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Women Living & Working the Dream: Velvet Miller
This article by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 3, 1999. All rights reserved.
Velvet G. Miller has been a nurse, a teacher, a social
activist, and a policy maker. Now at age 53 she has the chance to
combine them all — to use her bedside experience, her training
expertise, her pursuit of justice, and her bold initiative — in
a dream job. As the executive director of Children’s Futures New
at 100 Canal Pointe, her brand-new organization is funded by the
Wood Johnson Foundation to find a new paradigm for improving
For the Forums Institute on Public Policy, her group will work on
children’s health initiatives in New Jersey in an effort to get at
the root causes of deficiencies in children’s health and social
Miller had to leave another wonderful job, as deputy commissioner
of the state department of human services, to take this one, but the
opportunity to administer a blood transfusion instead of applying
a tourniquet was something she could not pass up. "It was one
of those chances of a lifetime," says the former nurse, who has
degrees from Wagner, Temple, Harvard, and Boston University. "I
believe all of my experience and all of what I am, can contribute
to making this program something we can all learn from, something
that will be good for the kids."
Velvet Miller has an unusually broad background, and she will need
to call on every bit of it to bend bureaucracies and create a new
paradigm — while still keeping to her own self-imposed goal, to
"see the faces behind the laws." She says all that she does
is rooted in her nursing training.
"The career choice of nursing was right where my heart was, and
still is. I still like the clinical `bedside’ nursing," says
"I enjoy doing what I can and helping the patients improve their
health. It keeps me focused on what it is all about. No matter how
far you may grow in your professional life, and I have had a wonderful
opportunity in my professional life, it is all a matter of keeping
your feet on the ground, of keeping the face of the people in front
"I have had senior positions in three different states and have
enjoyed many opportunities for policy making and progress development
on national and state levels, and I still can see the faces of the
people I served. I try to make certain that the people I work with
know that, whatever policy we put in place, someone is affected by
Miller has 5.5 full-time equivalent employees and an office of 2,800
square feet. Neither she nor the College Road-based Robert Wood
Johnson Foundation is ready to disclose just where or how Children’s
New Jersey is going to do its work and research, or how costly it
Suffice it to say that this will be a very unusual project, headed
by an unusual woman, who seems perfectly and exactly suited for
Her first experience with radical change came when a high school
counselor helped her to reconsider her ambition to be a medical
"She helped me to think through it rationally, that I wanted to
be involved with and care for people, and that I wanted to be in the
health field, but that I needed time to devote to family and other
social issues, so I needed some flexibility. I hoped for a career
that would open lots of doors." Her choice of a bachelor’s degree
in nursing was unusual for that time. "To this day I am pleased
and proud and happy with that decision."
Miller’s childhood in Reading, Pennsylvania, was "full of sunshine
and brightness," she says. "I had a strong family and a strong
family commitment to causes." Her father, Louis, was a real estate
broker, barber, and a social activist, and her mother, Pattee, was
a community activist. One of her grandmothers lived in Canton,
just outside of Jackson, and was constantly walking in civil rights
marches and hosting marchers in her home. "We were worried, but
that was our legacy. That was what we were to do," Miller recalls.
She and her older brother Charles (who is now developing a continuing
care community, a family project in Columbus, Mississippi) went to
Reading public schools.
"My parents taught me that I must always respect myself and
others. That I must always walk tall and not be second class anything.
The expectation was very clear. Bring in an A, or explain yourself.
There was no acceptance of anything less. We were pushed."
In high school Miller participated in theater and public speaking
and was active with the student chapter of the National Conference
of Christians and Jews. It was the 1960s, the heyday of civil rights
activity, and her town was not known for being liberal. "Reading,
Pennsylvania, had a strong Klan base, and when threats were made they
were carried out," she says.
To this day, she laments having missed the 1963 March on Washington.
Her parents went but at the last minute decided not to take her.
was 18 and working as a camp counselor, and my parents were supposed
to come and get me, but in Reading there were a lot of threats against
even getting on the bus. My parents had seen what the threats could
really be. I waited for them to pick me up, but they decided that
the danger was too great. I sat all day long and listened to the march
on the radio."
A positive memory was listening to Hubert Humphrey speak to a student
civil rights rally that she had organized. "I’ll never forget
it," she says. When she left Wagner with her bachelor’s degree
and R.N. in hand, her first assignment was as public health nurse
in a pocket ghetto on Long Island. It was the late 1960s. "Some
clients preferred that I use the back door. I didn’t go to anyone’s
back door. Either they let me in, or they didn’t have a nurse that
day," says Miller.
