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

A Different World – Most Definitely!

So much of our lives is the returning of seasons, with subtle, incremental, by the playbook changes. To be able to take measure of our decisions with some clarity, and to make mental note of the people whom we would not have met, the transformations in a building or neighborhood that would not have come to pass, the understanding that would have been different, is satisfying and possible in a make-a-difference lifestyle. Yes, absolutely the world would be different if I had waited to retire this week at age 65. And yes, much of the difference in me and my community is in the stories of those who walked through the doors of my home and WPAA-TV since 2011.

A few more ‘corporate’ years would have enabled me to amass a comfort level amount of discretionary income. Instead, I short-circuited retirement savings and retired from a paycheck to my self-funded poverty level stipend in order to volunteer full-time. I continued to live with “Mr. Huizenga TV” in a house too big for two that has sheltered many in need of transitional housing.

… with mixed emotions that I am announcing Susan’s official retirement … most recognized for her passion and expertise … superior customer service for our members and her unique style and incredible knowledge and dedication will be greatly missed. Susan has worked hard all of her career and has now earned the opportunity to enjoy more time with her family and community service projects.

I would not be part of WPAA-TV now if I did not make the commitment in 2009 to see the building And the vision of WPAA renovated. The most probable scenario for me: returning to New Haven. The most likely scenario for WPAA: being absorbed into Connecticut Community TV, and remaining at 128 Center St. with a few programs a month in production, looking like every prior year since 1995.

By the time I moved into Wallingford, I had a repertoire of seasonal, long-term community service projects that I was ready to leave on a memory shelf. To be a volunteer in Wallingford would consist of buying potted plants from the firemen, or adopting a road to clean on Earth Day, or writing checks to programs where I used to live for the housing and food insecure. Instead, on my radar was rejuvenating, finding my footing, and most of all, balance. Relocation provided some anonymity and room for a much-needed remake of my actions Not my values.

Even after being co-opted to engage in the resuscitation of Community TV in Wallingford, I performed the essential, nobody wanted tasks, i.e., regulatory reports, grant writing, meeting minutes, and bylaw amendments. Nothing with real accountability or visibility. I never joined the board. Noticing the absence of democracy-oriented producers, I co-opted my son, Houston, to host a conversation show as OnTheParadeGround Productions, branded with a laptop sitting on the grass on the town’s Parade Ground. I started to discover a few of Wallingford’s civic-minded with this project and also learned how much video editing had advanced since 2004.

The building transformation literally was consuming for all the volunteers from the moment of purchase in December 2009 until the studio upgrade in 2015. It was wishful thinking to imagine that I could nudge the organization’s vision with so many tasks to accomplish. Midstream, in 2013, the organization was again at a crossroad. It was then that I agreed to become un-paid staff under contract as a full-time ‘volunteer’ Executive Director. Under this arrangement, the doors of WPAA-TV, now calling itself a media center, would be open daily for the first time.

The shows, internships, job opportunities for youth and differently-abled, the service expansions into art, theater, and film – hundreds, maybe even thousands, of stories of changed lives would have never happened without day-time hours and full-time staff. By 2017, my bosses, the governance team, included a few millennials educated in video production, in addition to the blue collars that made the building renovation possible. This diverse and inclusive board firmly declared WPAA-TV as More Than TV: in other words more than the tools & stage for TV creation. In 2018, WPAA-TV was solidly the tools & stage for much more with #collaborations, a gallery and theater, and civic groups using our “community building.” Adoption of the phrase itself is one of my favorite stories.

Tracing Back to My ‘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 Southern Connecticut State University. I did not tell her that I was given 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 an elected official, also in attendance, and also in election mode. He heard it from his lens of corporate private partnership. That is not how I was trying to tell it. 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 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 frontline managers grateful for the help, and I began the mission-critical work. Our workflow costs savings outcomes with work simplification designs were phenomenal. More than 100 times my salary was 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 Many layers here: pay equity, headhunters, how to listen and to whom, and teamwork.

