I sat down the other day to speak with Susan Mathias who is one of Pennsylvania’s original MeToo advocates even before the movement had a name. Susan’s life-long undertaking has been the assurance of equality and social justice. Susan’s broad spectrum of advocacy has a common thread that is interwoven into the fabric of today’s MeToo Movement. Whether it be equal opportunity in the workplace, civil rights, offering support to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault Susan has dedicated her career to a life of activism on these important societal needs.
The Early Years
Her childhood years were one of a “Military Brat” moving around the country and having the opportunity to be exposed to different places and individuals allowing her to formulate an innate sense of justice and fairness.
I remember first meeting Susan when she was Regional Coordinator for Congressman Chris Carney, and have always respected her work and dedication on these issues. In Susan’s words, “It relates to my upbringing and my Father being in the military, and service, which was all of what my Dad was about.” As a founding member of the Military Police Corps and being active in the community and the church Colonel Reginald K. Fansler (retired) provided the foundation of Susan’s value system that eventually developed into her lifelong passion for helping others. The connection she shared with her Father was one of duty to others and advocacy for the disadvantaged.
Being born and raised in the Deep South of the 1950’s and 60’s left an indelible mark on her character growing up in the deep-rooted prejudices of 1950’s Georgia. Her early memories of white only bathrooms and water fountains along with racists comments that were commonplace of this era in the South had a profound impact. The nature of being in a military family resulted in her frequently moving around to new towns and cities. One such move was from Augusta, Georgia to Hawaii where she was exposed to a multiracial environment that provided an ethnic mix that was in stark contrast to the racism she was exposed to in Georgia during her early childhood. All the while these experiences provided a living backdrop that was painted on a canvas as abstract as a Picasso and just as conflicting. Splash in the tumultuous years leading up to the end of the Vietnam war, and you might understand Susan’s passion to champion equal and civil rights issues.
Her actions bear witness to this statement when in her early twenties working at the University of Georgia affirmative action office she signed onto a complaint against the University for not funding women’s intercollegiate athletics. Only a student herself, she challenged the status quo of male athletes being able to get funding for travel around the southeast while women athletes were left unfunded. The fight led to meetings with Governor Carter and the Board of Trustees ultimately resulting in a change in the policy. Feisty for a young woman of twenty making a difference by having a discriminatory policy changed while initially being stymied by the injustice of Southern attitudes towards women. Little did she know then that these early skirmishes were the beginning of a lifelong career of system change advocacy at the federal, state, and local levels of government for disadvantaged people.
After graduation from the University of Georgia, she became an investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Atlanta. Investigating civil rights and discrimination complaints against businesses in Georgia and South Carolina. As time passed, she saw another shift in the national attitude towards EEO guidelines and the promulgation and implementation of sexual harassment guidelines. All these experiences have given her unique insights on the impact government policy can have on the lives they purport to serve. Even today Susan sees parallels to these early EEO issues knowing that existing laws are essential to those most deserving affirmative action but as she puts it, “I see a lot of shades of grey in the law. Nothing against lawyers, but they are the ones benefitting financially in the EEO arena.”
Washington, DC Lessons In Federal Government
Her career journey then took her to Washington, DC as a political appointee of the Carter Administration working at the Small Business Administration on the White House Conference on Small Business. Where she reported to Paul Sullivan the former Chair of the Democratic National Committee. Wanting to change things and really see what can happen and as she stated, “Always getting near the flame and getting burned.” As Administrations changed hands like so many other political appointees, Susan needed to transition to a new job eventually working on Paul Volker’s staff at the Federal Reserve Board.
As she talked about her time at the Federal Reserve, it evoked fond memories of Mr. Volker and her rides on the elevator with him. Susan had the responsibility for handicapped employment issues including in the workplace. She said, “He was not supposed to be smoking his cigar in the building and certainly not the elevator. Always having that damn cigar with him, I suggested more than once that he put his cigar out.” As she recalled these events, she also noted to me that, “The Federal Reserve Board is specifically written along with Congress to be exempt from the Civil Rights Act.” And, “Only conform with the law because they don’t want anybody to mess with their independence.” Which was an eye-opening experience for her. Not to mention one for this writer upon hearing her explanation.
As time passed and her frustrations grew with the lumbering bureaucracy of the federal government and feeling the need to share her experiences and knowledge elsewhere, she began to look for work in private industry. As fate would have it, she met her husband left federal service and moved to Central Pennsylvania much to our Region’s benefit. In conveying this story, she chuckled softly recalling that “I thought Pennsylvania was all steel mills and smokestacks.” She continued “I had this image of, what was that dancer movie? Flash Dance? I thought all of Pennsylvania looked like Pittsburgh and Flash Dance.” Eventually becoming the Human Resources Manager for JPM here in Lewisburg, PA. A role that she would enjoy for approximately 10 years. Once again the activist bug in her kicked in and, as she so often has done, she positioned herself to return to the government being fueled by a desire to solve problems and make positive changes for people.
