Wachovia’s regional president for south/central New Jersey, Svizeny earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the College of New Jersey, Class of 1979.
I learned a very important lesson about leadership and success quite early in my career. I was in my mid-20s and working in the international department of a local bank, which ultimately became Wachovia. The director of my department took a position in Washington, D.C., and even though a team of experienced international bankers was in place, he asked me to head the department. Privately, I was apprehensive — and a little intimidated — because I was younger and had less experience. However, I decided to keep that to myself and accept the challenge.
We were in the process of working out major multinational sovereign debt restructures in Mexico and Brazil, and I was successful in negotiating our position out of both those transactions with only a minor discount — which is the goal that management expected me to achieve. I learned then that leadership is defined by how you meet challenges — it’s all about having the courage to take risk. And this lesson has held me in good stead throughout my career.
Burger, 55, is director of the Princeton Public Library, president of the American Library Association, and founder of Library Development Solutions.
My first job was right out of graduate school at the ripe old age of 24, when I found myself working on a special project with people who were mostly over 50 and well entrenched with their ideas. Here I was, full of ideas, energy, and enthusiasm, and they were suspicious, reluctant to change and hoping I would go away. I learned quickly that the best way to accomplish something is to involve the staff, and give them the opportunity to shape the outcomes and be invested in the results. In the end we had a great product that everyone felt was a team effort.
Like many people of my generation I was blazing new trails in balancing career and motherhood. I was pregnant with my third child when I learned that I was one of two people up for a promotion for the position of budget manager, and I was the most qualified candidate.
The director called me into his office one morning to tell me I wasn’t getting the job because I decided to multiply instead of add or subtract. He thought he was being cute; I thought he was breaking the law. I didn’t file suit, although I wanted to, but I did spend a great deal of time proving his decision wrong and making sure I took every opportunity to make my point.
In 1991 I was laid off by the New Jersey State Library, just two weeks after accepting a promotional opportunity. I thought my life was over, my career devastated, and that there was no future. I gave myself some time to grieve but then decided to start my own consulting business, Library Development Solutions, doing what I did at the State Library but better. In my first year I had 10 clients. Since then we have expanded the business significantly and have now, 15 years later, worked with more than 130 libraries in 20 states. Thanks to the state of New Jersey for giving me the chance of a lifetime. I’ve never looked back.
A former actress, Ballinger has been producing artistic director of Passage Theater since 1996. Though she enrolled in the Class of 1972 at Briarcliff College, she left to pursue her acting career in California.
Destiny! Jobs! Career! How do we know our destiny?
After two years at Briarcliff College in New York I headed out to California where I had a year to “find myself.” It was the ’70s and I spent my year as a waitress up in Carmel, California, and Big Sur.
I got my first job at a fancy Swedish restaurant managed by a very chauvinistic man. Oh he was a tyrant! After a week or so of abuse, being yelled at, pushed and pulled, I went up to him on the floor in front of the customers, slapped down my pad and said, “I don’t think I will be working here anymore. I find your attitude disgusting and completely unprofessional” To that he smiled, leered really, and said, “You don’t have to tell me what I am like. I know what I am like.”
I then headed for a tiny, more casual Swiss cafe and immediately got a job there, now that I was an experienced waitress, “broken in” as it were. In addition to being the sole waitress I was also hired to be the owner’s cleaning lady.
The woman had a reputation as being “difficult to work for” but she seemed to like me. During a busy stressful, Sunday breakfast she was screaming out contradictory orders, physically pushing me and pulling me around the room. I snapped and (again in front of the room full of tourists) whipped around and picked the tiny lady up by the shoulders till she was eye level and said “don’t you dare touch me! No one touches me!” “Get Out! Get Out!” she screamed. I put her down and left her alone to deal with the cafe full of tourists.
