In the beginning
“I love being in the heart of things.”
Carolyn Cassin is in her new office. The CEO of Michigan Women Forward, formerly the Michigan Women’s Foundation, recently made the decision to move the nonprofit to the outskirts of downtown when the rents recently doubled in the heart of the city. “We live off donations. It’s not the right thing to do to use other people’s money to rent nice office space.”
She’s quick to point out her gratitude for the building she now inhabits—”it has all the amenities.” And it does. It’s clean and spacious with an atrium filled with healthy trees, overlooking a green campus with picnic tables for breaks. In truth, she’s in the center of things—if not in the center of Detroit. But it’s the proximity to action that she misses. Being able to walk to lunch or take a stroll through a downtown park. City life.
A farm girl by birth, Cassin grew up in rural Ohio and fell in love with cities at an early age thanks to her parents’ sustained love for theirs. “My father was from Chicago, so we went back and forth on the train or drove. I grew to really love cities, I was always trying to get to the heart of them.”
The first thing you notice when you enter her corner office is the spectacular view of downtown. The second thing is that her desk faces the wall. “I’d get distracted staring out the window all day.” It’s a paradox that has me almost taking the executive seat. She doesn’t seem to mind.
Cassin prepares coffee from the small maker she keeps in the corner. It’s an act of humility that will be reinforced throughout our time together. For some people cities represent prosperity, a place to see and be seen, but for Cassin cities represent people—and the energy that emanates from groups of them.
As testament to this fact, she has devoted her life to fighting for the rights of others.
The Formative Years
Cassin stayed in Ohio for undergraduate studies and left for Washington D.C. to study Public Policy as soon as she had the opportunity and no longer depended on her parents for money.
“I’m a child of the 60’s. A child of ‘we can stop the war in Vietnam. The women’s movement will revolutionize the world. We need to fix the racial inequities in this country.’ That’s who I am.’
I had parents who were very encouraging of that and made sure that I tried to live up to those values. Those were their values even though we lived in a small town. My mother especially, was embracing of those things.”
Cassin took those values and a desire to change the world and focused them towards government, eventually landing a job with the United States Senate.
“I thought that you could change the world best through public policy.” Observing me as one of the current younger generation she adds, “I know it may be hard for someone of your age to understand, because now I would not say that. If I were your age I would not look at government today and say it has any kind of answers. Then, I thought rational people can figure out what is the best way for our society to end endemic problems—racism, sexism, violence. I thought government was going to solve these problems.”
Out of Government
“I met a guy. Moved to Detroit. It was great. I never looked back.”
Sounds like a simple story until you realize that what unfolds next are a series of events that transform the way we view death and dying in the U.S.
Towards the end of her time in D.C., Cassin became disillusioned with government work. She was “young and impatient” and hungry for a “faster paced change.” When a healthcare position opened-up, she searched for her niche within it. To use a phrase that would become her life’s mantra, she was “Looking for things that are wrong to right.”
While she was still in high school her father suddenly died, and it was something she was still trying to navigate. “Death was mysterious. I couldn’t figure out why this had happened, and what this was supposed to do for me.” Hospice provided a way for her confront her own history while advocating for a marginalized group, those dying.
“I knew this was something I needed to be involved in. Changing the way people died in America. Changing the way Americans experienced death. Which was like ‘it doesn’t happen here.’
There’s an old saying, from my early days in hospice, that Americans are the only people who think death is an option. That’s the beauty of America. It’s our optimism beyond all rationality—we believe we can save the world. And that strain is a strength of ours. But, when it comes to death and dying everyone dies. No one’s figured it out. What I found, in my personal experience, is that grief was not an acceptable emotion. You can grieve for about a day, a week, an hour—but after that, get over it. Go back to school, in my case when I was in high school I needed to reengage to end my grieving. ‘Your dad was here. Now he’s not here.’”
The hospice movement was borne in the 60’s reaching the public with Elizabeth Kübler Ross’s book On Death and Dying. Yet, it remained something of a fringe topic until the 1980’s when Cassin’s generation took the idea to the next level.
“The timing for me was everything. I thought I can fix this. Hospice was the solution to this problem. Here was an interdisciplinary team that stressed that death was not just medical, it’s also about the spiritual part of someone, it’s about psychological care for those around them—how are you going to live your life after this person has gone? And how can you provide great physical care so that dying is not a painful and excruciating process?
I looked at my background in public policy and said “We have a solution. Now let’s get the government to pay for it.”
The success of her work is that hospice today is something most of us take for granted.
“All healthcare has its patient at the center. I know this may be hard for young people to understand, but it used to be that we went to the doctor and he or she told you what to do—and you did it. Now, we talk to each other. And explain treatment options. But that was not the case before.”
Changing the System
Back in Michigan, a Kellogg Fellowship launched her career.
Cassin and her colleagues took the hospice movement to Congress and State legislatures across the country. She used her background in public policy to sell her ideas to government—to embed end of life care into Medicare/Medicaid and the insurance system.
“What started out as an interesting conceptual idea is now embedded in the American culture. Everyone demands good palliative care, good hospice care at the end of life. And about 80% of all Americans get hospice now.”
The path to success would prove a long journey that would take Cassin across the country, built on many small struggles, both professional and personal—including the death of her child at four days old.
“I realized there was something terribly screwed up about this system when the answer to that was ‘go have another child.’ That’s not very comforting, and, frankly, it’s also an evil thing to say this life didn’t matter. For me, it represented how we can treat others in this country. How we accept racism, sexism.”
