Better days, big vision, follow tough early times for Working Cities leader
Michelle James overcame childhood troubles, aims to help others find a better way
Voices of the Working Cities
Voices of the Working Cities tells the stories of the people who drive the Working Cities Challenge, a community development initiative of the Boston Fed. The WCC brings local groups together to change systems and improve lives. This collaboration relies on committed and hard-working individuals. By profiling some of them, we hope to give you a picture of the challenges, impact, and promise of our Working Cities.
Michelle James has had some bad days. When she was younger, there were far too many, in fact.
She remembers being awakened one morning when her father threatened her and her mother. Unfortunately, this behavior wasn’t all that unusual to James.
“I just wanted to go back to sleep,” she recalled.
“He then fell and hit his head, and had to go to the hospital,” James said. “It was one of the lowest points in my life.”
But James overcame those tough early years, when she also faced racism, loneliness, and the death of her mother. Now, she’s director of the Community Action Agency of Western Connecticut, Inc., which works to help low-income people connect to services in order to become independent.
The agency is one of several that are part of by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Cities Challenge, or WCC. The initiative works to tackle persistent problems in small cities – like crime, poverty, and unemployment – by banding local groups together to work toward common goals.
With Working Cities, James sees an opportunity to be involved with something bigger.
“WCC is not about individual programs – it’s about systems change, and doing better with programs that we already have,” she said.
James grew up in Englewood, N.J. Her mother was a hairdresser, her father was a truck driver, and a difficult family life wasn’t the only challenge she faced. She was only one of two black children at her school, and remembers being ignored by the kids in her class. The kids on her block also shunned her, she said.
“It was a very difficult time,” she said.
Still, James excelled in school and went to college at the University of Pennsylvania. She worked while there, and at 19, was forced to shoulder the grief of her mother’s death and the grim responsibility of paying for the funeral.
Her schooling continued, and she later got married, following her husband, Ed, to his job in Danbury 35 years ago. At first, she stayed home with their two young kids, but later re-entered the workforce and became vice president for community planning at the United Way. The next step was earning her MBA at The University of New Haven, and she later took a marketing job at a local bank and ran their charitable foundation.
She learned about Community Action Agency during a second stint at the United Way, and what she heard wasn’t great – the agency was struggling. When the executive director’s job opened, people told her not to take it.
“But I’m a rebel and feel that I am a transformational leader,” James said. “I wanted CAAWC to become the go-to agency in Danbury.”
Within a year, the Connecticut Department of Social Services had changed the organization’s classification from an agency in crisis to a stable one.
Michelle is proud to be a part of the Working Cities Challenge, and the fact that so many people and agencies care enough to gather around a table and discuss ways to support those who are less fortunate.
Still, the work of the WCC and the Community Action Agency is not easy.
“You get numb to old ways of doing business and the racism that exists, even today. There are good and bad days,” James said. “But each day, I get up and know there’s more work to do. I believe things can always be better. My motto is, ‘Live life to the fullest,’ and I want to help everyone be their best self.”