PLAN 74:
Making The World A Better Place

Giving Back, Year after Year: Norma Satten (MCP ‘45)

Norma Satten (MCP ‘45) has given to the School of Architecture + Planning every year for more than thirty years. This incredible achievement manifests a deep and constant loyalty to a grateful school. ‘I’m giving back for what I received,’ she says. ‘I did my graduate work at MIT in city planning and the work I did there has enabled me to do whatever I have done in terms of professional work.’

The best part is that she gives generously to MIT for enabling her to give generously to the world. She’s paying back and paying forward, loyal to a principle from her Jewish background – Tikkun Olam – which she roughly translates as ‘making the world a better place’.

How did Satten come to MIT? ‘That’s an interesting story,’ she says. ‘I was a student at Brooklyn College in New York in the early 1940s. My major was economics and I was interested in housing and urban tax issues. When I graduated in 1943, in the middle of World War II, I asked myself, what could I do in the future to make the world a better place? I had been interested in low-rent housing, but my major interest was to change the way cities were developed.

The professor I had been working with used to teach at MIT and he told me that MIT had a department of city planning [now called the department of urban studies and planning]. ‘You could go there,’ he said. I replied, ‘I don’t have the money. And I don’t think they let women in.’ He said, ‘Well, they do let women in. And you could apply for a scholarship.’ So that is what I did.’

In the ‘40s, Frederick J. Adams was the head of the city planning department, with whom Satten researched. When she joined the department, most students had architecture or civil engineering backgrounds; she was one of the first with an economics background. She also remembers another fellow student, Henry Cohen, who also had an uncommon background for city planning (in sociology), and who had became Director of Research of the Planning Department and later Deputy City Administrator in New York City.

After leaving MIT, Satten worked in city planning in Kansas City MO, where her husband had been stationed in the military. When he left the service to train as a psychiatrist, they moved to Topeka where she helped set up the city planning department, and later worked for the Kansas Department of Economic Development. In 1965, when the federal government passed Medicaid and Medicare, she continued to use her city planning know-how as the director of the state health planning agency.

In 1971 the Sattens moved to San Francisco, where she involved herself in area-wide health planning. In 1982, in the thick of the AIDS epidemic, she was asked to work for the San Francisco Home Health and Hospice. ‘We had people dying like flies,’ she remembers. ‘We said, we have to do something to help these men (for they were mostly men) since many of them were individuals who did not have families. So we set up the AIDS Home Health and Hospice Program. Later , we felt we needed a residence for them and developed Coming Home Hospice, one of the first residential hospices for AIDS patients in the country.’ Satten says that setting up this AIDS residence has been one of her greatest accomplishments.

The goodness of Norma Satten’s life has continued: she volunteers in various activities. Recently, her focus has been to develop resources for people who need long-term care, but to keep them in the community, rather than in nursing facilities. She serves on the Board of Directors for North and South Adult Day Health Services, on the mayor’s Long Term Care Coordinating Council, and Planning for Elders in the Central City Board.

“One of the newest things I’ve gotten involved in is working against human trafficking and trying to educate the public about this issue. I started out with the National Council of Jewish Women and then we formed what we call the Jewish Coalition to End Human Trafficking, now a city-wide effort.’

This year Norma Satten celebrates her 65th year since graduation. She says to new graduates, ‘do what is important for you. If people have a goal in life and work toward that goal, that is important.’

Satten has followed this truism of making the world a better place, and in addition to her inspiring achievements, she has given to the School of Architecture + Planning for decades.

‘I think it’s very important,’ she says, ‘for people who have benefited from an education like MIT’s to give back to help others get the same kind of education, so they can go out and make the world a better place.’

Reported and written by Stephanie Hatch
Posted May 2010