Cassaundra Adler’s difficult childhood made her grow up too fast. But living life on her own terms makes her feel younger every day.
“I’m the only person I know who actually ran away from home to go to school,” said Cassaundra Adler. Those words explain a lot about the 43-year-old Minneapolis woman. Today, she is successful and respected, with a very different life than the one she led as a ward of the state of Illinois, running away from group homes to attend school with the classmates she grew up with. Her values, though, are much the same: Education and relationships are still important to her. And she has gained the self-esteem that eluded her back then.
Adler grew up in a troubled family. Her parents divorced when she was 4, and Adler’s mother moved the family (she has a younger and an older brother) from Illinois to California without her ex-husband’s knowledge or permission. “I think today that would be called kidnapping,” Adler said dryly. They eventually landed back in Chicago, and Adler lived with the family until she was taken away from her abusive mother. To this day, she does not know why her brothers were not removed too.
“Starting in seventh grade, my mother would lock me out of the house,” Adler recalled. “I had to find other places to sleep. She didn’t think she had to feed us, she figured once we were 12 we could feed ourselves. I learned to be in complete survival mode.”
What followed was just as difficult: The state of Illinois began proceedings to terminate her mother’s parental rights to Cassaundra. Her mother did not fight for custody. It was, Adler said, “The darkest, bleakest time of my life: I was an adolescent with no parent or sibling to talk to. … I was taken from a small, dysfunctional family system to a huge dysfunctional bureaucracy.” During the process, Adler said, she was placed in situations where “a social worker, case worker, judge were talking about you, not to you. You were a commodity to be placed.
“It didn’t do a lot to help the self-esteem I never had.”
Ward of the state
Adler lived in large group homes from the time she was in eighth grade until she turned 18. The children in these institutions attended classes there too. Adler insisted on attending school with “the same kids I graduated from eighth grade with … that was real important to me.” The staff didn’t believe that Adler would actually go to school if she were allowed to leave campus.
They didn’t know her very well. Not only did Adler go to school, she also asked school staff to call the shelter workers to let them know where she was. “The front-line workers were so underpaid and overburdened that there wasn’t much they could do other than make sure you didn’t kill yourself or another person,” Adler recalled.
The care provided didn’t include making sure their charges ate. Adler frequently had to go without dinner; she was active in extracurricular activities and held part-time jobs. As a result, she often didn’t return “home” until after 5. She recalled, “In the 1980s, the Department of Children and Family Services was Dickensian. Supper was at 5, and if you weren’t there to eat, you didn’t eat, period.”
Despite fighting hard to attend school, she was no model student. Adler’s behavior got her sent to what she calls a “juvenile delinquency” school. It was, she said, mainly her attitude that was the problem: “Nothing like drugs or promiscuity … I worked my ass off, and was able to go back to my school in my senior year. I ended up being selected as the outstanding senior [by teachers and counselors].”
Despite flashes of success, Adler, like many young people in bleak situations, didn’t give much thought to her future. Though she had adult friends and mentors-in particular, teachers and the parents of her friends-no one talked to her about life after graduation. “I thought I’d be dead,” Adler said frankly. “I hadn’t known anyone well who had gone to college. No one said, hey, you have to be thinking about these things if you’re going to go to college. It never occurred to me [during that time of] despair and hopelessness, that I might live to be an adult.” And so she went to work in a factory after graduation. After a month in “the most mind-numbing job … hanging packets of conditioners on shampoo bottles,” Adler decided to go to college.
‘Willie Wonka land’
After junior college, Adler transferred to a Chicago liberal arts college, Columbia College. “Classes were small, they loved it when you asked questions! There were so many interesting classes and I could pick what I wanted. It was heaven … just sort of my Willie Wonka land of knowledge. It was one of the best times of my life. I still had no self-esteem but I got to take all the classes I wanted.” She graduated with a self-designed liberal arts degree.
Adler’s talent for seeing the best in others was learned from a college professor named Randy Alvers, who would look at a five-page paper she’d written on the train going to school, and “instead of saying, ‘There are four pages of crap’… he would find a paragraph and say, ‘This is good, work on this.'” Adler so appreciated his support that when she won a community service award, “I sent it to him [and said], ‘You taught me to always look for the good in people, the positive.'”
Adler was in her mid-20s when she moved to the Twin Cities to take a job as a project director. After working in a couple of technical positions, she was recruited by a woman manager at a brokerage firm, who hired Adler to be a financial advisor. She stayed for seven years before accepting her current position as a financial educator with Lutheran Social Service (LSS).
Enjoying life is big on her agenda. “The older I get, the younger I become,” she said. “As a youth, I spent so much time on an accelerated plane to adulthood-I was never allowed to be a child. Now I can … be the kid I never could be.”
Children are one of the joys of Adler’s life. She loves spending time with friends’ kids. “Nothing makes my heart sing than to see a little kid that’s happy and loved and knows that. Their eyes are so pure. That’s such a contrast to kids who’ve had too much packed into four little years. There’s no sparkle left in their eyes.
“We lose as a society when we don’t try to turn around that hopelessness. If we don’t, they become full of rage that turns to destructiveness. [We] wonder why that is … did anyone ever take the time to teach them to play Uno? Take them to a movie? We all want to be loved. Attention for being bad is better than no attention at all.”
Her other passions are money and public policy. She has been asked more than once, “When are you going to run for office?” The most recent person to ask the question was Liz Johnson of the White House Project, who’s in the business of giving women the tools they need to run and win. Former Minnesota Attorney General Hubert H. “Skip” Humphrey has also asked her to run.
Adler’s answer has always been no. “I love public policy, but not elective office. If elected officials still believed in the service of their country, rather than partisanship … I don’t think one elected official can make a difference.”
She has just spent a year as a Mondale Fellow, a program for emerging leaders that was founded by the former vice president and co-directed for years by former Congressmen Vin Weber and Tim Penny. Among her Mondale experiences was seeing John Roberts sworn in as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. “I was the only black woman in the room. After we were done, I started looking around the room … everything I’ve been privileged to do is as a result of what happened there. … I played sports because of Title IX. I wasn’t fired because I was black or a woman.”
Adler’s passion for public policy and interest in making change have led her to consider attending graduate school in public policy with a goal of working on poverty issues. She also cares about money on a personal level: At LSS, she works with individuals and through organizations to help people understand their money, something she also does on the side as a consultant. “People are embarrassed that they don’t understand their finances. I tell them, ‘We didn’t come out of the womb knowing this stuff.’ Ignorance about money is the great shaming equalizer.”
Adler turned philosophical. “I think there are greater things I’m supposed to do in life. … I survived a lot of things that a lot of folks I grew up [with] didn’t, they aren’t around to enjoy [life]. I am. And I’ve spent so much time being angry, I’m enjoying just being me right now.”