Interview with WPI Alumna, Susanna Barton

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Susanna Barton (WPI ’10), a professional writer in Jacksonville for more than 30 years, recently connected with Caroline Brinton (WPI ’10) to discuss her current mission- stirring healthy conversations and preparing for aging. Susanna recently authored Grand Plans: How to Mitigate Geri-Drama in 20 Easy Steps and a companion workbook. She is also the Founder of the Grand Plans online community, which hosts a website, podcast, social media communities, and a semimonthly newsletter on “planning for the sunset stroll.” This year, Susanna was appointed to Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan’s subcommittee on eldercare issues to help older adults in the community access senior resources. A graduate of Hollins College in Roanoke, VA, Barton has written and edited professionally for The Austin Business Journal, The Jacksonville Business Journal, The Bolles School, First Coast Senior Living, and The Resident Community News Group, for which she writes a popular column on gratitude. She and her husband, David, have two adult children, Ben (Washington & Lee University ‘22) and Marley (Sewanee: The University of the South ‘24), and one very old bird dog named Dot.

Whom do you consider to be your role models for giving?

I admire people who are motivated by personal experiences to give authentically, passionately and humbly – and there are a lot of folks who fit that bill, but in different ways. For example, I thought Dolly Parton’s $1 million COVID gift was pretty darn inspiring. A doctor and friend of hers from Vanderbilt told her they were close to finding a cure for the virus and she dug around in her purse and was like, “look here, I can help!” I think her $1 million gift made a lot of people stop and account for how they, too, could apply resources to help during the pandemic. I am also inspired by people like Lois Kirschenbaum, Geoffrey Holt, Terry Kahn and Charles Feeney (Google them!) – all willfully frugal and low-flying people who died during the past two years and left millions to organizations that meant something big to them. I have all the respect for folks who live modestly and bequeath famously. My biggest role model, however, was my dad, David Person, a longtime San Antonio attorney who was a bona fide giver of time and talent. In his retirement, he moved to Holly Springs, MS and renovated two period homes. Not only did he put sweat equity into refurbishing and sharing those gorgeous homes, but he also put his heart into establishing programs that dissected the history, context and experiences of area slave quarters – including one at his home, Burton Place. In addition to launching this “Behind the Big House” educational program, he also organized a group called Gracing the Table, which worked toward a local mission of uncovering history, making connections, healing and taking action between black and white neighbors. Basically, it was an offshoot of one of his life mottos, which was, “Let’s talk about it.” He was a hands-on, spiritually-connected giver, and his example inspires me to this day.

When did your path first cross with The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida?

My best friend, Lindsey Riggs, executive director of the Lastinger Family Foundation, hooked me up with The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida. She had just completed, I think, one of the very first PI Philanthropic Initiative classes, and at the end, organizers asked the group to suggest some folks who might enjoy the program. That’s what best friends do, they sign you up for cool stuff! I was at the height of helping manage a small foundation supporting the education of Afghan girls, so Lindsey’s thinking was right on track, per the uszshe. My PI class experience ended up being one of the best times of my life, and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

We were in the same Weaver Philanthropic Initiative Class in 2010, officially the longest WPI course to ever run and the last class to partake in a group grant. You served a vital role in our class’s work with the publication of the Teachable Moments series. Why was this project meaningful, and what did you enjoy about undertaking this work?

Wasn’t that a fun time? I mean, it did go on for a lot longer than we all expected, but we were on such a roll, and in the end, I think we really made a difference for local educators. My biggest takeaway from that class was that you can get a lot more bang for your philanthropy buck when you pool your resources and strengths with other like-minded givers. I can’t say enough about how this class exemplified the power of pooling strengths and resources. We all came together and drilled down to a common mission: to enhance Northeast Florida’s public school experience by asking area top teachers how they define and address the biggest problems in the classroom. Everyone in our class had a personal strength, connection, or perspective to lend to this process, including the combined funding necessary for getting these big ideas off the ground. The result was the creation of a multi-month profile of Teachers of the Year interviews in the Florida Times-Union and on WJCT Public Broadcasting called Teachable Moments, as well as the much-acclaimed annual TEACH Conference, an event that continues successfully with corporate sponsorship to this day. I silent-cheer for our PI class every time I hear an ad for the TEACH conference on WJCT. It may have taken two years, but go us! – our little project had legs! I was honored to have applied my offerings as a writer and journalist to this work.

Your writing and editing roles for publications such as The Jacksonville Business Journal and The Resident Community News Group, as well as freelance work, give you a deep and versatile knowledge of our residents. What is a favorite philanthropic story you’ve come across in our community that stuck with you or that you wish received more recognition?

