The S.B. Questionnaire: Susan Cass

Talking Equal Access and Opportunity with the Executive Director of the Braille Institute

Susan Cass executive director for Braille Institute Santa Barbara Center. (January 9, 2020) | Credit: Paul Wellman

“It’s so gratifying to make something possible for someone that previously had seemed impossible,” says Susan Cass. “Everyone should have equal access.”  

In October 2018, Cass became the executive director of the Braille Institute’s Santa Barbara Center, a nonprofit that’s been helping those who are blind or visually impaired lead enriched and fulfilling lives for 37 years. 

“We’re looking to empower people to live as independently as possible,” says Cass, explaining that the services are offered free of charge. “We teach daily living skills that help them become more independent in their living environment and in their community.” That includes classes on cooking and art as well as technology training, orientation, and mobility.  

One of Cass’s most rewarding moments so far has been working with Bond Fitness, where 13 students were trained to do a 5K race. “My favorite part of my job has been collaborating with different organizations,” she says. “It helps break down stereotypes and myths about the ability of individuals with visual impairments. They can do everything they set out to do.”  

Cass was born in Santa Barbara, but her parents are from England. They met in Liverpool and moved to the United States in the 1960s. Her dad was an economic consultant who ran his own business while her mother raised six children, of which Cass is the youngest.  

The family moved to Orcutt when Cass was 6, as her dad felt Santa Barbara was changing. “It was 1988, and he wanted more land and to be removed from things,” she says.

Cass made her way back to the South Coast by attending Cate School as a boarder. “That experience made me who I am,” she explains. “I learned oil painting. I did the cover of the yearbook and did a 19th century wedding gown as an independent study.”  

A career counselor at Cate encouraged her to go for the arts, so she went to Parsons School of Design in New York City in 1996. “I was really into fashion design,” she says. “But when I got to New York City, I didn’t like the fashion scene.”  

After a year, she returned to Santa Barbara and worked at the Beachside Café. She was still interested in art, but wanted to use it as a therapeutic and educational tool, so attended the University of Texas in Austin, earning a BFA in visual art studies and an art teaching credential.    

The program included teaching elementary (in Spanish!), junior high, and high school. “I was teaching a high school classroom when I was 21,” laughs Cass, who fondly remembers working at Bedichek Middle School, where the classic film Dazed and Confused was shot.

After graduating in December 2002, Cass moved to San Francisco to teach, but wound up waiting tables again. “I wasn’t moving in the direction that I wanted,” she admits. When her nephew Jack was born, she moved to Portland to help her sister take care of him. Cass worked at an early childhood education center called Fruit and Flowers and a holistic spa called Bellini’s.  

After eight years, she left Portland and moved to Carpinteria to be closer to her sister in Santa Barbara and two brothers in Los Angeles. She started working at the nonprofit Jodi House Brain Injury Support Center, and became the program director within a year. She spent nearly six years there, often handling the duties of an executive director, as the organization did not have one at the time.   

“My path is not a straight line,” Cass reflects. “It may not make sense to most people. I’ve fumbled some of the stages in my life, but I credit my upbringing at Cate for pulling me up from by boot straps. I credit my creativity. I don’t get stuck in one path. I kept moving forward, and I always knew I wanted to use my art to help people with the work that I did.”

Susan Cass answers the Proust Questionnaire.

What is your most marked characteristic?
I would say loyalty. To those I have built relationships with I am very loyal. The dynamics of the relationship may change, but I will always be there to support that person if they need me. I think the same goes for my professional life as well. While I am now at the Braille Institute, I was with Jodi House for over five years. I experienced and learned a lot in my time there, and I will always support the work they do and the people they serve.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Well, for someone who is a self-proclaimed worrier, I seem to say “no worries” quite a bit. Other than that, since I was born and raised on the West Coast, I think some of the California vernacular creeps into conversation on a pretty regular basis (i.e. like, stoked, dude). 

What is your current state of mind?
Proud. Looking back on the past year as we enter into a new one, I am thinking about the upsets and successes I’ve experienced. In both my personal and professional life, I have faced new
challenges and pressures that I could have backed away from or succumbed to. Instead, I leaned in and dealt with them in a way that I felt was right and that allowed me to sleep well at night knowing I gave it my all. I am very proud of myself for that.

What is your motto?
“Be Kind to Yourself.” It may sound simple, but I remind myself of it almost every day. A friend and colleague offered me that advice in our first meeting two years ago, and for some reason it stuck. I feel like I’ve been told my whole life to be kind, forgiving, and patient with others. I agree that this is important, but as a result I think many of us forget about our own needs. These four words serve as a reminder for me.