She loved the job, and it gave her the first taste of "seeing
the faces" behind the laws and policies. "I loved toting the
bag. I loved walking the streets. Just being with people — I loved
it, helping to deal and understand the complexity of folks’
She learned that just telling a patient they can’t use salt doesn’t
mean they won’t use salt unless you teach them a new way to cook.
"It becomes real when you are out on the street."
In the early ’70s she had a son, Toby, and moved to Delran, New
Now 31, Toby is an alumnus of Central State University, an
black college in Ohio, and has two children. He lives with his wife
in Indianapolis, where he is a community developer and organizer.
"He is a wonderful son," says Miller, "a young man that
I like. That was my prayer. I always wanted to like him, and I do.
I made the decision to have and raise this child and there is no
that it made me who I am. We grew up together in a lot of ways, day
She worked in south Philadelphia as a staff nurse and
did continuing education at Albert Einstein Medical Center. "This
was south Philly in its colorful days, with its active mob activities.
Many times we would have to move a patient’s bed because there was
a threat on someone’s life."
For the first time she had a chance to work with an ethnically mixed
staff. "The term now is `culturally competent.’ People paid
to who you were and dealt with you wherever you were. You had to work
with each other and the patients. It was a very rich environment."
Then she was director of staff development at Montgomery Hospital
in Norristown, and earned a master’s degree from Temple in adult and
She and her son moved to Arizona in the late 1970s, and she worked
at the Arizona State College of Nursing, moving to a hospital in
where she was second in command for nursing. "We were invited
to be as progressive and creative as we possibly could. We really
reached high and pushed hard to transform nursing. We took whatever
new idea came and said there’s no reason why we can’t try it."
"Part of my joy was to see nurses who had been practicing for
30 or 40 years change their whole idea of what it meant to be a nurse.
For many of them, it was still to be the handmaiden of the doctors.
Our initiation of several programs, including changing nurse/doctor
relationships, was very exciting, and they grasped it. Many who rarely
read the nursing journals became contributing authors to the journals
and were organizing statewide conferences. I was just thrilled to
be part of seeing folk grow."
As much as she liked Arizona, few of her cohorts were primed for
political discussions. One of those few suggested she go to the
School at Harvard. Meanwhile she was working on a Medicaid-type
in Arizona. "That triggered me to think of who was setting
So my son and I loaded the truck and hitched the car to it. I had
saved enough to get us through one year of the Kennedy School’s
in Public Administration mid-career program."
"That experience opened the world to me. I keep in touch with
classmates around the world who are in senior positions in many
countries." She stayed on for a year as a program administrator
for the mid-career program, then went to Albany to work in the Cuomo
administration on Medicaid programs.
Miller is proud of working in Massachusetts during Governor Michael
Dukakis’ run for the presidency, when he championed universal health
care. "I had the chance to put his first phase in place, and it
is still in place. I know I was responsible for the first part of
it, and people have better access because of it."
Meanwhile she earned her doctor’s degree at Boston University under
a program sponsored by the Pew Foundation with a dissertation on
disparities in cardiac care. Also in Massachusetts she met her future
husband, Calvin Davis, who has his doctor’s degree in social welfare
policy and is now an administrator at University of Medicine &
of New Jersey and a teacher at the College of New Jersey. After
as vice president for undergraduate life at Wagner College, she
a job from the Whitman administration to be Director of Medical
and Health Services. After two years she was made a deputy
overseeing more than 1,000 employees and a $5 billion budget, and
supervised welfare reform, child support, a new office on disability
services, and a new program on children’s health.
Just before she got the deputy job, she had her 50th birthday and
liked where she found herself: "When I turned 50 it was
Miller quips. "I haven’t just gotten off the turnip truck. Some
things I don’t know, and I know I don’t want to know them." She
stays centered, she says, by taking personal time for meditation.
"I try to keep balance in my life. I can escape into a really
good novel, and I enjoy movies, to go and sob my heart out is a
My personal faith grounds me; I consider myself deeply spiritual."
For exercise, she walks in Cadwalader Park.
Two years later, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation offered this job:
"While it may be premature to fully describe, it is a dream job
and it does focus on those things I value highly, the health and
wellbeing of people," says Miller.
"We think we are lucky to get Velvet to take this task on,"
says Paul Tarini of the foundation. "Her energy and enthusiasm,
combined with her professional experience make her a natural for the
Just before Velvet Miller was born, her mother saw Elizabeth Taylor
in a movie about a gutsy girl who won a famous steeplechase race,
the National. Velvet Miller has jumped a lot of hurdles in her career,
but this race could be the big one, the one that makes a major
in the health of the children of this nation. If Velvet Miller
she will live up to that film title, "National Velvet."
Also see http://www.princetoninfo.com/1999/90203f01.html for more stories on women in business.
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