Stories of philanthropy have always been my favorites, and the most inspiring ones are narratives of people who are motivated by personal tragedy or experience to help others. I think of the stories behind organizations like the Angels for Allison, Allison Brundick Haramis Foundation and even the beginnings of the Women’s Board of Wolfson Children’s Hospital. While I was working in communications at The Bolles School, I was honored to write about other examples of philanthropy, including stories of major gifts that were inspired by a simple gratitude for their child’s educational experience. But the stories that don’t get enough attention in the news are the mano-a-mano expressions of philanthropy. I think a lot about my friend, Suzanne Honeycutt, who lives down the road from me in San Marco. When she and her husband see a need, they ask themselves how they can fill it. They are always in yes mode. If a neighbor kid needs a ride to school or a homecooked meal, or someone needs to sleep in the backyard She-Shed for a spell, the answer is a loving “of course” or “how can we make this work?” Those are the kinds of stories I wish received more recognition because they’re such a wonderful example of giving time and talent at the micro level.

What currently excites you, and likewise, concerns you the most about living in Northeast Florida?  

First, let me address the good – I am pumped about Northeast Florida for many reasons. Our son works in Jacksonville now and it’s exciting to see how young people are finding a place and a future in our community. We need their energy and ideas! It’s very positive to see projects like the Emerald Trail and the MOSH Northbank move gaining momentum – these are game-changing and redefining for Northeast Florida! I guess from a concern perspective, I do worry about how climate change is affecting our shorelines and water levels and erosion. We have a condo in Crescent Beach and sometimes I wonder how much longer it will be above the waterline. Due to my current writing obsession, I also have concerns about whether Northeast Florida is ready for the tidal wave of adults 65+ out there on the horizon. Though Jacksonville has a robust senior services community currently, I do worry we’ll need a lot more infrastructure, resources and prep work to handle the expected growth. The number of Americans ages 65 and older is projected to increase from 58 million in 2022 to 82 million by 2050. Yikes.

One of your most recent publications, Grand Plans: How to Mitigate Geri-Drama in 20 Easy Steps, addresses topics easily neglected throughout our lifespans. If you had to choose a few steps that you’d recommend individuals between the ages of 30-50 to take now, what would they be?

Yes, so, I went through a challenging caregiving experience with a deceased friend’s parents, and now I’m all sorts of obsessed about preparing for the Golden Years. I prattle on and on about it on my website,, and via a semimonthly newsletter. Hands down, the most important step is to just talk about it because – like it or not – it’s happening. We are all getting older. No one will escape it. Have honest conversations with your friends and loved ones about your second-half planning and expectations for their involvement. That real-talk should include the financial realities of getting older and what your medical thresholds look like. No topic should be taboo! Lay it all out there and make sure your people are well-informed and in alignment with your thinking. Also very important is to get squared away legally – no adult is ever too young to have a will, durable power of attorney and living trust, at a minimum! And I guess the last “most important” step I’d mention is to get your financial house in order because the senior years are expensive and ongoing and hard to predict. This is also important for making sure the legacy you leave is one that is celebrated – like those humble, under-the-radar folks I mentioned earlier!  

What role do you see The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida playing for families that assist in minimizing Geri-Drama?

The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida can help mitigate geri-drama by addressing the legacy component. There was at piece in the Washington Post this month about adopting a legacy mindset “which benefits others and will survive beyond your lifetime” and how it encourages folks to “think deeper and longer-term.” That really resonated with me. Designing your legacy is the foundation of effective philanthropy, in my opinion. When we think about how we want to be remembered and for what good works, it really informs our giving and our day-to-day interactions with people. Whether it’s through the management of a family foundation or involvement in an outreach program, The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida can help all of us keep our legacies in focus.

Currently, you are loaning your philanthropic capital to Mayor Deegan’s Subcommittee on Eldercare. What work does this committee undertake? Why is it essential for Jacksonvillians?

I am a tiny, itty-bitty microcosm of this work, which is being guided by some incredibly smart, experienced people in Jacksonville. The eldercare subcommittee works hard to provide the Mayor with the information and resources her administration needs to better connect and share the many elder care organizations that exist currently in our city. In Jacksonville, we are fortunate to have an abundance of nonprofit, for-profit and government agencies dedicated to supporting seniors and their complex health, social, medical and needs. Mayor Deegan’s health committee leaders are taking account of how they all work together and understand where the gaps exist.

Do you have a philanthropic mission statement or personal motto? If so, could you share?

Yes, actually – I have several faded handwritten versions of them taped to the plastic cup cabinet in our kitchen, where I hoped they’d brainwash my children and houseguests. Most of them are about the importance of listening and being present like, “be interested, over interesting” and “connection not perfection.But my personal North Star, is this one: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” I believe that is the foundation of authentic philanthropy. You can’t make a meaningful difference unless you really understand the challenge – and that requires giving others your full attention, the most change-making gift there is! And I guess since it’s now come up twice in this interview, “let’s talk about it” would be another mantra. With your listening ears on, of course! 

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