July 20, 2019
 
Experience, Consulting Expertise Help Julia Burgess Stay on Track

Julia Burgess: I know crises will pass.
I’m a child of the '60s. My family raised me to look after others, to be responsible for the community and fight for those who might be disadvantaged.

I became executive director through a process of alternating between direct community work and providing technical assistance in organizational development to many kinds of organizations.

After the University of Michigan, where I got my BA and MSW degrees, I became interested in community organizing. For 14 years I worked off and on for the Center For Community Change in Washington, which provided technical assistance to local organizations working for social change.

From 1984 through 1993, I was executive director of Demicco Youth Services in Chicago, a child welfare agency in the Cabrini-Green public housing development. We worked with young people, organizing, keeping kids out of trouble, finding things for them to do.

I then returned to the Center For Community Change as its eastern regional director, developing programs that use a participatory evaluation approach which could be replicated elsewhere. By this time, my kids were grown and I started to move out of youth work. I joined the Alliance for Healthy Homes, directing a project to bridge the gap between science and communities at risk for lead poisoning, asthma, related indoor health hazards.

When the Alliance was looking to merge with another organization, I began thinking of moving to Martha’s Vineyard. My parents had lived there in retirement and left their home to me. I applied for the position of executive director at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services and was offered the position.

I love the Vineyard. Many people think of it as a place for wealthy people in the summer, but people live here all year round, and Dukes County, which includes the Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands, is the second poorest county in the state. The economy is based on tourism and real estate construction. With construction grinding to a halt, demand for our services has steadily climbed.

We’re the safety net organization for the island, providing services for mental health and substance abuse, medication management, crisis intervention, a day center for people with mental illness, support services for families with disabled members, an early childhood day program, and help for 800 families. We’re the third largest employer on the island, after Martha's Vineyard Hospital and the school system.

Because we’re outside the target area of many foundations, we really depend on and are grateful to seasonal residents. Our Possible Dreams auction every summer is a major source of funds and has raised as much as $800,000 in an evening.

I probably now have best the staff I’ve ever worked with. Because it’s an island and isolated, we depend on each other and tend to support each other. I’m a firm believer in team building and facilitating other people’s leadership. I know the buck stops here, but I try to make sure no major decisions are made without input from all parties. I try to be open and transparent as much as possible regarding policies, procedures, and decisions. I have a good board which brings a lot of expertise.

With the state restructuring and downsizing, it makes it hard to budget: we experience cuts, which may be restored only to be cut again. It means we have to keep reorganizing. I know that crises happen, and because I know they will pass I don’t become panic stricken.

As told to Peter Lowy, December 2009.

Learn more about Martha’s Vineyard Community Services by clicking here.

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