Interview by Emily Shenk
CWLA author Bob Danzig went from being a foster child to the Senior Corporate Executive of the Hearst Newspaper Group. In this interview with Children's Voice, Danzig shares how a few inspiring people contributed to his success.
For our readers who are unfamiliar with your story, can you tell me about growing up in the foster care system?
I spent my whole childhood in the foster care system. My parents divorced when I was 2, and they left the upstate New York area and I went into the foster care system, and just bounced around from home to home. I only have clear memories of about five or six of those.
I was very influenced by a social worker. I was 11 years old, moving to another foster home. I'll never forget her name was Mae Morse. And the very first time she met with me and gave me the name of the family I was going to, she reached over and she took my hand, and she said to me, "I want you never to forget you are worthwhile." And her words were like warm milk to me. I'd never even thought about the fact that I had any value. Every time she met with me during that transitional year, she ended every conversation the same way, by reaching over and telling me, "Never forget you're worthwhile."
Photo by Kristin Ulfsparre
For the first time, I did not feel like driftwood. I always felt like driftwood, just going from place to place. And unfortunately, my foster home experiences were largely neutral to bleak. I don't recall any of them that lifted me up with joy, because I was always being moved to yet another place. I never made any friends in school, because I was always in a new school. So, it was a very difficult and challenging way to live.
I left the system as a young teenager; they got me a room in a house. I ended up with a job at the local newspaper in Albany, New York. It just happened that the woman who was my boss, the office manager of the circulation department at the Albany Times Union, had been a foster parent. When she found out I'd come through the system, she later told me that incented her to take an interest in me. I worked for her about five or six months, and one Saturday morning her name was Margaret Mahoney she said, "I want to see you in my office." I was scared to death I was going to get fired. I sat down, and she said to me, "I want you to know, I've been the office manager for 15 years, and I've been observing you. And I believe you are full of promise." It was a stunning moment for me, because I never thought of myself as having any possibilities. I was just looking for a job to pay my rent. But that day, she gave me permission and ambition.
Years after walking out the door as the office boy ignited by those two comments, "you are worthwhile" and "you are full of promise" I became publisher of that newspaper. And then seven years later, I went to New York and became president of all the Hearst Newspapers, and I ran the company for 20 years. Never during those 20 years did I ever have a moment when I didn't hear the echoes of those two women endorsing me. So, when people are foster parents or when people are teachers or social workers you never know how indelible an impact you're going to have with the power of your words.
How do you think growing up in foster care shaped the adult you've become?
As I reflect on it now, so many of those foster care experiences did end up being a great strength in my business life. And you'll see that my book, Conversations with Bobby, is about that. It's about the adult Bob listening to this memory of a child who shows up and sits on a park bench in New York with him The child shows up talking rather bleakly about an experience in foster care, and the adult Bob listens to him, and then says, "Let me share with you how that experience was helpful to me." That helps the child feel better about the experience. I ended up with an enormous symphony of strengths that came from the foster care system.
Why do you think you were able to take strength from your childhood in foster care?
I did not know I was taking strength from it. I think I was so buoyed by that social worker suggesting that I didn't have to be common, I didn't have to choose the low road I thought about this very often: Why did I choose the good? I think that [Morse] encouraged me to not drift into the lesser choices. I believe that's a life habit, and that one of the profound things that can be done for kids who are in the foster care system is to applaud those who are making choices against the grain of their circumstances. It's why I give my speaking fees to foster care kids in college. And I send the money to applaud their making the higher road choice, because it's harder for them. There's no family to encourage them, there's no family behind them. Where do they go for Thanksgiving vacation or Christmas vacation? They've really got to reach in extraordinary ways, just to be average. I think they need applause. And I think the whole system, including the great work done by CWLA and Children's Voice, should be about applauding those who make those higher road choices, because they're against the grain.
I'm sure you've heard of the Fostering Connections to Success Act, which passed last October. The legislation helps foster youth transition out of care, allowing states to extend care through age 21. Do you think this will give foster children opportunities they didn't have before?
I think it's vital. In my case, I was a young teenager when I left foster care. These kids come out and there's no structure there. And when you don't have a family to encourage choices and directions, and you have no structure, too many people tend to drift towards a lesser series of choices. You need an extra bridge between 18 and your early 20s. That bridge can be a support mechanism of people who encourage you toward choices that become a better life habit for you.
When you speak to social workers or foster parents, what do you tell them? How do you inspire them to make time in the child welfare system a positive experience for children?
I applaud them for doing noble-purpose work. They are the instruments that can lift people from hopelessness to hope... I am there in gratitude. I'm a product of them and what they do; I'm a product of their whole system. I've run a multibillion dollar company, I've written nine books, I'm a speaker, I've been on the boards of colleges, universities, hospitals, all kinds of charitable organizations only because someone encouraged me to make better choices.To schedule speaking engagements, visit Danzig's website at wwwbobdanzig.com. To listen to a recent interview with Danzig on CWLA's radio show, On the Line, visit www.blogtalkradio.com/CWLA-Radio.
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