By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
MOUNT LAUREL – In some ways Anna Payanzo Cotton is an international woman and in other ways she is solidly grounded in her South Jersey roots.
Rowan College at Burlington County’s Vice President of Workforce Development and her biracial family spans two continents. Her father was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Cotton spent the first seven years of her life.
Her mother grew up in New York City and her family has roots in South Jersey, which drew her to the area.
“She and my father met at college and she moved back to Congo with him and where I was born,” said Payanzo Cotton, the Harvard University graduate who started the division from scratch in 2015. “We were back and forth a fair bit prior to when I was seven.”
Filling Need in Burlington County
Before coming to RCBC, Payanzo Cotton worked as Burlington County’s human services director, where she was responsible for developing and managing a coordinated human services delivery system that includes several units focused on aging and ability, behavioral health, youth, community development and housing, employment and training, and military and veterans’ services.
“I wouldn’t say it was really from the ground up; it was really more repackaging a lot of stuff that was already happening in order to be more effective and marrying the needs of the community, especially the business community with those of our students and our job seekers in the community,” Payanzo Cotton said.
“So it’s a great opportunity because it allows everyone to reset expectations and to reestablish goals and to really pay attention to our purpose as a public institution. I think personally, I talked to my team a lot about being stewards of public resources and how we can be most effective in those roles,” she added.
RCBC President Dr. Michael A. Cioce said that Payanzo Cotton’s work with the university and the department has become indispensable.
“To keep our regional economy thriving, Rowan College at Burlington County values working with local employers and many different partners to provide training programs for the 21st century,” Cioce said.
“This requires a lot of flexibility, strategic thought and creativity, which are among Anna’s strengths. We have added a number of programs in growing fields such as healthcare, advanced manufacturing, and transportation, logistics and distribution that have helped people enter new high-paying career paths. Anna is critical to these efforts and I appreciate her counsel as a trusted member of my cabinet team,” he continued.
Next Step Made Sense
A Willingboro resident, Payanzo Cotton graduated magna cum laude in social anthropology from Harvard and holds a master’s degree in public health from the University of Pennsylvania.
“I don’t think that there was a conscious decision that academia was where I wanted to be so much as it would be the most effective vehicle for getting this public policy work done,” Payanzo Cotton said. “I think it was more about the planning and policy and I saw the academic setting. But the potential to kind of broaden the scope and impact for everything that we’re doing on a training and education standpoint.
“It just made sense as the next step. Honestly, it made sense as the home for this work because the community. I’ve often quoted former Secretary of Labor in saying, ‘community colleges are the engines of economic development’ and I still believe that very much to be true because this is the institution that’s charged with preparing the workforce of the future from multiple perspectives,” she added.
Payanzo Cotton said she developed a love to learning and mentoring while at Harvard. She said some of those lessons she continues to carry with her today.
“As an undergraduate student I had a work study job and was involved still at the Derek Bok Center for Learning at Harvard, helping graduate students become better educators basically with our charge until we did some mentoring, kind of as undergraduates mentoring graduate students,” she said.
“I loved being part of that process, being part of the process of evaluating teachers and helping them to be as effective as they can and as relatable as possible to their students to make sure that they are getting the message to helping them learn. I think just personally I have a passion for education and for lifelong and continued learning. It just was the next logical step of being able to cover sort of the whole picture, a whole person, whole community approach to the work that I’d been doing,” Payanzo Cotton said.
Before working for Burlington County, Payanzo Cotton served as director of program development, then housing, at Oaks Integrated Care, a mental health specialist at McLean Hospital.
The Ability to Adapt
Payanzo Cotton her experience growing up in a different country around different cultures and languages helped her adapt easily to her surroundings, which came in handy at Harvard and in her ability to help others cope the changing environments.
“Part of that is just being open to transition and change in different perspectives,” Payanzo Cotton said. “When I was four I spoke four languages and so I learned at a very early age to just adapt to the people around me and adjust and not even consciously, but literally linguistically. My brain had to adapt to the people around me.
“And I think that process continued coming to the United States. I think my parents, whether intentional or not, taught me the importance of adaptability through my early childhood. They taught me the importance of really following what’s important to you in your dreams and not necessarily being stuck to what you’ve known before in that process.
“As I spend time reflecting and sharing that with my kids, it is really the importance of language and how we approach others and how we strive to understand their perspective and their language,” she said.
Here are some of the other topics Payanzo Cotton touched on the Front Runner New Jersey interview.
FRNJ: Did you have a particular vision for workforce development, particularly after working as the human services director in Burlington County?
Anna Payanzo Cotton: Yes, and I think I would take it back a little even further, but before I was human services director, I worked as director of housing and oversaw a new housing development and property management and services at what’s now Oaks Integrated Care. It was family service then and I was very involved in statewide efforts to end homelessness and I became involved in county government by chairing a task force working to develop a 10-year plan to end homelessness. So when I started at human services, really my number one agenda was implementing the plan to end homelessness. There were some other significant areas to tackle. One was revamping and aligning youth services provision across our county system. And then aligning what we do with workforce development throughout our network of county institutions quickly became another high priority. As I started in that role I kind of brought the lens of a housing developer to it because so much of what… In order to have a successful affordable housing unit for people with special needs, you have to marry funding and priorities and resources from across a number of stakeholders.
FRNJ: How do you see yourself as a role model, particularly for some that may not see another positive role model as an African-American or a person of color in a leadership position?
Anna Payanzo Cotton: I take that very seriously. I think as a role model in general, as a parent, as a community leader, I’m very involved in youth planning, youth activities and leadership at my church in Willingboro too, at St. Luke Church. So I very much believe in leading by example in servant leadership and then also sort of inspiring and transforming, really taking a transformational perspective to everything we do. Partly I’ve sometimes stayed in positions of visibility if you will, or leadership, I think despite personal frustrations, just because of the importance I know that it has for people who are inspired by my presence in a place. And so, yes, I think it’s important for everyone, young people at first, no matter what their perspective is for young people to feel that they have someone they can connect to, who believes in them and who believes that they can do amazing things despite the challenges that they’ve had.
All Photos courtesy of Rowan College at Burlington County.
Note from AC Joseph Media: If you like this story and others posted on Front Runner New Jersey.com, lend us a hand so we can keep producing articles like these for New Jersey and the world to see. Click on Support FRNJ and make a contribution that will go directly in making more stories like this available. Thank you for reading.