Fred Faust, principal of The Edge Group, Inc., a real estate brokerage and consulting firm, shares the following essay:
This is a series about people in the Greater Lowell area who have taken initiative and achieved special things. Feel free to suggest others who should be so recognized and have interesting stories to tell.
The Lowell Community Health Center takes care of over 500 patients every day, whether they can afford health care or not. The non-profit organization includes 400 employees who speak 28 different languages, reflecting Lowell’s diverse population. The new 100,000 square foot Moses Greeley Parker building opened two years ago. It offers medical, behavioral health, and community health services to about one half of Lowell’s population every year. The new health center resides on a street that not long ago was largely known for drugs and prostitution not long ago.
Dorcas Grigg-Saito sits at a conference table in a modest office with an appropriately long view of the city. Despite her impressive resume and success, she admits to being a shy person from childhood.
SHY AND GUTSY
With a track record that includes elevating and inspiring a health care institution and entire city, how does she explain the dichotomy between shyness and obvious success? “I am a member of what we call the shy, gutsy group. I just try to focus on what needs to be done.”
Grigg-Saito is low key, with an easy smile and self-deprecating sense of humor. “You get up, come to work and plug every day,” she says. “Every day is busy. We used to have someone here who’d say, ‘just give me one dull moment.’ That sort of captures it. For 18 years I don’t think there’s been one dull moment.” Keeping busy apparently helps to keep your knees from knocking. Grigg-Saito describes that as a common experience when she was first asked to speak to groups in public.
GROWING UP IN THE SOUTH: BLACK AND WHITE
The 68-year old CEO’s upbringing is reminiscent of the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She might have played the role of Scout, learning about racism and prejudice – in this case – at the knee of her Baptist Minister father.
“I was born in North Carolina. Growing up we lived in Georgia and Louisiana too. I probably went to something like five schools before I was in seventh grade. We moved all the time. If you’re a Southern Baptist minister, whenever you’re going to make a change, a new church, new job, the phrase in our house was usually that God called me. That’s truly what he (my dad) felt. So when I was in the fourth grade, we were at breakfast and he got a telephone call and he said God had called him to go back to North Carolina. At the time, I thought that was pretty cool, that God would call him like that on the phone.”
Grigg-Saito continues. “My father was a minister but after I was about 6 years old he wasn’t a minister of a particular church. His job was to improve relationships between black and white Baptists. So I spent a lot of time in churches. When he did preach, it was usually in an African American church. When we lived in Louisiana, I was probably 10, and that was in the late 1950’s. Alexandria, Louisiana – you can imagine that it was very segregated, so when I was in junior high school and high school, I didn’t know this but my parents would have friends over who were African American. Recently, I was in North Carolina visiting a friend and she said ‘you know I never sat at the dinner table with anyone who was African American until I came to your house.’ For our family, that was the way it was.” As a result she says, “We weren’t the most popular family in town.”
Grigg-Saito remembers her father receiving death threats. Her mother, too, was strongly committed to issues of equality and fairness. “My mother and father one time in Louisiana were travelling in a rural area and they stopped at a gas station. They had pamphlets in the back of their car that had a black hand and a white hand and said ‘God, make me color blind.’ So the attendant came over to my mother and asked what the pamphlet meant and she said, ‘just what it says.’ And he glared and said, ‘if you weren’t traveling with him, I would have got my shotgun out and I would have shot him.’ That was the kind of things that were happening then.”
The experiences growing up shaped Grigg-Saito’s moral judgment and career choices.
“I told the story when I received the Girls, Inc. award in Lowell. I remember as a kid going shopping in a Sears and there was a colored water fountain, as it was called then, and a white one. I remember going over to the colored one and drinking out of it. So I guess my being conscious of these things was around that age, knowing that this was wrong.”
A VARIED RESUME
The future Health Center Director had a lot of her own stops professionally. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she was trained as a Physical Therapist. She then moved north, initially to Yale-New Haven hospital. She worked as a PT and taught English in Japan for six months. Eventually, she received a master’s from the Harvard University School of Public Health with a degree in Health Policy and Management. After working at Brookline Health Department and starting a rural health center in North Carolina, she took up Physical Therapy once again and became a childbirth educator and doula, which is a professional who provides support to an expectant mother before and just after childbirth. She raised two daughters, as well, with husband Yoshio. The couple met when she visited Tokyo. They were married several years later, in 1975. Japanese style and culture made a formative impact as well on Grigg-Saito.
