An inspiring family legacy can be a powerful influence. Just ask Denise Jordan, MS ’99, the Springfield Housing Authority’s new executive director. It’s an appointment that comes on the heels of a decade spent as Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno’s chief of staff, Jordan being the first African American to serve in such a position, and a life dedicated to making the world a better, more equitable place.
Soft-spoken and straightforward, Jordan speaks with quiet authority about what it means to be a leader. “This new position is another way for me to do what I’ve done throughout my career, which is to help people. The housing authority is like a smaller city, and I’ll still be dealing with quality of life issues. Every job I’ve ever had, from civil rights officer for Health and Human Services, to where I am now, I’ve been paid to help people, which is what I would do anyway. I was born into a house of service.”
Jordan’s father, Rep. Raymond A. Jordan, was elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature in 1975 where he served until 1995 when he accepted an appointment from former President Bill Clinton to become the New England special project officer for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He served as vice-chair of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee and has been a member of the Democratic National Committee since 1996, the first and only African American member of the DNC from Massachusetts. He has three honorary doctorates, including one from AIC, and Springfield recently named its first senior center after him in recognition of his 40 years of work in and for the community. Jordan’s mother, Donna, worked for the housing authority and the Attorney General’s Office and, alongside her husband, was a civil rights activist for decades.
Jordan remembers wanting to grow up to become the director of a community center or to work on a college campus. “I actually was an academic advisor at AIC for a few years,” she said, “acting as a coordinator for first-generation and low-income students. In fact, I was still doing that during my first six months as the mayor’s chief of staff.”
Jordan actually grew up in the shadow of American International College: Her grandmother’s house on Maynard Street stood right behind the dorms, her father was executive director of the College’s African American Cultural Center, and her mother took classes there. “The campus was in our backyard and I was there a lot as a child. I consider myself an ‘AIC baby.’” Jordan earned a bachelor’s in political science/public affairs from Lincoln University, the nation’s first degree-granting Historically Black College and University (HBCU), and returned to AIC for her graduate studies. “I was always interested in human resources and AIC had the master’s program in human resource development, so it made sense. I was already familiar with the work of Carkhuff and Berenson. We had many of their books, and my parents actually knew them when they taught at AIC.”
For those not familiar with those two scholars, Dr. Robert R. Carkhuff and Dr. Bernard G. Berenson were pioneering social scientists, breaking new ground in the sixties, seventies, and eighties in the areas of leadership, organizational capital development, and management. Carkhuff is one of the most frequently referenced writers in the social sciences, and Berenson was co-founder of the original Center for Human Resource Development and chair of its graduate training program at AIC.
“Coming from a human services background, the curriculum at AIC was very helpful to me,” said Jordan. “There were courses focused on investing in human capital, looking at people in terms of their performance and how that impacts the overall productivity of an organization. If you don’t invest in your workforce, your outcomes won’t be as good as they could be. I added the word exemplar to my vocabulary, and I learned that in the HRD program.”
Fittingly, exemplar is exactly how one would describe Jordan in terms of her commitment to public service and volunteerism. Despite a demanding schedule and heavy professional responsibilities, Jordan served as this year’s chair of the Rays of Hope 25th Anniversary Walk & Run Toward The Cure. “That’s my baby, that’s the big deal. As a breast cancer survivor, I joined their board in 2008 and worked alongside my best friend, the late Tracy Benton Whitley.” For the past eight years, Jordan organized Pink and Denim Day in Springfield, where all city employees can wear jeans and something pink for a donation to the cause.
Jordan is also an active member on the President’s Advisory Board of Bay Path University in Longmeadow. “Every year Bay Path hosts a huge women’s conference and has brought in people like Jane Fonda, Dr. Maya Angelou, Soledad O’Brien, Arianna Huffington, Queen Latifah—all these dynamic women from across the country coming together. It’s all about empowerment and professional development.”
Jordan has been recognized numerous times for her advocacy and achievements, including being named a Black Woman of Excellence by the Urban League of Springfield; a Woman of Distinction by the Girl Scouts; receiving the Stone Soul Festival’s Legacy Award; the Springfield Museum’s African Steering Hall’s Ubora Award, an honor she shares with her father; and the Delta Chi Chapter, Omega Phi Psi Fraternity’s Citizen of the Year Award, to name just a few. Most recently, Jordan was recognized at the inaugural Women of Impact Awards, sponsored by BusinessWest.
“I love this city,” said Jordan. “I am honored to have been a part of Springfield’s revitalization. We have the MGM casino now, the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation facility, Union Station is back on track. We went through a tornado, a natural gas explosion, a freak Nor’easter where we were without power for more than a week, and I loved every minute of the work.”
Jordan views her new position with the Housing Authority as another step in a life of servant leadership. “My work is so rewarding. I’ve never felt as though I were just going to a job. I’ve always been blessed by having people come to me along the way and say, ‘Here’s a position I think you should apply for.’
“Leadership comes in so many different forms,” she added. “I’ve never been interested in elected office. You don’t need to be elected to lead. Leader is a title that should be based on your body of work.”
Based on Jordan’s impressive body of work, it’s a title she has earned and richly deserves, and the city of Springfield is a better place because of her passion for the people who call it home.
-By Ellen Dooley
Featured Photo Credit: Leon Nguyen 16′