On my way to nowhere I passed by the Carmel Studio Theater, a dinner theater, and started to cry. “This is the only place I belong,” I thought, feeling very sorry for myself. I looked into the place and discovered they were casting Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” and could not find the correct Amanda. I was barely 20; they needed someone who was in their late 30s.
Sure now that I was back on the proper road of destiny, I became bold. I went home and transformed myself into my own British, highly fashionable mother (I was more a hippie so the wardrobe was challenging). I hid my waist-long hair in a turban, exchanged my nude lips for ones of bright crimson, my jeans for white slacks, a tunic, jewelry — stuff like mom would wear.
Having gone to high school in England I had the accent at my disposal. I went in, read with the director, got the job, and found out later that he told all “I found Amanda, a woman of about 32 from England.”
So what did I learn from all this? As women it is vital we learn to stand up for and honor our own voice. Stay tuned into ourselves to track that voice as it emerges. I was a lousy waitress I will admit (I got too involved in conversing with interesting customers to the neglect of the others). I never went back to that part of the food industry, although I did end up supporting myself as a caterer ultimately between acting jobs.
I learned to take the risk to say “Yes, jump in! Show up! Say yes to the fear!”
Of course I also learned that boldness is not always enough. You have to be prepared. Do the homework. Don’t leave it all up to luck.
You can’t be hard on yourself for not getting the job — only for not having prepared. This is important because as an actor your “job” is looking for work. So you have to get as comfortable as you can with that. You get to practice your craft.
I am relatively new as a producer. No training for that whatsoever except that as an actress I worked under many and learned by observation. I am not afraid to ask my mentors. I call Jeff Woodward at McCarter frequently and also talk to Mara Isaacs there. I ask commercial producers in New York whom I have become friendly with. I ask!
Finally I think all our jobs — the little ones, the support jobs, the career jobs — make up a sort of “dowry” that you bring to your next move in your destined career. My years in a theater collective, a youth mentoring program (parent of our State Street Project), cooking, waitressing (sort of), acting in non-profit theater as well as commercial theater — and always on new plays — made up the dowry that I brought with me to this job. Am I honoring my destiny? I am happy. I love what I do and that is, bottom line, the most important thing.
Harrison, 38, has worked as a caterer and owned a retail store, Euphorbia, but now her event-planning business is called “Mary Harrison, Weddings and Special Events.”
I was underage, 14, and wanted to work at Main Street in Kingston but they wouldn’t let me work. I lived in Kingston at the time and could walk up there. However, they let me write labels, so I wrote the labels for the soups, 10 cents a label. Black bean soup, 50 times. My grandmother came to visit. I had my grandmother writing labels. I was so into the food business, and I knew I wanted to work there.
They hired me when I became old enough to work in the shop. At that time everything was in Kingston, all the baking, all the cooking, all the stuff in and out. I packed things for catering. When I was old enough to drive, I delivered for them. It didn’t seem that interesting at the time. But I loved being around the business. Really absorbing it. You are right next to the chefs, seeing how they produce food for hundreds and hundreds of people, how it gets out the door, how they work with the health department, all the things that can go wrong behind the scenes, and how it can get fixed.
It was one of those true full circle things — I now use Main Street Catering a lot right now. I didn’t know I would be a wedding and event planner, but I knew I wanted to work there. It was a really good start for my age.
The director of development at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, Elliott, 48, has a bachelors of music from Manhattanville College, Class of 1981, and earned a masters in arts administration from New York University in 1986.
I thought my degree in arts administration from NYU would instantly catapult me into one of New York’s major arts institutions as a director of something or another! Once reality set in, I was fortunate to be hired by a small executive search firm, named Opportunity Resources, headed by Freda Mindlin, which recruited CEOs for cultural organizations throughout the country.
What was so terrific about this job is that it gave me a broad overview of the arts field, especially since most of the arts organizations that retained Opportunity Resources were outside of New York City.