“There was something about Japan that I just loved. My personality fits in very well in Japan. Quiet.” It was a great opportunity to learn what it’s like to not be the majority. That culture is so different than ours. All of that certainly had an impact on what I’ve ended up doing.”
Grigg-Saito also worked for Planned Parenthood, did legislative advocacy, and then held a position with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, assisting with refugee resettlement and health promotion. There she was fascinated and motivated by the different cultures she was working with, along with the added benefit of “a lot of good food.” She also achieved a fellowship with the National Association of Community Health Centers which brought her to the nearby Greater Lawrence Community Health Center.
THIS IS MY PLACE
Grigg-Saito was eventually offered the director’s position at Lowell Community Health Center after having accepted another job in Cambridge just weeks before. “I’d been to Lowell a lot,” she recalls. “I remember the first day that I came for an interview.” She had arrived very early and waited outside the building before meeting the board. There she witnessed some of the things that were often common to that upper Merrimack Street neighborhood at the time. She thought, she recalls, “this is my place!”
As for her interview, Grigg-Saito says, “I’m sure I thought I didn’t do very well. I had two great job choices. This one really brought it together.” What does she remember about the early days at the Health Center? She smiles again. “Well, there wasn’t much of a finance system.” She also remembers hearing stories about the former director practicing putting in the hallway. “It was a health center that was in need of some stronger infrastructure and improvement in its culture. It needed to be respectful and more welcoming.”
Developing an identity and culture was one of Grigg-Saito’s first tasks. Clients were diverse and often intimidated by institutions and authority. She was conscious of this need – again, a sea change for the health center.
“I think it came from my family life. In addition to my father’s work, with my mother, it was always that it didn’t matter how rich or poor, the color of your skin, but she was always welcoming and warm to everybody. So there’s working to understand people who are different. I went to a lot of cultural awareness and racism training and it helps you understand how you come across to other people. So I think it’s about being able to be open to others and to find out from them how you’re being received.”
At the health center, the attitude of the staff was also critical. “It starts in recruitment and interviewing; making clear what’s important. We provide a variety of cultural competence training, and if problems arise, we try to bring people together and talk about differences.”
Having experience with prejudice and given recent national issues, Grigg-Saito is asked whether she believes racism can be overcome. “Sure, I think it’s teachable,” she says without any pause. “There’s a whole spectrum from stereotyping to discrimination to racism. Part of it is exposure to others. Certainly racism is alive and becoming more obvious,” though she believes that “progress has been made.”
THE BIG INITIATIVE – A NEW HEALTH CENTER
The new health center is the product of an amazing fund raising campaign that generated some $5 million in private and public contributions for what overall was a $42 million project. Grigg-Saito gives credit to her Board, development director, and her team of committed professionals. She sums it up simply. “A lot of people who learned about our story and helped us.” She also mentions positive coverage in the Lowell Sun, which featured over 20 articles envisioning the potential of a new and improved health center for Lowell.
The new building consolidates multiple properties that were developed piecemeal over time. Rather than constructing a new building on an outlying parcel, Grigg-Saito and the Board chose to preserve and renovate a portion of the historic Hamilton Mill – located in the heart of a longstanding urban renewal district. Both the funding and construction involved monumental challenges. The resulting facility is striking in design, respectful of clients and employees, and has helped to energize the area known as the Jackson-Appleton-Middlesex (JAM) district.
The property contains the name of a prominent Lowell physician known for his national contributions as a Civil War physician and administrator. Later, Moses Greeley Parker returned to his hometown and endowed various community initiatives including the current Parker Lecture Series. A major supporter of the health center was the Parker Foundation, founded by a nephew of Dr. Parker, Theodore Edison Parker.
The health center provides family and women’s health, tackles substance abuse, offers a teen program, two school-based health centers, Southeast Asian oriented Metta Health Center, mental health services, outreach and training programs.
THOUGHTS ABOUT LIFE AND RETIREMENT
Grigg-Saito recently announced that she is retiring in May. She is not yet done, however, with the health center’s growth. Another 100,000 square foot expansion project was recently announced. The additional space will provide expanded medical and behavioral health services as well as dental and vision services and housing, increasing the space by 60%.
Asked about how she made her retirement decision, Grigg-Saito comments, “I guess the main thing that went into it is that life is short. I have a daughter, son-in-law and new grandson who are living in San Francisco. So we’ll be able to spend more time with them. Jonah got a great job offer to work for Google. That’s a piece of it. Another piece of it is that Yoshio has lived in the country for about 45 years now and we’ll be able to spend time in Tokyo and travel in the next several years.”