As our conversation continued, it turned to politics and the impact that one can have to bring about change within our society. Susan is no stranger to the concept that change can be driven by political means and was an active member of the Union County Democratic Committee and Vice President for this organization. She later became a volunteer for Congressman Chris Carney during his 2005/2006 campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. Thanks to the hard work of Susan and many others Chris eventually won the District seat and had an opportunity to drive some changes of his own.
As part of the movement that swept Chris into office, Susan had a chance to be one of Congressman Carney’s Regional Coordinator’s working on a variety of issues with health care reform being on the top of the list. Susan remarked that another critical initiative that she had the opportunity to play a role in was the advancement of the Susquehanna Transportation Project by working with the Greater Susquehanna Chamber of Commerce, Joe McGranaghan, Mayor of Shamokin Dam, and Senator Bob Casey. Susan was able to see the long-term visioning and planning of Congressman Carney working to get funding shifted to finance a project that will eventually open the doors to the economic advancement of the Greater Susquehanna Valley. Her supporting role while working for Congressman Carney has resulted in enormous payoffs for our region. Susan’s time spent as Regional Coordinator for Chris required her to engage with some of the Valley’s leading politicians and politicos which she did with the deftness of seasoned veteran of bipartisan politics.
Always an advocate for women’s rights she has made it life-long labor to assure that programs that protect these rights have been made available no matter what the economic status of those in need. A perfect example of her dedication is her volunteerism with Wise Options and Liberty House through the YWCA of Northcentral Pennsylvania. These programs provide much-needed support for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other violent crimes. Susan’s intellect is matched only by her compassion for families in crisis that she desires to help. Her involvement with the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Program helping children that were victims of domestic violence be placed in a safe and nurturing home environment to heal and break the cycle of abuse is an ongoing passion. Many of these stints of unpaid community service reveal a pattern of involvement on social justice issues that seem to plague all our communities in one way or another. Susan herself stated, “I have been involved in these types of issues my entire life.” If one would take a closer look at her career, it is plainly evident that her life’s efforts have prepared her well to become the CEO of Transitions of PA. She has touched the lives of so many individuals in need, and her position at Transitions is a perfect fit for her abilities, talent, and compassion.
As the leader of this organization, she has overseen its growth and expansions into Union and Northumberland Counties, increasing staffing and funding for those individuals most in need. When I asked Susan what she attributes her successes, she smiled with a twinkle in her eye and said, “The harder I work the luckier I get!” How she could attribute any of this to luck shows her own humility and a true passion for the work she is doing of helping more people to a sustainable lifestyle after being victims of domestic violence and abuse. To paraphrase part of our conversation, she felt that her career experiences have allowed her to be Trauma-Informed and looks at every person through a lens that says, “Where did they come from and what were their experiences.” Susan’s seamless ability to interact with all people with respect is an inherent quality that all of us should strive to possess. But it has not always been so as she relayed her experiences as a young professional working in the Deep South fresh out of college.
Her Brubaker Years
Taking a moment, she paused as if she was transporting herself back to those early days remembering how absurd it seemed to her now after 4 decades of professional experiences to be thrown into a situation as a girl of twenty-something assisting African Americans in Atlanta file discrimination complaints. She articulated how she very much wanted to relate to these people knowing that they believed they had been treated unfairly because of race. Simultaneously, she felt hampered by her own youth and inexperience.
Being a woman in the workplace in the State of Georgia in the early 1970’s always came with its own challenges. Another remarkable story she relayed to me was when she was doing examination development at that time due to civil rights requirements. The State of Georgia required having valid criteria to hire someone for the state prison system. Once again being thrown into the Lion’s den her unenviable job was to do job analysis in state prisons for corrections officers and the Georgia State Patrol officers.
As she recollected her experience, I was transported back in time with her to Jackson State Prison. Once again being tasked with a difficult situation she remembered walking into the prison as the doors were slamming behind her. The job was to determine what it took to be a corrections officer in that environment. If any of you folks reading this story might like to know just how horrific the conditions were in these prisons of the South, I suggest you stream or buy yourself a copy of Brubaker starring Robert Redford. Better yet pick up the book Accomplice to Crimes: The Arkansas Prison Scandal by Tom Murton and you will be left with little doubt on just what it might have been like for Susan to be suddenly thrust into the bowels of the Georgia State prison system.
As her tone took on an air of humility, she finished with, “After observing these horrific conditions I was able to relate to the corrections officers, and I learned how hard it was to be a corrections officer during that time period.” Even today in the age of the MeToo Movement and open feminism I cannot imagine what it must have been going through her mind as a young white female in a business suit walking into a huge prison full of men and having the responsibility to determine what it took to be a prison guard. As she put it, “I got to see the real world I work in. And I appreciated that, and they were always respectful, always respectful to me.” in speaking about the prison guards with whom she interacted, allowing her to do the assignment she was tasked to do.