From my vantage point, I saw for awhile that science and technology museums seemed to be on the rise in the late 1980s, particularly in the south. I also saw that towns in remote parts of the country had thriving art museums with quality collections that were considered the jewel of their respective communities. Most of all, I was taught how to deal with people, from corporate CEOs, who served on the boards of the cultural organizations that hired us, to executives from all kinds of cultural organizations.
I never would have experienced working with so many people from so many different parts of the country had I taken a position with a large cultural organization, where I would have been quite low on the roster — an assistant to the assistant of an assistant.
A 1977 graduate of Barnard College, Spragins is a Pennington resident and author of “What I Know Now: Letters To My Younger Self.” She is currently at work on “What I Know Now: Letters To Myself as a Younger Woman.”
Job #1: At Pizza Hut, while attending the University of Virginia. Lesson learned: Don’t take a job that you have no way to get to due to lack of transportation.
Job #2: At local fast food joint, while attending the University of Virginia. Lesson learned: I am much too cranky to be in a job serving customers.
Job #3: At a department store, during the summer. Lesson learned: I am much too cranky to be in a job serving customers.
Job #4: At a small fabric wholesaler, during a year off from college. Lesson learned: I have no tolerance for being treated like a brainless secretary.
Job #5: At a New York bank, after college. Lesson learned: Just because it has great pay and a promising future doesn’t mean a career is the right one for me.
R. Barbara Gitenstein
A graduate of Duke University, Class of 1970, with a PhD in English and American literature from the University of North Carolina, Gitenstein is the president of the College of New Jersey.
After 13 years as a full-time faculty member, I was appointed to my first full-time administrative position, associate provost at State University of New York at Oswego. I approached the role with the preconceptions of a faculty member, assuming that if I was interested in the responsibilities delineated in the job description, it would not matter who was my supervisor. I was hired as associate provost by Donald Mathieu, an exceptionally dedicated and generous individual who became my first important mentor.
Unfortunately, within 18 months of my appointment as associate provost, a new
An associate professor of economics at Rider University, Noonan earned her Ph.D. from State Uprovost was hired, and I found myself working with an unpredictable and impossible-to-please supervisor. After about a year in this situation, I was offered a temporary position at the system office of the university. Taking this job would require significant sacrifice: the system office was a three-hour drive from Oswego, and work in the bureaucracy of the system office had never been attractive to me.
It seemed I had only two choices: return to the classroom and give up any hope of an administrative career or accept the system job with its serious downsides (a distance relationship with my husband and two children and the loss of the companionship of a campus).
I chose the system job and while that year was a very difficult one, it was not as difficult as trying to work with the new provost. My choice was the right one, however, for within one year of taking the temporary job, I was hired as provost at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. I was back on a campus; I got the opportunity to work with another exceptional mentor, president Michael Ferrari, and my entire family was thrilled to move together to our new adventure in the midwest.
An associate professor of economics at Rider University, Noonan earned her Ph.D. from State University of New York at Stony Brook in 2000.
Before I received my Ph.D. I was a regional manager for a large company. I was making a decent salary, driving a company car — really living the “American Dream.” The problem was that it wasn’t my dream. After much conversation with my fiance (now my husband) I decided to quit my job and go back to school. It was the best decision that I ever made. Now, I really enjoy what I do, and I think this passion is evident in my teaching, research, and in my personal life. I learned that you need to follow your own dreams and realize that, over time, your dreams may change.
I really love technology, but between the cell phones, E-mail, very portable laptops, and Blackberrys we are all on call 24 hours a day.
My husband used to place his Blackberry on the counter when he arrived home from work so that each time he got a message it would buzz and move across the counter. His Blackberry is no longer welcome in our kitchen.
Stop and have a celebration for the good things that happen — even small accomplishments. And remember to take time for yourselves and your families. Turn off your cell phones, don’t pick up your E-mail, and don’t read your text messages 24/7. Make the most of both your careers and your personal lives.
