Ms. Carolyn W. Colvin
Our spotlight for the month of October, 2010 is Ms. Carolyn W. Colvin, who has held a number of senior policy positions in the human services field in the Washington/Metropolitan area, including Director, Department of Human Services here in Washington, DC; Director, Department of Health and Human Services for Montgomery County, Maryland; and Chief Executive Officer, AMERIGROUP Community Care. She also was the Deputy Commissioner for Operations at the Social Security Administration, and has been nominated by President Barack Obama to be the Deputy Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. In addition, Ms. Colvin has been a friend and mentor to numerous individuals who have made great strides in their lives because of her influence. We will talk with Ms. Colvin about her life’s journey, and what she attributes to getting her to this place in her life.
Destiny – Pride: Good afternoon, Ms. Colvin. Destiny – Pride is honored to have you as its Spotlight of the Month for the Month of October 2010. Our visitors are interested in getting to know individuals like you who have made a difference in the lives and living conditions of those who reside in this area. We would like to start by getting you to tell us about yourself – where and to whom were you born, and a little about your family background.
Ms. Colvin: Well first, let me thank you very much for this honor. It’s always nice to be able to share with others the experiences that I’ve had in the past.
I was born in Arnold, Maryland, which is about eight miles north of Annapolis. I went to elementary school in Jones Station, Maryland, and to Wiley H. Bates High School in Annapolis. My mother is Lillian Watts. She is 88 years old and I’m very pleased that I still have her with me. My father was Louis Porter, who passed quite a number of years ago. I was adopted by my mother’s husband – Roger Watts, who has also passed – when I was five years old. I have one brother – Floyd Watts – and three sisters – Genevieve Unger, Sharon Watts-Hall and Valerie Watts. Genevieve resides in Washington, DC; Sharon, on the Eastern Shore; Valerie resides in the Dominican Republic; and my brother, Floyd, resides in our family home in Arnold. I had two sons – Keith, who passed about 12 years ago; and Darrell Gough, who resides in Houston, Texas. I have six grandchildren.
Destiny – Pride: Tell us about your academic achievements.
Ms. Colvin: Well, I’ve been very fortunate. I went to Wiley H. Bates High School and there I graduated number 5 out of a class of 222. I was fortunate to be able to go to Morgan State University, where I earned an Undergraduate Degree in Business Administration, and I also earned my Masters Degree in Business from Morgan State University. I worked at the time that I was in school, so I spent about 14 years going through the evening program, and had some wonderful teachers there. I’ve taken other training: I have a certificate in State and Local Governments from Harvard University, and I’m a continuous learner.
Destiny – Pride: What in your upbringing do you attribute to helping to shape you into the person you are today?
Ms. Colvin: I would think that the greatest influence was my mother, Lillian Watts. Mom was not fortunate to go very far in school. She did not finish grade school – she was one of 14 – and as one of the oldest, she had to stop and take care of the younger siblings. We were not affluent. We didn’t have much, but I saw that mother always shared what we had with others in the neighborhood. One of the things that she taught us very early on was that we were expected to give back. I had a lot of people who helped me along the way and I think that I always wanted to be able to get into a position that would allow me to make a difference in the lives of others. I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with those who are most at risk and who are the most vulnerable in the community.
Destiny – Pride: Who are some of the individuals in your life who have had the greatest impact upon you and the choices you have made in your life?
Ms. Colvin: I had a lot of mentors. Of course, thinking back, I’d have to say my mother was my greatest influence, but also my church members. I’m very spiritual, and that has helped me to sustain myself through many trials and tribulations. All of my teachers were instrumental, including Rosabel Landers. I attended a two-room school where we had grades one, two and three in one room and fourth, fifth and sixth in the other room. Unfortunately, at that time we were dealing with segregation; so I attended a segregated high school. But we had been taught very early on that we could not be just “good,” we had to be “the best.” Rosabel Landers – my principal – was a great influence in my life. She has since passed. I don’t want to single out any professor because they all were just outstanding educators who believed in pushing you as far as you could go.
As I think about my career, the person that probably gave me the opportunity to make a difference early on was Charles Noon, who was in charge of Housing for the City of Baltimore. He propelled my career; giving me many opportunities to work in areas that I enjoyed.
