Cindy Arenberg Seltzer, President/CEO of the Children’s Services Council, believes her life of happenstance and opportunity led her to Broward. But, follow her story and see, it’s more than chance. Cindy has an uncompromising allegiance to her moral compass. And, I think she is exactly who she set out to be…an insatiable advocate for children.
“Little Cindy Arenberg”, as she referred to herself, was born in Long Island, first generation American to a mother who survived the holocaust and a father who migrated from Russia at 9-years old.
She lived a pretty conventional life, until just before her 14th birthday when her family moved to what was then known as West Germany. This tremendously transformative time shows the first glimpse of her strength of character.
“I lived in a country that was an anathema to my people. I was a Jew in Germany. So, I started wearing a Jewish star around my neck everyday. (Stomping her fist on the table like her 14 year old self) I am who I am, and I was not going to be bullied!”
Cindy’s desire to help children was already in place when she left Germany to attend college in California at UC Irvine.
“I decided I wanted to teach teachers how to teach. I saw how a really good teacher could engage me in a subject I never thought I would like, and a really bad teacher could make me hate a subject I thought I loved. Having a background in theatre and psychology, I thought taking that into training teachers could be very impactful!”
That path would change however as just before graduating college she learned of internships in Washington, DC. She was fascinated! Having lived abroad, she had never really learned about US government the way other students had.
So, Little Cindy Arenberg moved across the country for an internship at the DC Court House. However, she discovered on the first morning of her internship that she was to be relegated to a cavernous file room, paper pushing.
“This is probably the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever done.” Cindy quit at lunchtime, before even completing her paperwork.
She started temping in several places throughout DC, including the library of the Supreme Court, and was eventually hired as Assistant to the President of the Industry Council for Tangible Assets (ICTA), which was a national association of Numismatics and Bullion Coins. (Yeah, no one, including Cindy at the time, knows what that is. Click the link or Google it.)
This small organization with international membership, gave her the latitude to try her hand at many things. She launched new departments and projects, even testified in state legislature on repealing the sales tax for precious metal. And, after 4 years, Cindy had become an expert on the tax laws of rare coins and metals, learning a lot about politics and national associations along the way.
She now knew she wanted to go to law school. But, she got serious about it when the agency’s attorney made the mistake of saying, “We don’t pay you to think Cindy” during a heated discussion.
That was definitely the wrong thing to say to Little Cindy Arenberg from New York.
She attended Georgetown University Law School at night while working, and moved up the ranks in the rare coins and metals world.
After law school, Cindy moved to Connecticut with hopes to start her career in international law. And though she did work in law firms intermittently, this time was marked by her entry into the world of politics. She worked on President Clinton and Senator Dodd’s campaigns in 1992, and then became Chief of Staff to the Majority Leader of the Connecticut House of Representatives.
Cindy discovered her love for public policy and was now confident she hated the law-firm life. She never looked back.
She formalized her new found love at Harvard. And for one year she indulged in all the experiences of being at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government afforded, gaining her Masters in Public Administration and a slew of international peers. Among her classmates were the Secretary of State for Uganda and the Head of the Commodities Exchange in Mongolia.
She often wonders how she ended up in the living room of Yasser Arafat’s sister-in-law, with her friend from Lebanon, teaching her to belly-dance.
Bringing It All Together
It was, finally, while creating and implementing the strategic plan for the Massachusetts Promise, an offshoot of America’s Promise, that Cindy got the call that led her to Broward as the Director of the county’s Children’s Services Division.
Not long after in 2000, through the leadership of the then Chair of the Children’s Services Board Nan Rich, the CSC was established by the voters. And, Little Cindy Arenberg was hired by the Council Members to take the helm and build it.
“Being here at that time, being in a place where I could start a government from the ground up. Doing it right, with the transparency and commitment. All of those experiences that seemed so ridiculously random and unconnected… each one made it possible to have the tools I needed to do this work. To understand how federal and state governments work, local and legal, and the leadership work at Kennedy School. It all goes back to that vision of how to make education work for all children and fulfilled that drive I’ve always had from childhood to help children. All of those skillsets came together to fulfill that passion.”
We Don’t Succeed if They Don’t Succeed
The CSC has gone on to be the leading force in empowering Broward’s children and families, funding over 100 community agencies to deliver services they need.
This was no easy task. The CSC created relational contracting with their partner non-profit providers, living by the mantra “We don’t succeed unless our providers succeed, and our providers don’t succeed unless our kids succeed.” Agencies are moved gently but firmly towards best practices, with the greatest respect for the integrity of their missions.
“We think it’s emboldened the non-profits and given them permission. We want to be a beacon of how things can be done: high performance and family friendly, diverse and have full discussion/arguments about almost everything that we do, support the staff and the agencies as long as they are keeping their mission in mind. If the agency is not good stewards of the tax payer dollars and not changing children’s lives…sorry, we don’t have time for you. But, 99.99% have risen to the challenge and many times have far exceeded our expectation.”
Just as noteworthy, however, is the role the CSC has played in creating a community of collaborators. Broward’s Children’s Strategic Plan lives at the CSC, and everyone is invited to inform it. We now have common data points, know where we are starting from and can collectively say where we are going. The organization has built trust and forced people to work together, learning from our mistakes along the way.
I asked Cindy what would you say to our young girls or to her younger self, knowing what she knows today?
“We face our fears. We are strong girls and women. Be good to people. Try to find a way to be kind to yourself. Give yourself room to fail. If you’re not taking risk, you wouldn’t reap the rewards either. You have to find and pursue opportunity. You may not know exactly where it will lead you. But, saying “yes” to opportunity will open your mind and your heart to things you could never have imagined.
I remember telling my parents at Kennedy Airport when we were moving to Germany, “I’m sure one day I’ll appreciate this. But right now, I don’t want to go.” These turned out to be very true words. It was the ultimate test. But, it showed me I never had to be afraid of starting over again. It’s easy, but dangerous, to become complacent. It’s ok to do things that make us a little scared, because that’s how we grow.”
And, my favorite Bernard Pivot question… If heaven exists (and it does), what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
“Thank you for watching out for my children.”