#h#Jean A. Holtz#/h#
The vice president for communications at the New Brunswick Development Corporation, Holtz earned her bachelors degree from American University in Washington, DC, in 1982.
Although I’ve been working since I was nine years old (my first job was as a papergirl for the Asbury Park Press), my first “real” job after college was as a legislative aide. It was a lot of responsibility, and a rather heady experience — all those elected officials and important people with titles and big egos wandering around the State House. Things back then were a bit different than they are today — let’s just say things had not progressed too far in the gender relations area. In other words, young women weren’t always taken seriously, and certainly were not in positions of leadership or power.
Sexism was still rampant. I know, hard to believe. It was tough navigating, but thanks to a group of women also serving as legislative aides, and who were a few years older than I, I made it through. I learned a lot — about the legislative process and politics, and experienced my share of real world eye-openers.
However, it is the women who took me into the fold and guided me, provided me with access, and shared information, who made all the difference in the world. They were young, strong, smart, and secure, and were happy to help me become the same.
What great mentors — we’re still colleagues and friends. Because of them, I learned to also be secure and confident, and I have been able to share similar experiences with other young women along the way. In return, I ask them to make sure that they play it forward when the time comes.
#h#Dr. Mary Boname#/h#
Co-owner of Montgomery Eye Care Center, Boname earned a bachelor of science in neurobiology & behavior at Cornell University in 1987; a master of science in biology from Bucknell University in 1990; and a doctorate in optometry from the New England College of Optometry, 1994.
My first job was as a librarian’s assistant at Oxford Memorial Library in my junior and senior years of high school. I had a great deal of responsibility: I opened the library and worked alone on Saturdays. I was always a self-starter and knew from the beginning to come to work with a smile on, greet my employers, and immediately get to work.
My second employment experience was working as an assistant to the nursing staff in the operating room of the hospital in which I was born. I hung out in the doctor’s lounge with the anesthesiologists, general surgeons, and ophthalmologists.
Since my grandfather was the only physician in my hometown for 65 years, and on staff at this hospital, many of these doctors had known me since I was a child. Martin Jacobi, the doctor who delivered me, recommended to the chief of staff at Chenango Memorial Hospital that I be considered for employment.
The number one lesson learned: arrive early, be willing to stay late, ask for things to do when you have completed all your assigned tasks, and smile, smile, smile. As the saying goes, You get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar!
A stockbroker with Wachovia Securities, where she works with her two daughters, Ellen Gould Baber and Georgeanne Gould Moss, Gould attended the University of Pennsylvania and graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in orthoptics.
I grew up in a family business, a chain of department stores in New York state. My mother and father were both working in the business and my sister, who is a year older, and my younger brother also participated. We weren’t told that we had to do this or that, we just did it and learned by doing.
It was a service business and we accommodated the needs of the customer. There were sales people with whom we also had to get along. Many were older than I was, so I had to defer to them and not act like the owner’s daughter. This was an essential lesson because getting along with your fellow workers makes for a more pleasant and productive work environment.
We used cash registers in the early days that did not tell you the correct change. Early on I learned to recheck my figures. I always loved math.
We lived a small town and reputation was very important. When we went to work we always looked dressed up. You form habits when you are young so I still get “dressed up” when I go to work.
My mother was a very lovely woman who loved going to work in the business world. She had a flair for business and she set an excellent example for a young girl. She loved being financially independent and although she never verbalized it, she certainly was a model for her daughters to be independent. Her parents owned a silk mill in Paterson. After they died she ran the mill. She learned by doing and always felt it gave her very important lessons in life. Her parents died very young so she was on her own and she felt that everyone should be able to make a living — married or not. My father had a saying: “It’s a man’s world but as far as my daughters are concerned, it’s a woman’s world.” He felt that his daughters needed to be independent financially.