The person who had the single greatest impact on my career was Governor William Donald Schaefer. He is a great humanitarian. He was a very compassionate elected official who always put the people first. He wanted to be certain that we were helping those most in need.
Destiny – Pride: A lot of your employment history seems to have been in the public service area. Was that an intended goal, or was it purely coincidental?
Ms. Colvin: It was always my intention to work in public service because I believed that working in the government would afford me the greatest opportunity to make policies that would have the greatest impact on the largest majority of people. Having come from a very economically poor background, I realized that it was important to ensure the services were available to those individuals who were vulnerable and most at risk. I had seen how some people were treated by organizations because of their needs and status, and I had made a commitment that if I’d ever had the opportunity to get into a situation where I could change that and make a difference, I would. So I was particularly interested in working with families with young children, single parents, the homeless, and individuals who had housing needs, and government afforded me that opportunity.
Destiny – Pride: Were you a single parent?
Ms. Colvin: I was a single parent. I raised two sons while holding down a fulltime job, two part-time jobs and going to school at night [laughter]. I believed that it was important to allow my sons to have lives that were better than mine. One of the interesting things is that I never realized that we were poor. We were really rich in spirit in our home. But, as a single parent, I knew some of the struggles that many of the individuals that I later had the opportunity to assist had experienced.
Destiny – Pride: As I’ve mentioned in the beginning, you have had a long and illustrious career. Let’s spend some time talking about some of the positions you’ve held and the responsibilities they entailed, beginning with your position as Secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, a rather large agency.
Ms. Colvin: That was a wonderful experience! I have to thank Governor Schaefer for giving me that opportunity. Now, that was not a position I had planned for. I had gone there as the Deputy in that Department, and the Secretary left unexpectedly. The Governor gave me the opportunity to act in that capacity for about three months and, based on my performance, he later gave me the permanent position. We had a lot of challenges there. I was concerned about the welfare system really being an enabler, causing individuals to become dependent on the system. One of the things I did was to introduce a primary prevention initiative that required individuals who were receiving welfare benefits to go to school or work; to ensure that their children were in school; and to get enrolled in medical care, etc. It was very controversial to begin with, but as it moved forward, it was found that it really helped individuals do better. This program was the first in the country to tie the receipt of cash benefits to preventive health care and education. It was implemented well before President Clinton’s welfare reform legislation. We also implemented an electronic benefits transfer system throughout the state for all welfare clients that issued food stamps, cash assistance and child support payments electronically.
Destiny – Pride: When you said that you initially went there to be Deputy, what transpired in your mind, now that they wanted you to head the entire agency for the State of Maryland?
Ms. Colvin: Well, as Deputy, you really are in charge of the day-to-day operations, but you’ve got to get someone to sanction the decisions that you make; so really, in moving to the number one spot as the Secretary simply meant that I had the ability to determine what needed to be done and make sure that it was in fact done. The Governor had full confidence in my decision-making abilities and gave me full range to be able to do what I needed to do. When he placed me there, he said he wanted someone who knew the numbers, knew the finances, but who also would be humanitarian and ensure that the needs of the citizens would be met; and that’s what we were able to do.
Destiny – Pride: From there, and before coming to DC’s Department of Human Services, you were Deputy Commissioner for Operations of the Social Security Administration. What were your responsibilities there?
Ms. Colvin: This was an appointment within the Clinton Administration. I was initially hired to be the Deputy for Programs and Policy and External Affairs. I was responsible for the policy development process for the retirement and disability program, as well as the SSI [Supplemental Security Income] program. I was also responsible for ensuring that the public understood what social security and the disability program were all about. In addition, I was responsible for the Office of Hearing and Appeals and ensuring that appeals were done correctly and timely. After serving in that capacity for a few years, I was then asked to become the Deputy for Operations. As the Deputy for Operations, I was responsible for all of the Social Security offices throughout the country and abroad, and of course our primary business was ensuring that we processed all of the retirement applications in an accurate and timely manner. I was also responsible for our 800 number service.
Destiny – Pride: Did you have any outstanding accomplishments you felt you left there?
