At a recent reception at the home Susan Daggett and Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, I had the pleasure of joining others who are passionate about the arts and those wanting to learn more about the future strategic plans of the state’s only magnet school - The Denver School of the Arts (DSA) at an evening entitled, “A 21st Century Plan for the Denver School of the Arts.”
The DSA is certainly a passion of Susan’s, and the Bennet’s have two of their three daughters enrolled at the comprehensive secondary school that engages students in intensive studies - heavy in the arts as well as academics. Since its opening in 1991, the school continues to inspire and produce exemplary results in both the arts and academics. Susan says: “The DSA allows creative entrepreneurial kids to stretch their wings in a whole different way. It’s a visionary school with smaller classes. There is an audition process to get in where out of 250 candidates, only around 15 students are accepted each year.”
Susan and Michael met while they were both at Yale Law School. They were married on Crystal Lake in Marianna, AR on October 25,1997 under a tent – which turned out to be blessings since it was pouring rain along with thunder, lightning and tornado warnings. Right after they were married, they moved to Denver where Susan joined the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund as an environmental advocate for over 10 years until Michael was appointed senator. Along with her other responsibilities, Susan loves teaching at the University of Denver and working with the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute.
Susan seems to be most comfortable not wearing makeup (she looks beautiful without it) and is happy with her life and who she is. She’s a woman of integrity with many accomplishments of her own.
Susan has been an integral part of making sure the Denver School of the Arts thrives and reaches more children, who because of their economic status, don’t have access to the arts. Susan says: “It’s time to become more diverse and enhance the playing field.”
Daggett has a lovely understated elegant, laid-back style. Her down to earth, genuine personality makes you comfortable being around her. Susan Daggett Bennet with her expanded vision for success is a dedicated leader, wife and mother who will put her many skills to work in our community for years to come.
Your father is an attorney; how did that influence your decision to go to law school? I grew up in a long line of lawyers -- my father, uncle, grandfather, great-uncle, and their fathers and uncles for a few generations back were all lawyers -- so I think it's in my genetic code. That said, I did take a couple of years after college to make sure it seemed like the right choice for me.
How did you develop such a love of the arts? Your mom is an artist – how did that influence you? My mother is extremely creative and was a visual arts teacher for many years. I grew up in a poor, rural community in Eastern Arkansas, in the Mississippi River Delta, so had limited access to the arts….but Mom made sure we took advantage of every opportunity that came our way. Growing up, our house was full of art and music all the time, and Mom supported my interests in piano, dance, and photography from a young age. And now, of course, our daughters are involved in music, dance, theater, and more….and their enthusiasm is quite infectious.
You have so many different interests and passions. Can you mention a few? Two of my three kids are at Denver School of the Arts (DSA) a public magnet school focused on the arts. Their experience has influenced my own passions over the last few years, re-igniting my interest in the arts and giving me a real insight into the role of arts in education. I'm spending a fair amount of my free time these days working as part of the Denver School of the Arts Friends Foundation to help support the school and also to expand the outreach and access to DSA. It's really a remarkable place, promoting excellence in both the arts and academics. Although students come to school based solely on an arts-based admission process, the discipline, passion, and creativity they learn through their arts program carries over to the academic side of the program. It's a very successful model, although limited in scope because the relatively small size of the school. Through the Foundation, we're working really hard to figure out ways of engaging DSA more deeply into the broader arts and education communities, so that we can leverage what we do well to reach more kids who may not have access to the arts. We're looking at expanded summer offerings, after-school enrichment, mentoring, and other efforts that could expand our outreach beyond the DSA community…..and in the meantime are working hard to raise the funds (in part through our Gala later this month) to support these expanded efforts.
In addition to the arts, I'm passionate about conservation and our western landscapes. I've spent much of my professional life working to protect our natural heritage -- our land, water, and wildlife. I care deeply about ensuring the ecological integrity of our natural environment, and have worked hard over the years to push law and policy towards a more sustainable future. I've also spent a fair amount of my free time trying to figure out how to enjoy our great Western landscapes. I love being outdoors, whether hiking or skiing or just traveling around our great state. And I love photography, too, which is mostly about trying to capture and remember special moments and the incredible beauty of the places I've been.
What environmental advocacy projects are you involved in now? I'm not involved in much advocacy these days. For the last couple of years, I've been at DU Law School running the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute and doing a bit of teaching. My professional focus at this point is more focused on understanding and promoting more sustainable patterns of human development -- so I work a lot on the intersection of urban land use and natural resource protection. My role, though, is not an advocacy role. Rather, I'm focused on teaching others, and my hope is to pass on the baton, helping to equip a new generation of lawyers and advocates with the skills to steward this place.
What is a treasured possession that has been passed on to you? This is a tough one. I'm a bit of a packrat and have too many treasured possessions, so can't identify a favorite….although as I think about what I really treasure, a trend emerges….which is basically anything that reminds me of beloved people or places that aren't part of my life anymore. There are a few pieces of furniture, some Christmas ornaments, and a bit of brick-a-brac from Arkansas that aren't fancy, but that represent my family and my roots, which I hold close as a reminder of where I came from and who I am. I treasure old photographs of my family, and books that were meaningful to my grandparents. And I love a few small trinkets that Michael's grandmother gave to me before she passed.