When I went to the University of Pennsylvania, women were not admitted to the Wharton School. It took many years for me to ever get hired as a financial consultant in Princeton. There were no women working on their own in this business in Princeton. I finally got hired in 1981. Now I’m a senior vice president at Wachovia and the senior member of the Gould Group at Wachovia Securities on Nassau Street. The other two members of the group are my daughters. My husband, Dr. Kenneth Gould, and I are very proud of that fact.
A therapist at Aroga Behavioral Health in Skillman, Pollack practices cognitive-behavioral and insight-oriented therapy with a wide range of patients including adults, teenagers, couples, and recovering people. She holds graduate degrees (M.Ed, LPC, SAC) from Northeastern University and the College of New Jersey and describes herself as “ageless.”
The first job I had was teaching fifth grade in New Rochelle, New York. Today we are hyper-sensitive regarding harassment in the work place. Then, however, we were just on the cusp of the women’s movement and quite unaware of any infringement or injustice. I was thrilled to get an interview with the superintendent of schools of New Rochelle. He was known to be somewhat “strange,” even outrageous at interviews. I had heard that he loved to play-act and often had teachers pretend to teach him a lesson.
I should not have been surprised when in reading my resume he noticed that I enjoyed art, music, and dance. He early in the interview said, “I want you to dance for me.” Although I was taken aback I did not respond angrily. I thought I could get off the hook by saying, “but there’s no music.” “No problem,” he said. “I can play this piano, and I have a record player.” I laughed and said, “Then play a waltz.” I believe he played the Skater’s Waltz. Red in the face with embarrassment I danced around the room with as much grace as I could muster under the circumstances.
I got the job. It was at the beautiful new school. I have the fondest memories of it. Would I have responded in the same way today? I don’t know. I might have pointed out how absurd and demeaning his request was.
What I learned was flexibility and use of humor in both interviewing and on the job. Looking for the positive in all situations and showing respect for colleagues on all levels helps.
#h#Nancy W. Kieling#/h#
The president and executive director of the Princeton Area Community Foundation, Kieling, 58, graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1971.
As I reflect on my career, there have been many important lessons, but the ones I will share with you came after 12 years of working and graduate education. After a couple of years of short-term after-college jobs, a master’s degree, and six years in academic administration, which left me feeling some glass ceiling effects, I made a big change in direction and took a job at a major New York bank in its corporate lending business.
I networked extensively for two years, using good contacts, some at high levels, who proved ultimately to be very helpful. The idea of working on Wall Street seemed exciting. I considered earning an MBA, but decided to join a bank training program where I could learn some of the same things, and get paid along the way.
I was strategic, I thought, in finding my way to a line position on the corporate side of the business, at that time still largely a man’s world (this was 1982). I got a lot of good advice along the way, ignored some, and only saw the wisdom of it later (see Lesson 1 below).
Throughout my time in banking I was a bit of a misfit. My superiors didn’t seem to notice or care that I had real experience and more to offer, including connections that could have been good for business.
Lesson 1: In making a big change, I actually took a step backwards and it didn’t feel good. I had been advised not to do that — advice I had ignored but which I have passed on to others many times since.
Lesson 2: In time I realized that doing work that fits with my values is most important to both my enjoyment and my success. So after three and a half years in corporate banking, I left when my daughter was born, and never went back. I stayed home for eight years, some of the best of my life.
Lesson 3: I learned how it feels to make a complicated choice, live with it, learn what I could, and move on.
In 1994 it was time to go back to work, at age 45, with a scattered resume, eight years away from paid employment, and more than a little confusion in my own mind about what would come next.
Thirteen years ago a friend noticed an ad in the local paper for the position I now hold. It called for many pieces, all skills I had collected on a circuitous path. Only as I got my feet wet did I realize how valuable my banking experience had been. The accounting and finance experience I had gained has been critical to my ability to run the Princeton Area Community Foundation. So nine years after leaving New York an important puzzle piece fell into place, and now it makes perfect sense that I made that “detour” even though it seemed disconnected for so long.