Ms. Colvin: I’ve tried to be an effective manager at all of my jobs. One of the things that I found was that many of the individuals were “risk averse” – they were afraid to take chances – and I think that I created a climate there where they recognized that they could in fact try more innovative and creative things. We had offices and jurisdictions where the workload was very light, and other jurisdictions where the workload was very heavy, and we began, through electronics, to be able to transfer those workloads among jurisdictions, which was very exciting. We had started to do the electronic processing of applications, which I understand is going full force now. We had begun to use the internet for our operations, and we had also implemented a major transition of the 800 number from MCI to AT&T. Those were some of the exciting things that I was involved in when I was there.
Destiny – Pride: What were some of the challenges that confronted you?
Ms. Colvin: The tremendous workload. Social Security probably touches the lives of almost every American, whether it’s a retiree, survivor or someone who needs disability coverage, so just trying to keep pace with the workload. Also, technology was frightening to some of the more senior workers and trying to help them feel comfortable with the changes that were going to be occurring I think was probably among the greatest of the challenges. But they embraced my leadership, and it was an exciting experience.
A significant challenge was reengineering the disability process in order to reduce significant backlogs. Program integrity issues and overpayment issues were also challenging.
Destiny – Pride: In 2001, you were named by Mayor Anthony Williams as the Director of the Department of Human Services for the District of Columbia. In what condition was the Department at that time, and what improvements were you able to accomplish before leaving?
Ms. Colvin: The Department had major funding challenges and staffing needs. A number of our programs were under oversight of the court. The most challenging was the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disability program. My commitment to Mayor Williams was to prevent that program from going into receivership, which we did. I think that we were able to really bring the community onboard in helping to support the Department. We had a really wonderful outreach program and we tried to educate the community about the services that were available. Again, it was the homeless. We initiated a program that prevented individuals from dying on the streets as a result of hypothermia. That program is still in existence today, so that was a very exciting one.
We improved the shelters. We made many improvements in the actual facilities that were used to house those individuals. We opened a new Youth Services Center in Northeast, DC. We initiated the Strong Families program.
Destiny – Pride: There was also a program where the Department was working more collaboratively with Management and Labor. Would you expound on that?
Ms. Colvin: That was really one of our great successes. I think that we were able to demonstrate that even though Management and Labor had different perspectives, that we all had common goals and that if we were really going to be effective, we had to get Labor involved so that they had some input in decisions that were going to affect their workers. And that’s one of the areas that I’ve been successful in, both in the District and as well in Montgomery County – and also at the Social Security, because I think I’ve tried to demonstrate that if we have an effective partnership with Labor, than we’re going to be able to do a lot more. They’re going to help us to get the employees to embrace change, and change is inevitably going to happen.
Before we leave this topic, Rufus [Rufus Mayfield, President, Destiny – Pride, Inc.], I must say that it was such a pleasure to have you on the team. We could not have made such significant progress without your contributions. I was not familiar with the Washington, DC communities, but you certainly were. I was impressed by the admiration and respect you commanded as you moved throughout the city to introduce me to the community, religious, and business leaders. So many of the residents seemed to know you personally, and you were fully aware of their needs and concerns. That made a tremendous difference in how quickly we were able to address their issues. Thank you for all that you did to help me get the job done.
Destiny – Pride: Carolyn, I am very humbled by your kind words and observations, and would be remiss if I did not say that my tasks were made easy because I saw your sincere commitment to provide efficient and effective social services to some of the most disenfranchised residents in the District of Columbia. The long hours you and the team you brought with you spent towards that end were exemplary to the goal of making DHS one of the District’s top governmental agencies. I grew tremendously under your leadership and supervision and will be forever grateful for that. You began as my supervisor. You left as my eternal friend, and for that, I thank you.
After leaving DC, you held positions with the Montgomery County, Maryland’s Department of Health and Human Services and later with AMERIGROUP Community Care. Briefly describe your work with these two entities.
Ms. Colvin: The Department of Human Services was a mega-department. We had about four or more departments that had been merged into one: Health, Mental Health, Substance Abuse, Child Welfare, etc.; so it was a very, very large organization. It was also a very diverse community, and so there were a lot of cultural differences that staff had to become familiar with. There was a great focus on diversification. We also found that, although four or five agencies had merged, they had kept their own identities. I spent a great deal of time trying to integrate those five agencies into one Department to make it more effective. I think we had a lot of success there.