“Sometimes I think you’re taking a chance financially when you retire, but you’re also talking a chance if you don’t retire and you lose your ability to think or to travel. The health center has changed so much over the years. Whenever I left I wanted it to be at a time when the health center was stable and accomplished a lot and was able to move into the next chapter. We have a great board that understands the health center and really understands the community. We have a great management staff and leaders throughout the health center. In addition, we’re developing the building next door and that planning and financing should be done before I leave. So it seemed like a pretty good time for the health center to make a transition.”
When Grigg-Saito says, “Life is short,” it has a poignant meaning for her and her family.
“In 2011, our daughter, Emily, who was 28 and had suffered from depression through the years, and was amazingly bright, intelligent, funny, outgoing – a student in landscape architecture and urban planning at the University of Washington, Seattle – died by suicide. And that certainly changed our lives. So we learned a lot of things from that. In terms of depression, the thing we came to understand is that people who suffer from depression don’t see the world the way we do. Things that we might be able to incorporate into our lives, they’re not able to do. There’s a trigger. It was the depression that caused her to die.”
Grigg-Saito continues, reviewing lessons learned. “One of the things I learned after I came back to work was how many people suffer from depression. Suicide is much more common than most people think, and attempted suicide is even more common. Mental health issues and suicide are certainly not things we talk about. But they are things we need to talk about. If depression was handled the way diabetes is, as an illness, then more people would be able to manage their depression.”
Grigg-Saito has focused her grief on helping others. “One specific thing we did was to provide training for faith leaders to provide services for people who have lost someone. We brought people together to talk about the problem.” All of the 20 clerics attending found ways to talk about common issues and the health center responded as well programmatically.
“When Emily died we asked people to donate to the health center for ‘Emily’s Room.’ On the third floor we have behavioral services and it has a plaque for Emily.” Additionally, to remember her design and creative side, the health center duplicated a college design project and placed swiveling benches on the main entry bridge over one of Lowell’s most dramatic spots, the so-called Industrial Canyon.
“We thought about benches that Emily and two of her classmates had designed. We got the plans. There are three benches in Seattle at a bus stop, and our architect added more benches here that move and twirl. The idea at the bus stop is that you could twirl around and talk to a friend. You could turn to see the bus coming. So the benches on the bridge twirl. It’s great to see little kids and big kids and adults swivel and twirl around. That’s in Emily’s memory as well.”
“I think for us as a family we’ve been pretty good at appreciating every day and the beauty of life around us and the value of our friends and family. But certainly losing someone who shouldn’t have died at that age makes you realize the importance of people around you – the people you love and who love you.”
Grigg-Saito credits her health center family as “very supportive. I think one of the difficulties of leaving the health center, all those people who know me, and I knew their stories, well we all have what my brothers would call ‘cross-eyed bears.’ The alternate meaning is a ‘cross I’d bear.’ She continues. “We all have our burdens that we carry with us. I think of mothers, particularly in the Cambodian community that have lost children, young children. We have come to appreciate that we at least had Emily for 28 years. She was a loving and vibrant part of our family. You go through this would’a could’a stage. Emily knew that we were a family that shared our love for each other. Emily knew that we loved her.”
The recent birth of grandson Taiga has helped the family move forward. “It’s very special to have grandchildren.” Taiga means “Great River” in Japanese. Rivers are vital in many world cultures. Great rivers flow with life and find their own paths forward.
JUST DO IT
Dorcas Grigg-Saito is inspiring in many ways. She is a teacher, conciliator, leader and builder. Perhaps she is also a role model for those whose knees may shake just a little before meeting an audience. For Grigg-Saito, the “shy, gutsy” type, it’s just part of doing your job.
The key to doing her job, according to Grigg-Saito has been “Hard work and showing up. Developing the important partnerships,” as well, she says. “For the health center, I think as we started to develop the building, it really forced us to become more visible. We had a lot of support. We went from no donors to 1,400 donors. We were able to get to know people in Lowell who came to believe in our mission and gradually, we came to believe we could do it.”
“Just do it,” is the Nike trademark. Nike pays millions to feature athletes like Michael Jordan and LeBron James with their products. If Nike wanted to add a real life achiever, they might ink a contract with Dorcas Grigg-Saito. But then again, Nike would need to know, hers would be very large shoes to fill.