Lesson 4: Sometimes the reason why we take different turns doesn’t emerge for a while, but all experience is valuable. There are lots of other lessons learned along the way, but the last one I would share is this:
Lesson 5: I’ve had the privilege to build a career out of very different blocks (including a block of time to raise a child — arguably the most important one of all), not on a straight line. Variety has been fun and ultimately productive.
#h#Susannah S. Wise MD#/h#
Wise, 37, is an assistant professor of surgery at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
The best lessons I learned early in my career did not come from a single job or experience but from the collection of experiences at various jobs during high school, college, and shortly after college. I was interested in a variety of career paths — from the corporate environment (I worked for a local pharmaceutical firm in both marketing and research), to business management (I ran the office and the stable of a local horse farm), to the life of an artist (something I was never gainfully employed doing) — but I had no idea how to put all my interests together.
When I mentor students now, I always find myself saying, “You have to find something you really love to do because you will likely spend a majority of your life at work.” I luckily found something that I really enjoy doing by taking the pieces of each of my early jobs I really liked and acknowledging the tasks that I thought were dull and eliminating them.
I also figured out what I was innately good at doing by taking a series of aptitude tests. My parents actually “forced” me to go through these tests. I scored particularly well on fine motor skills, three-dimensional comprehension, and independent thinking. I guess it fits that I ended up becoming a surgeon.
My ultimate career choice was not a conscious application of my interest and skills but instead a path that slowly evolved in a layered process. Looking back, however, it seems so obvious now. I clearly remember being confused about which path to take but by building on interesting aspects of each of my early jobs I ended up in the right place. I enjoyed the science and idea of helping people, which I was exposed to in the pharmaceutical environment; I liked the active pace and interaction with people required in running a small business, and I have always found fulfillment in the creative process.
I found that my early work experiences helped me to see what I liked to do, what I was good at, and what was interesting to me. By building on those experiences, I was able to find a path to a career that really suits me.
The CEO of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital at Hamilton, Guarnieri, 51, earned a bachelor of science in nursing from Niagara University, and a master’s of health services administration from St. Joseph’s College in Maine.
My enjoyment of math and science, combined with a lifelong ambition to be a nurse, led me to a four-year bachelor of science in nursing. Like most nursing students, we began using each other as “patients” to practice reading blood pressure. In my sophomore year, the time came to take blood pressure readings on “real” patients and on a class trip to a nursing home, each student was assigned to a specific resident.
I entered my patient’s room and ran through the clinical routine in my mind. I put the blood pressure cuff on his arm when, out of the blue, he looked up at me and said, “Well, Hello!”
I froze. I absolutely froze.
Up until that point, the idea of being a nurse was purely about science. Then this man began to talk me through the process of taking his blood pressure. He said, “That feels about right. You’re doing great!”
That moment made me realize that nursing and medicine are really about the patients. The focus on patients is the core value of being a nurse; it drives me to this day. What I realized then and what I continue to embrace, is that whenever we do something, if it is for the patient, we can’t go wrong.
I have had other opportunities to take healthcare positions in different environments. I have remained focused on the work I can do at hospitals because I always think back to that day in the nursing home.
#h#Ingrid W. Reed#/h#
A policy analyst and New Jersey Project Director at the Eagleton Institute in New Brunswick, Reed is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 1958. She turns 71 on Valentine’s Day.
Since I am a member of the Betty Friedan generation, I started out after college working in a job, not beginning a career. It is hard to explain now the simple assumption that college-educated women end up as a wife and mother — end of story. But that did not stop me from seeking a first job in New York City, renting an apartment with college roommates, and being totally responsible for my well-being. I was lucky to land a job doing a research for the life insurance industry, a job I am convinced I got because when asked if I wanted to study direct placements, I answered, “I don’t know. Tell me about it.” It was a genuine response that worked then and continued to work in every other job I got subsequently.