AMERIGROUP was my first foray into the private sector. I was asked to join them because of my work with the Medicaid population. AMERIGROUP manages the health services of individuals who are covered under Medicaid. I served there for a year as a CEO. My responsibility was to ensure that individuals were receiving cost-effective service, quality service. One of the things that we did was to try to ensure that families were not using the emergency room as their first step of care. Many individuals did not have primary care physicians, and we made certain that that was corrected. We also wanted to ensure that women got into care during their first trimester of pregnancy and did not wait until later when there could be complications that had not been identified. So that was an exciting opportunity also.
Destiny – Pride: You are now waiting to go through the confirmation process of your nomination by President Barack Obama, our first African American President, as Deputy Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. What was it like to get that call and what will be the responsibilities of fulfilling that honor?
Ms. Colvin: Well it was certainly an honor and a privilege. It was something that I had not sought and I was stunned and humbled to receive a call. It was back in April of ’09. As the Deputy for the Administration, this would be the number two position. It would be the highest appointment that the President would be making to that particular agency, so I expect to be a full partner with the Commissioner, who was appointed by President Bush. I’ve been waiting for the confirmation hearing and am hopeful that something will be determined soon. But again, I would share the responsibility for the 65,000 plus individuals to ensure that we effectively managed the increasing caseloads; that we continue to look at ways to use technology to improve our processes; that we can shorten the time that it takes for disability applications to be processed; and, of course it is most important that we maintain program integrity – that we be attentive to fraud and abuse; that we be attentive to ensuring that people who are no longer disabled are no longer on the rolls, or people who no longer qualify for SSI because their income has increased, would not be receiving benefits. And it would also involve my having to work with the White House and Congress who, of course, make policy which the Agency then implements.
Destiny – Pride: Most of your life’s journey has been in the human capital area, including your involvement with agencies for which you have been responsible. What is your overall take on the family and where they are in today’s time?
Ms. Colvin: I’m concerned about where our families are. I see this generation as one we could perhaps lose. I look at the increasing number of children who are reared by very young parents who really have not reached full maturity themselves. Poverty is increasing among our families, so I’ve become very concerned. I have worked in every area – I’ve worked in education, housing, health, mental health, human services – and I’m very disturbed that many of the problems that we were grappling with when I started back in ’69 or early on are the same problems we are still dealing with. We are losing too many of our youth to violence, whether by suicide or whether they are victims of violence from others.
We are still seeing an increase in addiction among our youth, and our youth are our future. I think that unless the schools and communities are able to work more closely together, we’re going to lose these young people. I believe that, because parents are holding down two or three jobs just to keep food on the table, many of them don’t have health benefits, and they don’t really have time to be attentive to the needs of their children. And, unfortunately, we are still a country where parenting is not taught. You go to school for everything else, but you don’t learn how to be a parent, and that’s probably one of the most important things to learn. I’d like to see more organizations that focus on parenting skills and mentoring for youth – to really give them an opportunity to be able to have good productive lives.
Destiny – Pride: Okay. Someone interviewed me some time ago and made me an “Unlimited Monarch.” I’m going to bestow upon you that title – Unlimited Monarch. Now you are in charge. What would be one, two, or three things that you would tackle of the surmounting problems in our City?
Ms. Colvin: We’ve sort of touched upon it. I think that we’ve got to figure out how to help parents be better parents. We need to ensure that our children have good, sound education. I’m appalled by the number of children who graduate, and they still don’t have the skills they need to obtain a good job.
No one in this country should have to worry about whether or not they are going to be able to afford healthcare. Now, I know that the President has just passed the healthcare bill, but there are still many individuals who are not going to be able to afford healthcare. So that’s a critical area, because if you have to worry about what you’re going to eat, where you’re going to sleep and whether or not you’re going to have healthcare, you are not going to be able to be productive at school and you certainly are not going to be productive on the job.
