Ellen Baxter ’75, the founder and executive director of an innovative low-income housing organization in New York City, returned to Bowdoin recently to share her wisdom with students on leadership and making a difference.
“I am not a natural-born leader,” she confessed right off, speaking to a couple dozen students in Daggett Lounge. They are part of two ongoing leadership development series at Bowdoin run by Student Activities and the McKeen Center. “I used to be shy and introverted, and I still am. For those who are like that, hang in there, it gets better!”
Baxter went on to describe the early years of her post-college life, which took her from Bowdoin to Belgium on a Watson Fellowship, and then to New York City, where she eventually founded Broadway Housing Communities.
Prior to launching her nonprofit start-up, Baxter studied at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Health. During graduate school, she worked for a social welfare agency that aided the mentally ill. For a research project, Baxter interviewed people living outside, asking them such things as where they once lived, where they got their food, whether they saw a doctor or if they ever lived in a mental institution.
“What was most startling for me about moving to New York City from Brunswick and Belgium was that the poverty was so visible,” Baxter said. “People were all over the streets and in the subways.”
During this time, Baxter was introduced through a mutual acquaintance to a newly minted lawyer who was interested in helping the poor. Together they drafted a class-action lawsuit on behalf of homeless men in the city, arguing that the New York state constitution obligated the city to provide food, clothing and shelter to its destitute inhabitants.
The case was heard by the New York Supreme Court in 1979. “To our astonishment, the judge ruled in favor of homeless men and said the city had to shelter every homeless man who shows up,” Baxter said. A similar case was won soon after for homeless women. Today, Baxter says she and the Coalition for the Homeless continue to file lawsuits against city and state administrations to keep new mayors and governors from skirting their duties to the most needy.
Baxter then described how she watched the city open its first shelters, comparing them to “refugee camps” with degrading and deplorable conditions. “We thought we could do better than this,” she recalled.
So began her 30-year work of providing dignified, good-quality housing for homeless people, impoverished families and new immigrants. She founded Broadway Housing Communities in 1983. Today, the organization manages six buildings in Harlem and Washington Heights and houses 300 households in rent-stabilized apartments. Working by her side is a fellow Bowdoin alumna, Mary Ann Villari ’75 , who is Broadway Housing’s COO.
This summer, Broadway Housing Communities will open its newest building, an $80 million complex with 124 apartments. Almost 50,000 applications came in from people hoping to rent one of these units, Baxter said. The unique part of Sugar Hill, as the development is called, is that it will be more than just a low-income apartment building. It will also contain an art museum and an early childhood center.
Baxter said she learned from her years of working in affordable housing that permanent homes form the bedrock of a community, but that a community, to be healthy and prosperous, also needs to support its children. “We provide tutoring and mentoring to make sure the kids living in our buildings excel academically,” Baxter said. “The building can do for these kids what middle class parents do for their kids.”
Baxter ended her talk with another confession: “I never expected this was how my life would turn out,” she said. “It’s helpful to keep close to the people you care about and stay close to the communities that need your advocacy.”
The Leadership Development Series, run by Student Activities, is supported by the Healey Family Fund for Leadership Development.