Leading the Examined Life

June 28, 2013

A nurse and community health activist Cheryl Bartlett ’06 is the new public health commissioner for Massachusetts. A healthcare administration major, Bartlett became the interim commissioner of the department in May. In 2006, she appeared on the cover of the Stonehill Alumni Magazine in a feature profiling alumni who lead lives of meaning and purpose. As the director of the Siaconset Beach Preservation Fund at the time, Bartlett, who had taken a break from nursing, was working to prevent beach erosion in Nantucket. To read her profile, see below.

Siaconset Beach on Nantucket is wasting away — losing a shocking 62 feet a year to erosion — and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts isn’t doing anything about it. It’s a fight tailor-made for Cheryl Bartlett ’06, executive director of the Siaconset Beach Preservation Fund (SBPF).

“I’m a cause kind of person,” confesses Bartlett, who is two courses shy of a bachelor’s degree in health care administration.“Once I come to understand a problem and believe in it, I throw myself into it and work as hard as I can.”

For the past year, Bartlett has been working very hard. As SBPF’s first paid employee, she’s organized meetings, lobbied legislators and consulted with a bevy of experts – coastal engineers, biologists and geologists – all in an effort to raise $20 million to mine 2.4 million cubic yards of sand to stem the tide of erosion on Nantucket’s seaward beach.

Already, she’s enjoying some success. In December, Rep. Eric Turkington (D-Falmouth) and Sen. Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) introduced a bill to create a special commission to study beach erosion in the Commonwealth. Though the bill’s timing may not benefit SBPF directly, “it does bring awareness to the issue,” Bartlett notes.

Some argue that raising money to preserve Siaconset Beach is a tough sell, as it’s home to some of the most expensive real estate on Nantucket. “It’s a matter of justice,” says Bartlett. “The beaches are open to everyone – resident and tourist alike. I care because I live on Nantucket and it’s beautiful. That’s part of why I moved there.”

Bartlett is no stranger to hard-fought battles. Before taking the helm at SBPF, she spent her career in health care, most recently as executive director of Community Action Committee of Cape Cod and the Islands, where she opened a controversial shelter for heroin addicts; previously, she was executive director of the Nantucket AIDS Network.

Leading SBPF is a different direction for Bartlett, a trained nurse, but a welcome one after 30 years in direct care. “I needed a break, and I wanted a change,” she says. Pursuing a degree at Stonehill (no easy feat, making the weekly commute from Nantucket) helped her develop management skills. SBPF seemed the perfect marriage of management, political activism and her love for the island.

Bartlett is hopeful that her work with SBPF will have broader impact than just Nantucket. She points out that Massachusetts is the only coastal state that doesn’t have a comprehensive erosion policy —which is shortsighted, considering that the state depends on its beaches for tourism and income.

“I want to set up the political will to get this done, and get the right people at the table. I like a challenge,” she asserts. “I’ve always been able to get doors to open.”