Nicholette Smith-Bligen: It’s a helping hand, not a handout

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Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper Nicholette Smith-Bligen, Director of Dorchester Social Services, in her office in Cambridge.

CAMBRIDGE — Nicholette Smith-Bligen came to Dorchester County Social Services as Director in July of 2014. She brings with her a vast amount of experience not evident in her youthful appearance and quick smile.

Ms. Smith-Bligen was born in Queens, NY, and spent the first half of her career working in tough places like the South Bronx and Harlem as a social worker for nonprofit organizations. She continued working for nonprofits when her family relocated to Maryland in 1999, and then got the opportunity to work in local government. She took a job heading up the Office of Youth Development within the District of Columbia’s child welfare agency for many years, and moved into other leadership roles in Human Services.

Before coming to Dorchester County this past July, she spent time again working for a nonprofit advocating for residential education opportunities for disadvantaged youth. Ms. Smith-Bligen took the move back into local government when the position of Director became available in Dorchester County, looking forward to utilizing all of her human service and nonprofit experience to provide the best quality services to children, youth and families to the residents of Dorchester County.
We sat down with her recently to see how things are going.

What does Social Services do?
We provide a continuum of services for those who are most in need. Whether it’s a one-time emergency situation, or you find yourself unemployed. We have benefit support, whether it’s unemployment, assistance, Social Security assistance, medical assistance, we help facilitate that process
We don’t just stop at providing financial assistance through difficult times. We also help you find employment, as well as opportunities for training for that employment.
Our main priority is to make sure that children, youth and families of Dorchester County are safe.

How do you find the state of things in Dorchester?
I came to DSS in July, and one thing that the people of Dorchester have demonstrated to me is that they are not just looking for financial assistance, they’re also looking for opportunities to help them help themselves. I think there is always opportunity to do more, but I came to an agency that has connections in the community, that has relationships with the people that they serve and really have, I think, the pulse of the needs of the community. It made my job really easy coming here.

You came into the Social Services department here to find a well-working machine?
Yes, I think my focus has really been, as director, to build on what we currently have. Opportunities for employment, for example. I’m out in the community, I am meeting people, businesses. I’m trying to facilitate additional resource opportunities for our customers around employment. We’re a member of the Chamber of Commerce, so I have knowledge of the businesses that we have around us. How can our customers be a benefit to them as well?
My focus is creating job opportunities and training. I’m very interested in making sure that when we do have job opportunities in the county that folks are prepared to go into them. Whether that means qualifying for a GED, or vocational training, I want to make sure that folks are prepared to go into jobs.

What is the unemployment rate in Dorchester County?
I think the last look I had at the unemployment rate was about 8 percent, which is down. It still is high, but it is down from where it was. I see a downward trend, which is always a good thing. But obviously, there’s still work to do. We want to make sure that these are jobs where folks can take care of their families, because what I have found is that people really do want to do that. They want to be able not to have to come to us for assistance. They want to be able to help themselves. They wanted a job that they could meet the needs of their family.

Do you get a sense of whether or not your clients are reluctant to relocate if there’s potential for a job that they’re experienced in, in another area?
I have learned that folks are willing to do most anything to have a stable job. I think they are not limited by geography. Most of our customers want to remain on the Shore. There is reluctance to go on the other side of the bridge, which is a good thing. We just want to make sure that folks have the resources here, an opportunity here. But what we try for folks to know is not to limit themselves. If there is a good opportunity and you are trained for it, then we definitely encourage you to go out. We have a job opportunities program, and within that job opportunities program, we have lots of resources both on the Shore as well as across the bridge.

What would your message be to someone who was down on their luck, out of work and just was too proud to come in to this office?
The first thing I would say is that you shouldn’t look at it as handout. We are here to provide assistance. It’s really, we don’t get the jobs, you get the job. The kind of support that we try to provide is for people, everyday people who need assistance, who … It may be an emergency situation. You may have lost your housing or you may have lost your job, or there’s some kind of disability that prevents you from working. We are there to provide that kind of assistance. I think everyone can benefit at one point in time with a helping hand.

Certain media outlets love to paint a picture of a “welfare queen,” someone who wants to take advantage of the system. Do you see that in your work, or is that an urban myth?
I would say that, overall, it’s a myth. Does it ever happen? Yes. But for the most part, do I find that a whole lot in Dorchester County? I really can’t say that I have. I think what I have found, in the 25 years that I’ve been in this field, that there have been more people who really are in need of support and assistance than not. It is very few people who want to come in and just want to live off the system. A very few.

How do people fall on hard times?
Jobs are lost and houses are foreclosed. You find more people in situations that they never thought they’d be in. Those are a lot of the people who walk through our doors. Some actually think it’s those people who have always been in the system. It really is not. It’s actually those people who have worked and who have lost their jobs and who have a homeless situation or a housing situation, I should say, who walk through our doors.
Or you also have our seniors, who are on a fixed income, and a lot of times that fixed income does not meet all of their needs. We help provide some additional support to that if they’re facing that hardship.
No one that I have met says, “When I grow up, I want to be homeless,” right? No one plans really to grow up to be homeless, but circumstances happen. You have wars happen. You have veterans, where homelessness is a big issue. You have people who have fallen on hard times, fallen out of touch with their family and don’t have the kind of support mechanisms the rest of us have. You have everyday families who are a paycheck away from being homeless. Then obviously, you have the state of our country and trying to rebound again from economic decline. That’s how we have homelessness.

If you get the worst case of person, you get someone who is just living on the street, if they come in the door, what will you do for them?
I mean, the first thing we’ll do is make sure that they are safe. There is a case management component to it, finding out the history. Are there family members? Is there a mental health component? Are there other agencies who are involved? But some of the basic kinds of things would be, how can we help with clothing, how can we help with hooking you up with other agencies that might be able to provide additional support? We’re not only a financial resource. We try to link them with other organizations who are also doing the work as well. I think making sure basic needs are met is the place to start.

Have you found Cambridge to be quiet and peaceful compared to New York or DC?
Obviously, there are those very visible differences, but I think there are more similarities than differences. The crisis may be different, but the needs of people are quite similar. The experiences that they face are quite similar. The pace may be a bit slower, but it gives more time to really help folk. Not running from one crisis to the other, you’re able to focus more on the individual needs of folks. That’s always a good thing. So far, I have not been bored.

How do you want the people of Dorchester County to think of Social Services?
I think that I want Social Services here to be thought of as a fabric of community, part of the community, not just a vendor of the community.

This is a horrible question to ask, but why, as a society, do we need to do this?
Because we’ve always been a society that doesn’t turn their back when somebody needs a helping hand. I think there are a lot of arguments about how big that hand should be, how long that hand should stay involved. But I think most would say that we are a society that does not turn their back on people who need help.

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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