Julia Burgess's career in social service leadership brings her to Martha's Vineyard Community Services as its director
Julia Burgess's father, the Right Rev. John Melville Burgess, cast a long shadow. He made history as the first African-American Bishop of the American Episcopal Church; he served as a canon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., using the pulpit often to speak out on civil rights issues; he taught and served as interim dean at Yale University's Berkeley Divinity School, and a stained-glass window at Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven honors his memory.
It was partly to put a distance between herself and the Washington-Boston orbit in which she was always known as the bishop's daughter that the young Ms. Burgess entered the University of Michigan's undergraduate class of 1968 and stayed on for her master's degree in social work. An accomplished career in community activism followed, mainly in Chicago and in Washington, D.C.
Julia Burgess is Community Services' new executive director. Photo By Nis Kildegaard
But in February Ms. Burgess came full circle, returning to the Island that she calls "the one place I can consider as a steady place in my life," beginning a new tenure as executive director of Martha's Vineyard Community Services Inc. For at least a while now, she will be known again to many as the bishop's daughter: Her parents, Bishop Burgess, and his wife, Esther, were Tisbury residents and longtime parishioners at Grace Church. They died within a year of each other, he in August 2003, she the next June.
Her career in social work and administration took Julia Burgess away from her parents geographically, but not so far in a deeper sense. "We were brought up to feel responsible to the community," she said. "Money wasn't the main issue - it was okay to make money, but in such a way that other people were advantaged, too. The whole idea of social change and institutional change was important in my family, too."
A good fit
Ms. Burgess was working last year as director of the Community Environmental Health Resource Center, a program of the Alliance for Healthy Homes in Washington, D.C. "That organization was looking toward a merger with another organization," she explained in a Tuesday interview in her new office, "and so, not knowing whether the mission was going to change and whether there would be cuts after the merger, a lot of people were hedging their bets. I didn't tell my family, but I sent my resumé out to a couple of places. And on the spur of the moment at 11 o'clock one night, I saw this job opening, and I sent a resumé here."
The job sounded like a good fit with her career of leadership in social service programs and her focus on facilitating healthy institutional change. Ms. Burgess knew the Island, having visited summers since her grade-school years, when her family first came to visit the Vineyard Haven family of Francis W. Sayre Jr., then her father's colleague as Dean of the National Cathedral. And she had another important advantage as a job applicant: "I already owned a house, because my parents had recently passed away. One reason why I applied up here was that I had already planned to move here after I retired."
Months passed with no contact from the Island. "Then the search consultant called me in October," Ms. Burgess recalled, "and asked if I was still interested. I found out that they had hired someone else who hadn't come because of the cost of living here."
Interviews ensued, and Ms. Burgess took time to do some research of her own on her prospective new job. She studied the Community Services web site, and discovered that one of its agencies, the Visiting Nurse Service, had helped care for her father during his final illness. She read about the Possible Dreams Auction, and realized that many years ago, before that event was the extravaganza it is today, her parents had donated dinners to the auction.
Change and Challenges
As she asked around, that's not all she discovered.
"I did find out that the agency has gone through some challenges over the last several years," Ms. Burgess said. "My reaction to that is that organizations do go through change - not-for-profits are always experiencing that. And it couldn't be anything as bad as some of what I've already been through."
What Ms. Burgess has already been through includes a turbulent 10 years as executive director of Demicco Youth Services, Inc., a community-based child welfare agency serving the Cabrini Green housing projects in Chicago, Ill. That tenure spanned what she now refers to simply as "the epidemic" - the wave of crack cocaine use that hit the city in the middle 1980s.
At Community Services, the epicenter of difficulties in recent years has been the Island Counseling Center, which saw massive personnel losses during a traumatic two-year battle over unionization. But Ms. Burgess has a positive take on the present situation, and prefers to look forward. "I certainly know that over the last few years, things have been very difficult here," she acknowledged. "But I have found that people seem to be optimistic now." The Island Counseling Center has hired two new people, she said, which means its waiting list is down to nothing for most clients.
"I've been here for six weeks now, and people can't put on a show for me for six weeks. And actually, people seem extremely upbeat."
Asked flatly if she sees a morale problem among the staff at Community Services, Ms. Burgess paused before responding. "That's a relative term," she finally said. "The vision I have is not of people walking around in the dumps, fighting among themselves. People seem to be moving forward and trying to do the best job they can."
That, Ms. Burgess said, doesn't mean she sees no need for change. She noted that during the interim between directors, Susan Wasserman, chairman of the Community Services board, had already begun to implement a more transparent management style. "I'm trying to build upon that," she said, "and make sure that staff at all levels are much more involved in decision-making here. I think the style had gotten to be a little defensive and closed in."
The simple fact, Ms. Burgess said, is that agencies like Community Services are under stress all across the United States, for a fundamental reason: They're stretched to their financial limits.
Under the umbrella of Community Services are five essential helping agencies: the Island Counseling Center, Women's Support Services, the Visiting Nurse Service, Early Childhood Programs and Disability Services (formerly called Island Community Resources). Together, Ms. Burgess said, these make up a $5 million enterprise on Martha's Vineyard, involving the work of more than 100 people.
"None of our agencies," she said, "can pay for itself.
"I know some people think that because we have the Possible Dreams Auction every year, we should be rolling in money. But what we're doing with that money is paying for uncompensated care, for areas that the government is not paying for."
Ms. Burgess framed the problem bluntly: "Today, government doesn't even pretend to pay the real cost of these human services. And the part that makes it galling is that some of these are mandated services.
"These human transactions are what we, as a society, pay the least for. When you look at workers in nursing homes, what we pay for day care workers - we say that our children are our most precious asset, but we don't want to pay the people who take care of them all day."
Care and Caregivers
The administrators of every caring agency face the challenge of serving a community with a limited pool of dollars. "At any not-for-profit," Ms. Burgess dryly observed, "you're always at the edge, financially." Dial up your wages and benefits, and you've got a happy staff - probably too small to meet the need. Skimp on wages and you might be able to enlarge the ranks of caregivers, but at the risk of burnout and turnover.
Ms. Burgess sees this challenge from two perspectives, one of day-to-day management and another that's more philosophical.
"From the day-to-day perspective," she said, "everybody in this business recognizes that you're not going to be able to pay your staff like kings and queens. I do believe in paying people the best you possibly can. That's the day-to-day, and it's a crisis all the time in a not-for-profit. But you can ward the major crises off, so you don't end up with the situation that happened here - such a huge change over such a short period of time."
Speaking more abstractly, she continued: "I don't think this organization by itself can solve this. You're really talking about a partnership between the organization, and government, and the community that needs to pay taxes to get services. These are systemic problems."
For Julia Burgess, the first priority this spring is to keep on learning about her new job and the community she now serves. "The two biggest learning curves for me," she said, "have been getting to know the people, and learning our billing system in health and counseling - it's just horrible. Our whole national health care system, up and down the line, is amazingly inefficient - so much of it goes into paperwork and administration."
Looking ahead, she has a recipe for moving Community Services forward, and it's simple: "People need to be involved in change at all levels of the organization, and to have some control over how it operates. People should be free to give their input, and it's important not to let the dialogue just hang. I think sometimes we let people talk a lot and never do anything about it - government agencies have gotten really good at doing that. But you need to go back to people and show how you do follow through, so people don't feel they're just talking to thin air.
"I'm trying to make sure that this organization that has gone through some turmoil can move forward aggressively, to let the community know the kinds of services we offer, the quality of our services, and draw more people in and make sure we're the best that we can be for the Island."