My life has taken me in the direction of advocacy for people who need a louder voice. My degree was in History with a minor in Philosophy in 1972 from the University of Northern Colorado. Without a teaching degree, this combination seemed unlikely to lead to financial success, so my father wanted me to be a teacher or a nurse.
Instead, I took various employment opportunities—travel agent; department store clerk; nurses’ aide; etc., before landing in Spokane, Wash., at a Community Action Program (CAP) agency, where I worked first in Energy Assistance, then Weatherization, then Conservation Education. By that time, I was a single parent with a daughter and son in elementary school.
Advocating and educating had become my jam, as my grandchildren say. I worked for the CAP agency for seven years but was stymied by a lack of advancement opportunity. All the directors were men, all the line staff were women. I upped stakes again and went to South Dakota, to take care of my mother. My daughter had gone to school at the nearby Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, so I was close to her as well. There I found a position as a director of a self-help rural development project. I was offered and accepted a salary of $10 an hour, in 1994.
Self-Help Housing is a 502 Rural Development program in which interested families participate in the building of multiple homes in community with other families. As the Director I secured the land and helped participants secure mortgages. The houses are all in the same area, and the families worked together on one another’s homes—walls going up, roofs coming on, foundations being dug. I had a construction coordinator, who acted as trainer and supervisor for the group.
‘In 2008 I went to work for a development company, only to have that position cut due to the recession.’
In the first group we had five families. We built through blizzards and extreme heat, but nine months later five families moved into their homes. As a bonus, they knew their neighbors very well!
My next group of seven families repeated that effort. I found the land, a larger, undeveloped area that was big enough for 20-plus families, and seven families signed up. They, too, moved into their new homes. When I asked for a raise to $12 an hour, which had been offered to a new project director, I was told I didn’t have a real estate license, so, no.
My daughter had by then graduated from Gustavus, so we moved back to Spokane. I worked briefly for the Spokane Housing Authority at $8.65 an hour, and then was offered a position working for Spokane County in the Community Development Department, heading up the county’s continuum of care 10-year plan to end homelessness. Finally, I was offered a salary I could live with. I went through a debt consolidation program to pay off all my debt from the previous years.
Most, if not all, of my career moves were to progress into higher levels of responsibility and therefore more money. After 10 years at the County, in 2008 I went to work for a development company, only to have that position cut due to the recession.
I was 57, with lots of experience, but because of the countrywide recession most companies were not hiring. I’m a believer that looking for work is easier when you’re working, so I took a position as Job Developer with World Relief. I was again paid almost nothing, but I loved the staff and the clients, and I could travel the world without leaving home. I could educate and advocate.
I worked at World Relief for a year and a half before moving into an Executive Director (ED) position with two small nonprofit housing companies Both were struggling financially but had limped along sharing one ED for several years. I was supposed to see them through their respective dissolutions. My first action was to combine them into one company. Slowly I found resources and solutions to their financial deficits and continued working there for six years.
‘I regard discrimination whether for age or sex as another reason to do what I do.’
Leaving that company in able hands, I took a job in Seattle, where my grandchildren were living. It was a position with a tax credit–independent senior housing company working as a property manager. I realized I wanted to provide services to the older adults living there, not be their landlord, so I landed a job with the Community Life Foundation (CLF) as a Resident Services Coordinator.
Just prior to the pandemic I was made Director. I’ve been with CLF for five years now and plan to retire next year, but I will always be proud of what I have brought to my current position. I experienced barriers all my life from being a woman working in construction and the nonprofit world. All my work with government, housing and legal aid has found an audience of folks who need that information. The older adults I work with trust me to know and understand their issues.
I have worked all my life in fields that are often thought of as unusual for a woman—housing and construction. Only when I was laid off in 2018 did I feel my age had become a factor. Often what I felt in my career climb was a disadvantage due to being a woman. I regard discrimination whether for age or sex as another reason to do what I do.
I learned through my time as a career woman shouting for higher wages and fair working conditions to be a voice for change regardless of the outcome. A voice for people whose voice isn’t as loud as my own, yet whose issues are the same.
Careers are what we fall into, joy is what we find in that fall. I was lucky to land in the field of senior housing as a woman with more than 40 years’ experience in housing and 60 years’ experience with life. I have discovered that the residents and the company I work for need me. In the field of resident services, being an older adult and understanding housing from the basement up is the gift I bring.