard to be a public space required a major plumbing solution as the first floor is below ground level. I still tell all touring visitors the most important room in the building is not the TV studio, it is the 1st floor Rest Room. Without an innovative plumbing solution there would not have been a purchase.

There were other substantial infrastructure upgrades: a stable dry floor, structural walls, secure access, ADA compliance, emergency exits and electric service. The list went on and on to just be a ‘legally’ habitable building. And there were process hurdles: plans, permits and hearings.

And the design and installation of the TV production and distribution systems could not be an afterthought. My dreams began to be about the two huge projects consuming my waking hours. But progress was steady; the serendipity in finding people and assets to create the new TV space, invigorating despite my of sleep. I encourage you to stop by and take a tour to hear the serendipity stories by room.

Several skilled blue collar workers contributed time and talent over a few years to create today’s WPAA-TV and Community Media Center. None have interest in the services provided nor the ideals represented. They did it as buddies of the real Huizenga behind the Community Building, my husband.

Footnote: The WPAA-TV Board was not unanimous in the decision to buy. Some believed the naysayers, others became naysayers themselves. The biggest decision in the organization’s history was made with a one vote majority. The disgruntled began calling WPAA: Huizenga TV.

The Loan Gift Story

It is unclear why this happened. At zero-hour in the property negotiations the property owner who agreed to hold the mortgage decided the conditions needed to change. He now wanted a substantial down payment, the interest rate was one percent too low and he would not pay the in arrears property taxes. More hurdles. WPAA needed to secure additional financing and the clock was ticking as a closing date had been set with a penalty if delayed. All overtures to consider being a benefactor or supporter were dismissed by both the property owner or the realtor. Yes conspiracy theories did surfaced in my mind. I was exhausted.

Our Real Estate Lawyer generously reached out to in-town movers & shakers seeking financial assistance. There was one offer. It was outrageous and declined. We needed to remain open at the current location and build at another; all within an annual operating budget of $80,000. We needed a gift not exploitation.

On a cold November morning as I was preparing to leave for my day job  my dad came into my kitchen and said:

Why have you not asked me for help? I can loan WPAA money. Why not! I like it. It can work for me. On a loan I can do better than a bank CD.  I think it should be interest only the 1st year too. Yep. I have been listening to your phone calls. I think 5% is a good deal. You should give my offer consideration.

I almost laughed as I cried. He was so sincere. He obviously had given this idea measured consideration. He was right. His offer would be good for WPAA. I also he had no idea he had any money. If you knew him you would understand.

The loan offer needed another WPAA Board vote. Again, it was not unanimous. The “Huizenga TV” moniker became even more brazenly tossed about. Rumors of my profiteering began.

I pretended to be an ostrich.

It turns out my dad was a true fan of the station. He watched nightly. He loved the Classic Arts Showcase TV . It played for six hours beginning at midnight. There was too little local content to fill a 24 x 7 schedule. It truly was to my surprise that my dad became the gift that made it possible to purchase 28 So. Orchard. He passed away unexpectedly in November 2010 a year after the purchase. Honoring dad’s memory, my son and sisters and brothers who inherited the loan to WPAA-TV waived all interest extending his gift further. Free money. So much for profiteering.

A Different World – What would have been the story?

If I did not make the commitment in 2009 to see the building and the vision of WPAA renovated I would not be part of the organization now. I would have earned a significant amount of discretionary income staying at Anthem, Inc. and had opportunities that discretionary money provides. Most likely would have relocated to a Connecticut city. Most likely New Haven.

The most likely scenario for WPAA is it would have been absorbed by Connecticut Community TV and remained at 128 Center St. There would be a few programs a month in production as before.

Instead I retired in 2011 from a paycheck to what dad called my life’s job. I live on a poverty level stipend which I pay myself from a short circuited retirement savings. I am full-time volunteer staff for WPAA-TV and Community Media Center. I live with Mr. Huizenga TV in a house too big for two that has sheltered many people in need of transitional housing.

Yes, absolutely the world would be different if I waited to retire this week at age 65. And yes much of the difference in me and my community is about who has walked through the doors of WPAA-TV.

The building transformation was consuming. How I would attempt to reinvigorate the vision was just wistful thinking with so much on the ground tasks to accomplish. It was never on my radar to be more than a volunteer assigned to committees. I never joined the Board. I wrote the grants. I did the admin that part-time staff could not do. I produced some community focused TV and covered some event as OnTheParadeGround Productions. In 2013 the organization was again at a cross-road. It was then I agreed to become staff under contract as a full-time volunteer Executive Director. It was then that the doors of the TV station and media center would be open daily for the first time.

The shows, internships, job opportunities for youth and differently able, the service expansions into art, theater and film – would not have happened without full-time staff. Herein there are hundreds maybe thousands of stories of changed lives.

But the most important difference is that I gave myself the opportunity to meet a diverse network of people from which I gained genuine new friends, insights and opportunities to be a social worker curating and telling stories that influence positive community change in Wallingford and beyond.

Simply put the world would be much bleaker for me and many others if I had waited to retire this week at age 65.  #impact has been my world every day because of early retirement.


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