Among Susan’s many other endeavors she is currently Chair of Pennsylvania Association of Sexual Assault Centers. According to Susan, there are 50 centers in the state, and by being involved with the centers, she can continue to be on the forefront of the national movement to help victims of sexual assault. Along with Transitions she is also on the PA Coalition Against Rape Board of Directors as Board Secretary and is on the Steering Committee of the PA Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She also serves on the PA Alliance Against the Trafficking of Humans Leadership Team; the Executive Committee of PAATH 15; and PA Coalition Against Domestic Violence. All of Susan’s professional and volunteer work makes her a natural fit to be one of the Commonwealth’s premier leaders and expert on women’s rights.
Her positioning of CEO of Transitions of PA and her many other initiatives provides her a unique perspective on these issues and broad-reaching implications of her decades-long work in these areas. You might say Susan has been working on MeToo issues almost all her adult life making a positive difference in everyone that she touches. Susan earned her Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia and has been working tirelessly since, always being a staunch advocate for all victims of discrimination never deterred from the mission of helping others find better lives.
As one of Pennsylvania’s leaders in the prevention of sexual assault and domestic violence, she has promoted and helped advance Senate Bill 501 which is now awaiting passage in the State House of Representatives. SB 501 enhances safety for all parties involved in Protection from Abuse Orders. As Susan explains it, “If a person has a final PFA against them and is ordered to stay away from someone then they should turn over their guns. SB 501 would require the guns be turned over in 48 hours to law enforcement or an attorney.” and, “Unfortunately, the NRA is fighting it tooth and nail. In the meantime, Transitions and our sister organizations are dealing with women being shot and killed in these domestic disturbances.”
Her 5 Principles of Success
Clearly, Social Justice is a vital aspect of Susan’s beliefs and an instrumental drive for her ongoing work. In speaking to her about her work ethic and core beliefs, she offered the following fundamental principles that have led to her success. She felt that there are just some necessary things one should know which include:
- You don’t leave a job unless you have another job;
- You build your skills so that you have a good resume and you can articulate what you have done;
- You take on increased responsibility in your career to help make yourself more marketable;
- You impress upon people that you can handle the workload that needs to be done and get it done, and finally
- By approaching tasks with energy and enthusiasm, especially the things you care about, you‘ll eventually get there.
So, to say that she has been more lucky than good could be nothing further from the truth. She is a shining example of how hard work, dedication, and passion leads to success in one’s life and career.
As our conversation wound down, we spoke about what the future may hold for her. She said, “I am that this last job allows me to be a professional feminist. It is great that I can be in this profession where I can make a living, help change public policy and work to ensure fair and respectful treatment of people.” Another passion she will continue to work on is becoming more aware of trauma and its effect on our society noting, “Until I go to my grave this is something I am going to be working on. It is unbelievable that we are not addressing the sexual assault that is occurring in this country. Finishing with, “Until we address and greatly reduce the high level of childhood sexual assault and sexual assault we are destroying the foundation of our culture.” The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, funded by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually assaulted before the age of 18.
A Few Questions For the Road
I next asked her to name the individuals who most had an impact on you and why?
She countered starting with her parents and her husband, Jim and then added, Chuck Searcy, Paul Sullivan, and Chris Carney stating, “These are people I respected a great deal. They gave me feedback that I really listened to, and I could use to model my behavior. As much as I want to change how systems work, I respect authority and the people who have come before me. She finished with, “I was raised in the house of a lot of rules and authority.” And, “I also learn so much from my two feminist children, Blair and Jay, both in their twenties. My kids keep me young!”
Any lesson(s) that you got from a mentor and still adhere to today?
She responded, “Start with respecting every person, until they give you a reason not to, and be open to the fact that they may have something to teach you. Also when you tell your boss you have a problem, have a solution to offer.”
The Masters Tournament
I decided to end on a sunnier note asking Susan about her involvement as a volunteer at one of professional golf’s most prestigious events The Masters Tournament.
Knowing Susan for some years, I am privy to the fact that she makes an annual pilgrimage to this Mecca of professional golf in Augusta, Georgia stretching back to the seventies. As young women in high school and college, she volunteered and worked in the stores and shops at the event selling T-shirts and other memorabilia.
As she shared her memories, I could not resist asking what was one of your more notable experiences associated with the Tournament?
A bit sheepishly and with a little chuckle she started to say, “I dated a guy whose nephew was on tour.” And then there was a long pause as if her overriding need to always maintain a professional decorum had kicked in stopping and saying, ”I am not so sure I should share this story?” But with a little prodding and coaxing, I was able to get her to continue how she met Freddie Couples and cooked dinner for him at her apartment in the Cairo in Washington, D.C. I’ll have to leave the story at that so, if you want to get the rest of the skinny you’ll have to ask her yourself the next time you bump into Susan making her rounds!
Author: Steve Bartos
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