What is your favorite childhood memory? Growing up in the Delta had its drawbacks, but I have some great memories from childhood….mostly from time spent outside with my family. Some of my favorite memories are centered around the rivers, which served as our playground. When I was a kid, our family used to join with a few other families to spend Saturdays and Sundays water skiing up and down the rivers. We would plan excursions to the Mississippi River, which is vast in comparison to even our biggest Western rivers. We could launch our motor boat on the L'Anguille River, a small tributary near our house, connect with the Saint Francis River for skiing, and end up on a huge sandbar on the Mississippi River for a picnic and some parasailing off the beach before heading back home at the end of the day. In the Delta, those rivers are still pretty wild and undeveloped. As a kid, those trips seemed like exciting adventures into the wilderness and were a ton of fun for my family.
What political changes do you see coming in the future? Over the last several years, I've been extremely frustrated by the partisan bickering in Washington, the media that feeds on and promotes the partisanship as a form of entertainment, and the obstructionist politics that prevents well-intentioned people from arriving at principled compromise to solve some of the really serious problems that our country faces. I completely subscribe to the notion that Washington is broken. That said, I'm an eternal optimist, so I believe that our democratic system will respond appropriately in time. It is my fervent hope and belief that the people who are trying to work across the aisle and solve real problems in a bi-partisan way will be rewarded at the ballot box, while those who stand in the way of compromise will be disappointed. In a democracy, the most powerful way of sending a strong message regarding the future that we want is to participate in elections. In the end, I have great faith that our electorate will step up to the plate and that our political leaders will respond.
What do you love the most about Colorado? I love the open, welcoming spirit of Colorado. To me there's still a pioneering sense here that gives people the freedom to think differently, to innovate, and to fit in even if they grew up in a different place or a different culture. I also really love the natural environment here -- particularly the high mountain valleys and the wild rivers.
How do we get our younger generation involved in community giving?
The same way we get others involved in community giving. We have to set an example of generosity ourselves, explain the importance of supporting and building community, and celebrate those who step up. We have to model the values that we hope to teach younger people -- for example, the need to help others and to contribute to the world around us. If we do that, I think we'll engage the younger generation. Their form of community giving may be different from ours, but if they see the value, the reward, of giving back -- whether it's in time, money, or other ways -- I think they'll figure out ways of getting involved and make the world a better place.
What historical figure do you admire the most? I have a hard time picking a favorite -- there are many past leaders who are heroes….but I've always admired Eleanor Roosevelt.
What significant social change would you like to see happen in our country? In the world? One of the issues that worries me the most is climate change. It's happening, and it poses extremely serious challenges for our country and the world. If I could wave my magic wand and change the world, I would transform our production and use of energy, and I would change the patterns of our development to lighten our collective impact on the natural resources and systems that we depend on for our future. At this point, the politics of our country doesn't really support changing our ways. But social change could drive a meaningful policy shift to address the causes and impacts of climate change, and that is what I think it most needed in the world.
You are a teaching at the University of Denver now. How does it compare to the years you were a practicing attorney? I loved practicing law, but the advocacy years were pretty grueling….especially when my girls were really young. I worked for Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm, for many years, and we were always trying to do too much with scant resources, so it was pretty frantic and exhausting. Teaching is luxurious by comparison. I love having space to actually stop and think about the bigger picture. And the chance to teach and mentor the next generation is really rewarding.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? Although still a work in progress, I think the most important thing I'm doing is raising three daughters to be strong, smart, independent women who will make the world a better place.
How does one stay true to their authentic self? In the frenzy of a busy life, it's hard to stop and pay attention to one's self. I can go for days, or even weeks, focusing on "doing" rather than "being." But I try to stop regularly to take stock, and to check in about whether the "doing" really is true to the values that are most central to who I am. I always try to remember where I came from and work hard to hold onto my sense of who I've always been, no matter the circumstances. Some days it's easier than others….
Susan, where do you see yourself 10 years from now? Closing in on 60. Hopefully I'll still be healthy, active, engaged in the community, and involved with my family. By then, all of my children will be out of school (or at least high school), so I'm pretty sure I won't be driving carpools or spending my Saturdays at the soccer fields…but otherwise, I don't have a plan. Life is full of so many interesting opportunities that are often unexpected and unplanned -- I like to stay open to the possibilities.
If you could go back 25 years, is there something you would do differently? I don't think so. 25 years ago I was heading off to Yale Law School, which in retrospect still seems like the right choice. It led me to a career I've loved and, ultimately, it led me to Michael.
Has your life gone according to plan, or were there some surprises along the way? My life has been full of surprises and has rarely gone according to plan. That may be because I've never really had a "plan," but rather have just seized interesting opportunities as they've come my way. When Michael and I married and moved to Colorado, we had some notion that Colorado would be a great place to raise a family and start our marriage….but we never imaged that future that we got. When Michael became Superintendent of Denver Public Schools, he was a very non-traditional candidate for the job and most people thought he was kind of crazy to get involved in the incredibly difficult world of school reform. And, of course, his appointment to fill Sen. Ken Salazar's seat in the U.S. Senate came as a complete surprise to everyone, including us. Our path has not been predictable in any way, and we could never have planned for it….but those opportunities have shaped our lives and broadened our world in so many ways.
How do you want to be remembered by future generations? Stuck on this one….