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

It was in the news that there would be a bus from downtown New Haven for city residents working at BCBSCT in North Haven. City leaders were concerned that without transportation the relocation of CMS jobs could disenfranchise many workers. Together with corporate representatives, a commitment was hammered out to provide transportation for city residents to the North Haven campus. The company contracted a private transportation provider that became my way to get to work. Therefore I applied for an analyst job at the newly merged nonprofit.

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, but they had no control over the bus’s arrival. I was told with your attitude you will be lucky to last two years here: the emphasis was, “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 the company’s commitment to the city. It was a win-win for all, which now included public transit. The CT Dept. of Transportation rerouted a public bus and corporate subsidized the monthly bus passes. 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 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 lifestyle 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 companies in the nation.

The timing of my decision was interwoven with a business need to redesign a critical interstate system for which I was both institutional knowledge and a daily ‘finger in the dike.’ The project was my dread, my leverage, and truthfully my proof-of-excellence to myself. But, I would be less available for community service of any kind for almost two years if I committed to this high-stakes aggressive merger project. But, the idea of choosing my own systems team was compelling. This was 2009. The work landscape was unsettled. There was another round of layoffs 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 advocated, “Give the company the finger!” I reassured him my decision would be about all the people: him and me, my co-workers, frontline teams, and the insured in several states. When I declined his furtive advice to leave them owning it, I was trying not to calculate 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 they 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, the volunteers who committed to the ideals.

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 forming of my decision although 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 losing 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., exhausted me. Regrettably, the property was not listed in the local papers archival registry culled from the Wallingford Preservation Trust records. The subsequent threat to WPAA funding (PURA #99-10-05), as orchestrated by the Mayor, remained unchallenged by local town leaders.

It was another episode of me against the town’s legal team because I handled these types of matters. This was around in the arena that I won. The decision asserted that WPAA was eligible for all subscriber fees because WGTV was not compliant with the basic provisions of community access TV The Mayor asserted too much control overuse and content.

I was not sure if I were up for what another Community Building Project would require of me. In my opinion, for WPAA to be viable there were 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 Project Committee Meeting to see if there were any life left in that team for a go at a different property. The team was weakened when the architect, painter, and landscape designer decided to drop out. The attorney, tech, and my husband were willing to give it another go. A walk-through was scheduled with the realtor to see 28 So Orchard St., a cow barn in 1924 masquerading as an in-town business location 260 steps from the then-current Center St. location.

Important Rooms Story

The first and foremost adaptive renovation of 28 So Orchard in order for it 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 First Floor Rest Room. Without an innovative plumbing solution, there would not have been a building 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 just to be a ‘legally’ habitable building. And there were process hurdles: plans, permits, and commission hearings.

And the design and installation of the TV production and distribution systems could not be an afterthought. My dreams began to be about those two huge projects consuming my waking hours. But progress was steady; the serendipity in finding people and assets to create the new TV space was invigorating despite my lack of sleep I encourage you to stop by and take a tour to hear the serendipity stories room 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 had an interest in the services provided, nor the ideals represented. They did it as buddies of the real Huizenga behind the community building, my husband, Curt. 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 and the realtor. Yes, conspiracy theories did surface in my mind. I was exhausted.

Seeking financial assistance, our real estate lawyer generously reached out to in-town movers & shakers. There was one offer. It was outrageous. We declined. We needed to remain open at the current location while building 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 in the first 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 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. Different if I had 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.

Postscript: 12.31.2019

The one goal in the strategic goal dashboard that seemed unattainable happened. On 12.31.2019 the first mortgage was paid off. Yes, but it was refinancing with a temporary 0% credit line. This will yield a $7,000 overall savings. We plan to ask the community to rally to retire our “building debt” during #GreatGive2019. The wistful full bring this full circle is to have our 1st ever video annual report impress the Hometown Judges and much as it did the volunteers and their annual celebration.

Postscript: 5.01.2019

WE WON BEST in THE US for our size as determined by a panel of our peers. Does it matter?

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