What I learn from Cassin is that how we treat people at death is reflective of how we treat them in life. Which is to say that when you fight for the right for everyone to have the space to die and grieve with peace and dignity, you are fighting for a world where everyone lives with peace and dignity.
After the Kellogg Fellowship, Casin followed her husband to Detroit for a forensic pathology residence. She started working for a small hospice center, quickly becoming its CEO.
“It was an incredible experience. This community embraced hospice in a way that was just magical. The community, volunteers, patients and families embraced it. We started the first Detroit based, urban hospice care in America where we decided that we were going to care for everyone who had a terminal illness.
Hospice, when it started out, was pretty suburban and for the enlightened. Poor people didn’t flock to hospice—’Oh, good. I’m dying!’ Self-actualized people can put this in context, but poor people were struggling to get by. My board challenged me. They said, ‘If you care about this community, you have to care about Detroit as much as the suburbs.” And I said “I’m in.’
We cared for every dying patient no matter where they lived, no matter what their socio-economic status.”
Taking it Public
Her work in Detroit lead to the creation of a statewide hospice network. Eventually, a group of venture capitalists caught wind of her success and invited her to join forces on a concept that would grant everybody access to hospice—”Not just people who were self-actualized and wanted it.”
The company they created was called Vista Care, and it took Cassin to New Mexico, Texas, Georgia. She was opening hospices in places she never imagined working while actualizing her dream of having a NYC flat. Homebase, however, remained in Michigan along with her gratitude.
“I didn’t learn too many new things during that experience traveling around the country. Upon reflection, I implemented what I learned here in Detroit. What I learned in Alpena, Michigan. Those were the years when I was really learning. What I did after was spread the gospel.”
Vista Care grew to be an almost billion-dollar company, having bought and started 48 different hospices before it was sold.
According to Cassin, there are now over 130 hospices throughout Michigan.
Bringing it Back
“I see my journey here as this rabid desire to upend the generational bias against women, of not giving women their fair stake they deserve, that all human beings deserve.”
Cassin has been the CEO of Michigan Women Forward for the last eight years. Depending on how you break down the history, it’s a third career—”30 years from now, I promise I will be done.”
Her timeframe is the day “When your daughters won’t have to wonder if they’ll be paid less for being a woman.”
The Michigan Women Forward Foundation was founded in 1986 as “The only public, statewide foundation specifically devoted to the economic self-sufficiency and personal well-being of the state’s women and girls.”
Like healthcare, it’s a wide net to cast and their work is diverse, ranging from education programming for youth and adult entrepreneurs to micro-loan and grant programs. Cassin brings years of experience and honing-in on, “looking for things that are wrong to right.”
Enough SAID, a partnership between the Foundation, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office and the Detroit Crime Commission, helped bring justice to sexual assault victims by raising money to test rape kits that were collecting dust in a DPD Storage Facility for 30 years —“If that’s all the work we did, it would have been worth our effort. That was a campaign that drew attention to the crimes against women that went unnoticed and could be shoved to the back of a storage cabinet.”
For Cassin, the work is never done.
She has devoted much of her time and energy to ramping up the Foundation’s financial offerings with the establishment of Power of 100 Women, a micro-loan program supporting female entrepreneurs, as well as Belle Capital, a venture fund that connects women businesses and investors, the latter being something of her baby.
Its point of uniqueness being that it goes beyond investing in women to cultivating a force of women investors, creating a parallel universe for women—including those who’ve been left out of the larger universe and those who simply didn’t care for it.
“It’s something I discovered from my experience in hospice where we created a parallel world. From the minute you entered we surrounded you because we couldn’t trust the larger healthcare system to treat you the way we would treat you, so we kept you in for all your healthcare needs, everything. And, what we learned over the years is that we had to influence everyone else. If you don’t, there is no systemic change.
By creating this parallel universe of women investors, we created something very different. We teach them to be successful, strong, healthy. To create healthy workplaces. What you find when you take the sides off the parallel universe, is that people want to be in that, they want to be in your company, to come work for you. You become profitable, you expand. If you allow women to create what they want, this whole new thing blossoms. And that’s what we’re seeing with these businesses.”
Cassin stresses that at some point the walls must come down to create one universe where men and women share resources, advice, and work side by side as equals. In the meantime, creating a parallel universe hasn’t come without a fight. Her initial search for investors was conducted over the loud din of voices warning that Belle would eventually have to invest in male talent or look beyond Michigan to be sustainable.
Today the venture fund has over 50 women investing in other women.
I spend over at hour with Cassin. By the time I leave I am exhausted and inspired. There’s much I’ve left out here. Like how she’s a sun/moon Aries and dated a man in college for far too long because his mother was “fabulous” and turned her onto Astrology.
Small things. Humorous things. Thoughtful things.
Throughout the interview, she reminds me again and again, that what she’s learned about living has come from the dying.
I can think of no better way to conclude than with her parting wisdom.
“I sat at the bedside of thousands and thousands of dying people over the years and I can tell you that there is something very magical and beautiful about when you actual know that this is where your life is going—whether it’s over the next few weeks or months or years. You all of the sudden see things more clearly than, I’ll speak for myself, I do when I get caught up in coffee and getting upset about things I shouldn’t be upset about and spending time on things that are of no value.
You asked me, at what point, what I learned—that’s the fundamental thing I learned: that every day is a tremendous, precious gift, and you need to spend every moment doing what you believe in, living out who you are, having people around you enjoy, giving back, leaving a legacy. Loving everyone who you can possibly love and receiving from other people.
This is a perfectly wonderful life, we don’t always treat it with the beauty that it deserves.”