I think we’ve got to re-evaluate how we are delivering these services, and we need to talk more to the people who are receiving the services. I’ve always said that we need to plan “with” the people to whom we deliver services, as opposed to planning “for” them, and I don’t see enough of that.
Destiny – Pride: What about the black male?
Ms. Colvin: Well, Rufus, that’s a challenge, and I don’t know that I have the answer for that. Many of our programs force the black male from the home. If you look at our funding for TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families], of course you do have some men, but it’s primarily for the single female. If you look at our child support system, we don’t make a distinction between fathers who are not giving support because they don’t have jobs, and they don’t have the money versus fathers who just are not willing to provide support but who do have the financial wherewithal.
I think the justice system is not fair to the black male. If you have a young white male and a young black male who commit the same crime, my experience has been that the young black male is going to be the one who receives the stiffer penalty. So I think that there’s a lot of work to be done as to addressing the young male, and I don’t see too many programs that are focused primarily on the young male – black or white – and I think we need to address that. I believe that the Fatherhood Initiative is a good beginning. You will recall that the program is designed to provide services to fathers to help them improve their lives, their economic situation, and ultimately strengthen their relationships with their children.
Destiny – Pride: You are now, and have in the past been, a mentor to numerous individuals, and many of them have progressed in their endeavors as a result of your involvement with them. What do you believe that you do that provides such positive reinforcements in people’s lives?
Ms. Colvin: I try to help people see their strengths, and build upon them. Many of the people I work with really have the capacity to do great things, but they need someone who believes in them. I also try to help them become good decision-makers, so that when I’m mentoring someone, I don’t tell them what they should do, but I help them to identify options and then to look at what option works best for them. I try to help them to do a self-assessment so that they can see where their strengths are, and build upon them; and I help them to identify any deficits that they need to improve upon. I coach them on the importance of continuous learning. One of the things that I ask is that they help someone else – that if I mentor them, then in exchange I would like to see that they would mentor. Many of the people that I’ve worked with have gone on to be leaders in the government sector, so I’m very pleased about that.
Destiny – Pride: You earlier talked briefly about your faith and you indicated that you are really driven by your faith. What denomination are you and what do you mean by “driven by your faith?
Ms. Colvin: Well, I grew up in the United Methodist Church. My church is Mount Calvary United Methodist in Arnold, Maryland. It’s a very small, country church. I was christened there. I sang on the choir there and I’ve served on the Board of Trustees. I’ve served on many committees and I’ve played various roles in the church. Through teachings that I learned and through reading the Bible, I’ve learned that you can do just almost anything you want to do if you keep God as the center of your life. He teaches that we should give back and that we should give Him a portion of what we earn. I’ve tried to do that throughout my life. I’ve been fortunate to have good positions, and I’ve used them as opportunities to help others in the family and others in my community who are less fortunate than I am, and it has worked well for me.
I’ve been blessed in so many ways and so many times. When I’m struggling with a decision and I’ve done the best I can, then I turn it over to God because I know that He will help me make the right decision. Even now when people ask me why am I still working, I will say “because God hasn’t finished with me yet; there is something left for me to do,” and I’ll know when I’ve done all that I can do. And when I have a tough issue, I turn it over to Him and He always finds a solution – or he always gives me the solution that’s there for me. What I’ve learned is that everything that we ask for is not good for us and I think that He makes the decisions about what we really need; and it’s not always what we want. So I’ve had a good life in that respect.
Destiny – Pride: Please give any last and final thoughts that you would like to leave with our visitors.
Ms. Colvin: I guess I would say in ending that we all need to be involved. Each of us is part of a greater community and the only way that we can make this a better world is for us all to be involved. My greatest disappointment is the lack of involvement I see in the political process. I know that there are a lot of issues out there, but the one thing in this country that makes us all equal is our vote. Regardless of affluence or status, it remains one person, one vote. I wish that we could get more of the citizens of the country to recognize that they need to be a part of this electoral process, and I believe that if we don’t become involved, then we don’t have the right to sit back and complain.
Destiny – Pride: Ms. Colvin, we at Destiny – Pride thank you for taking the time to share with us your life’s journey and insights. We wish you continued success in all your future endeavors and we look forward to the confirmation of you as the Deputy Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Thank you.
Ms. Colvin: Thank you.