What do you like most about your job? 
I truly believe we are better together and that we make a greater, more sustainable impact on the lives of those we serve when we create a web of support for them. Through community partnerships and collaborations, we are able to connect clients with resources they may want to utilize tomorrow, next month, or even years down the road. Working with my community partners to support those living in it is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Well, may I start by taking “perfect” out of the question? I’ve never liked that word, as I feel it sets us to a standard that is unattainable and can lead to unnecessary upset. Nothing and no one is perfect. So…my idea of happiness? I can’t say a specific thing or person would bring me happiness, but rather the way I feel in that moment. Feeling loved, supported, safe, and at peace would be my idea of happiness. It can happen anywhere and at any time, but that is when I am most happy.

What is your greatest fear?
There are different worries that will keep me up at night, but what I think they all have in common is that they are things I can not control or do not have all the information on yet. It boils down to a fear of the unknown. Whether it be not knowing what the audience thought of a presentation I gave yesterday or what the future holds for my personal life, it can weigh heavy on my mind and heart. The unknowns are always a bit anxiety inducing for me.

Who do you admire most?
Without hesitation: my parents, Roger and Jean Cass. In the 1960s, they left England to begin a life together in America. They’ve now been married 55 years and have six children. In any relationship, there are good times and bad. Theirs was no exception, but I admire how they honor their commitment to each other and still recognize the good after nearly six decades together. Something that has always been a symbol of this commitment is the way they still hold hands when they’re sitting together on the couch. It may seem simple to most, but it means everything to me.

What is your greatest extravagance?
I’d have to say my two gym memberships. There was a period in my life when I didn’t give my body the love or respect it deserved. As a result, other areas of my life suffered. I have since chosen to make my physical and emotional health and wellness a priority. While there are many other ways I could be spending my money, I know that the best investment I can make is in my mind and body. 

What is the quality you most like in people?
Honesty. In my life, most of the pain I’ve experienced has been a result of dishonesty. I understand that when we are going through a tough time, it can sometimes be difficult to fully divulge all of the details. With that said, in the end the damage is usually much worse when we withhold information. There are many instances in my life where truth would’ve saved us all a lot of heartache.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Well, based on the last answer, the obvious one would be dishonesty. Another quality I dislike is arrogance. When someone treats me as if I am “less than” or when I see someone being treated in that way, it really bothers me. I’m not asking people to befriend everyone they meet. All I ask is that when you meet someone for the first time, greet them with a smile and look them in the eye. A little bit goes a long way.

What do you most value in friends?
While I love my friends because they all offer something a little bit different, the common denominators with them all are loyalty, integrity, warmth, humor, and consistency. I know that no matter how much time has passed or how busy we get, we can pick up where we left off without guilt or judgement. My best friend of twenty years lives in Austin and we talk very rarely, but I know she will be there for me anytime I need her. She always has been.

Which talent would you most like to have?
I would love to sing well. When I was a kid, I used to sing and was under the illusion that I was really good at it. My dad was my biggest fan, but my siblings put me in check. I stopped singing after elementary school, but I would love to be able to sing for an audience with the same confidence that I sing in the shower or the car.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
For over half of my life, the majority of my immediate family have been over 100 miles away from whatever city I was living in at the time. Social media and email help us to stay in touch, but I know I don’t make enough of an effort to connect with my siblings and my parents. No matter how busy I am with work or how tired I am at the end of the day, I need to do a better job of telling my family I love them and am thinking of them.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I don’t think I’ve experienced it yet. I have a lot to be proud of, but I believe my greatest achievement has yet to be celebrated. I look forward to that day!

Where would you most like to live?
I love where I live now. I’m very lucky to call Santa Barbara home. With that said, if there were no financial limitations, I would also spend a good amount of time traveling. There are so many countries I have yet to visit, and in an ideal world I would get to see them and then return to my cozy home in Santa Barbara in-between trips. 

What is your most treasured possession?
I don’t hold on to a lot of physical possessions, but I do have a collection of handwritten letters and cards from family and close friends that mean a lot to me. I’m not always comfortable accepting gifts, but I love receiving a thoughtfully written card from someone I love. I also have a photograph of me and my dad from when I was probably no more than three years old. It hangs on my wall and is a daily reminder that despite the distance between us, he is always here with me.

Who makes you laugh the most?
When I think of the person who has induced the most uncontrollable fits of laughter in my life, my best friend, Jenny, wins by a landslide. We have known each other twenty years, and she shares and appreciates my sense of humor more than anyone. I may catch some flack for saying this, but there are also a few scenes in Bridesmaids that get me every time. I just cracked up thinking of one!

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I wish I had a better answer, but I can’t say I identify with any historical figure. I am still learning a lot about myself, and until I truly know who I am I can’t begin to see myself in anyone else.

On what occasion do you lie?
I wouldn’t call it lying, but rather just not sharing everything with everyone. I am a very trusting person, and I used to think that the way to remain authentic was to be an open book. I’ve learned that this quality doesn’t always serve me well, so I’ve reserved the right to not answer every question asked of me. In the past I would have felt guilty for not being completely transparent, but now I realize I can and will share details of my life when I am ready and when trust is established. 

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