Research did not suit me, but I did like learning new things. I had the chance to do so when, having married and moved to Princeton, I joined a team that the new controller of ETS was putting together. This time I was asked if I wanted to organize the proposal/contract register. A second time I answered, “I don’t know. Tell me about it.”
It worked again and turned out to be an exciting time with new technology, new programs, and bright, innovative people. But I cheerfully gave it up to become a mother.
After I caught onto the motherhood routine, I was more than open to accepting an invitation addressed to Mrs. Marvin Reed from the League of Women Voters to attend a new members’ tea. That was the beginning of my career in management as I became involved in the community, serving on committees, organizing events, becoming a board member and board chair.
And I learned management skills that I couldn’t even imagine I needed, such as how to put together a budget that reflects policy and a work plan, how to recruit and supervise staff, how to promote an organization and hold it accountable. The boards I served on luckily included men who had impressive positions in the corporate world and who willingly served as teachers and coaches for women who were learning as they served.
What the male board members did not teach was how to motivate and support volunteers. I had to figure this out for myself. Being a mother helped. Mastering the dinner table strategy for keeping everyone involved — contributing to the conversation, making plans for family activities, cooperating on tasks, and giving credit for being part of the team — turned out be crucial in successfully managing an organization, whether I volunteered or was paid to do so.
Later in my career, when the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School asked: would you be interested in administering the Rockefeller Public Service Awards program? I again answered, “I don’t know. Tell me about it.”
This time it was the start of a 16-year career in academic administration at Princeton, followed by four years at the Rockefeller University and now 10 years at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics.
I probably never would have landed in such challenging positions if I had started out focusing on a career in the late 1950s rather than simply taking a job, assuming wife and mother would be my eventual title — to which I have now added grandmother — and taking chances on opportunities that came along in a dramatically changing world.
The chief operating officer of Isles Inc. in Trenton, a nonprofit devoted to promoting self sufficiency in distressed communities (and founded by her husband, Martin), Johnson has a B.S. from Cook College, Class of 1974, and an M.S. from Rutgers. Both degrees are in plant biology/pathology.
My first real job after receiving my master’s degree was as a county agricultural agent in Essex County, Newark. The Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service had received a grant from the USDA to create an urban gardening program to improve nutrition in low income neighborhoods by providing people with the support and tools to farm on vacant land.
I didn’t really have the experience to do this job, but I had the enthusiasm and technical skills in horticulture, and I loved to teach. In the first month, I hired 12 people, almost all of whom were older than I and with much more life experience. They included a middle-aged nun, a grandmother, and a recovering substance abuser.
They were all wonderful and helped me learn the ropes of working in very poor neighborhoods. The nun taught me how to ask for donations of money and materials and to be very frugal with resources; the grandmother taught me to understand Newark’s communities; and all of them taught me humility and determination.
The real estate people in city hall would barely speak to us (they didn’t want people using their vacant land) and so I had to learn how to make as many friends as possible in order to get the job done. The public works director was very helpful and gave us soil and access to water. Most of the seeds, plants, and tools were donated.
We started in March, 1978, and by the end of summer there were gardens all over Newark full of fresh produce. We worked with Housing Authority tenants, schools, and neighborhood groups.
Together we developed proposals and projects to make more of Newark green by planting fields of wildflowers. Especially important was my friendship with my mentor, Karl Linn, a landscape architect who taught at NJIT, a man who truly understood that humans need natural beauty around them in order to be truly human, especially in the most difficult environments. He taught me that you must “paint a picture with words” if you want to convince people of something.
I worked in Newark in that capacity for only 18 months, but it was the foundation for everything else I’ve worked on since that time. In Newark, I learned to see possibility in the most difficult circumstances. I saw poor people become powerful and capable. And I came to appreciate the amazing urban assets and heritage in New Jersey’s older cities. I wish that more people would come to understand the lessons I learned in Newark, nearly 30 years ago.