Miller’s Base: Nursing Training

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Funds

MIller’s Childhood

Wagner College

Albert Einstein Medical Center

Arizona State

Harvard’s Kennedy School

Boston University: Pew Foundation

Corrections or additions?

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."

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Miller’s Base: Nursing Training

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

of you."

"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


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Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Funds

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

will be.

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."

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MIller’s Childhood

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."

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Wagner College

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

by day."

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Albert Einstein Medical Center

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

continuing education.

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Arizona State

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."

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Harvard’s Kennedy School

"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."

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Boston University: Pew Foundation

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."

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