Annette Sanderson ’82 is not one to mince words. “I’ll be quick and concise,” she told me, before diving into a precisely phrased yet encompassing recapitulation of her path to her current position as executive director for the Housing Authority of the City of Hartford, Connecticut (HACH). Her calm, matter-of-fact approach is a key element of her remarkable adaptability in response to challenges. It is what enabled her to succeed as a Black woman in the white- and male-dominated space of Amherst College in the 1970s and 80s. It also helped her enter law school immediately after Amherst, which led her to a series of positions in the legal field. And it certainly came in handy when she stepped into a role that she never intended to hold: her now nearly ten-year span atop HACH.
But don’t let Sanderson’s levelheaded disposition mislead you. Even more essential to her success is her genuine interest in understanding other people — and, perhaps most importantly, her unyielding efforts to be of service to them. Of her job, Sanderson remarked, “To do good in the community, it means the world to me.” And by pairing an unflappable problem-solving ability with a passion for helping others, Sanderson is able to do just what she aims. She is benefitting the city of Hartford by providing affordable and accessible housing options for its 123,000 citizens. But it has been a long and at times arduous journey for Sanderson to reach this point of success.
An Early Education
While Sanderson couldn’t foresee her future career with HACH, Hartford public housing has been a part of her life from as early as she can remember. When she was just three weeks old, her family moved into public housing in the city’s north end. She gained firsthand knowledge of the difficulties that frequently arise for those who live in public housing — namely, the initial application process and the required yearly recertification. Sanderson’s mother, the head of the household and a single parent to two daughters, frequently became frustrated with these bureaucratic barriers to obtaining public housing. Sanderson noted with a chuckle that she now runs the agency that manages the property she and her family used to live on. Much time would elapse, however, before Sanderson’s childhood experiences would become directly applicable to her work.
A strong student in high school, Sanderson found herself with many quality options when it came time to select a college. On a guidance counselor’s recommendation, she took a closer look at a small, but prestigious, liberal arts college in Massachusetts. Amherst’s close-knit community and strong educational reputation won over Sanderson — and it didn’t hurt that it was just a one-hour drive from her home in Hartford.
A Tough Transition
The transition from high school to college was a jarring experience for Sanderson. “When you grow up in an inner-city environment, and you go to a high school that’s predominantly Black or Puerto Rican, and then you go to a place like Amherst College that, when I went there, was still predominantly white, male, and rich, that’s a bit of a culture shock,” she said. Sanderson was a member of just the third class in Amherst’s history to admit women.
Fortunately, Sanderson found support systems to deal with the sometimes exclusionary atmosphere she encountered at the college. She recalled attending a weekend orientation for Black students soon after her arrival at the college. Sanderson was also glad to have as a roommate another student who had entered from the same high school as she had, and who could share in her experience. Above all, she cited the Black Students Union (BSU) as being her most crucial on-campus support system.
“Quite honestly, I don’t know if I would have survived on campus. It helped me tremendously, and it helped being able to go to students that are like you, and being able to share some of the experiences that you had to deal with on campus was a significant help,” Sanderson said of BSU.
While the academic transition didn’t present as much of a challenge as the cultural shift, the uptick in rigor still required an adjustment. However, with the help of faculty like Charles Hamilton Houston Professor in American Culture Jan Dizard, Sanderson’s eventual thesis advisor, she was able to find her academic sweet spot in the sociology department. As a discipline, sociology appealed to Sanderson’s interest in learning about how different groups of people lived, both within and outside the United States. Her studies culminated in a senior thesis that investigated households headed by Black women, a topic which emerged from Sanderson’s own experience being raised in such a household.
At some point during her time at Amherst — Sanderson doesn’t remember exactly when — she decided that she wanted to attend law school immediately after graduating. An interest in understanding how different communities are affected by laws served as Sanderson’s primary motivation for this pursuit. She also wanted to gain the ability to analyze a situation from a variety of perspectives — a certain benefit of a legal education. So, upon graduation from Amherst, Sanderson enrolled in the University of Connecticut School of Law, eager to begin the next step in her academic journey.
The transition from college to law school, although still somewhat difficult, was not as fraught as Sanderson’s entrance into college. Her educational experience at Amherst provided a strong academic foundation off of which she could build. “Law school was very challenging at times. However, I think that study habits that I developed at Amherst prepared me for my law school career,” Sanderson remarked.
Sanderson’s time in law school, although not directly applicable to her current career as the head of HACH, prepared her well for her earlier work in the legal field, and, generally, by building her abilities of critical thinking and analysis.
After graduating law school in 1985, Sanderson held a number of different positions in both public and private sectors. These included working as counsel for the Connecticut State Treasurer’s Office, a stint in asset management, and serving as the executive director of the Capital City Economic Development Authority — an organization which aims to stimulate the local economy of Hartford. Sanderson credits her varied working experiences with developing her capacity to understand and interface effectively with many different types of people.
In 2007, armed with education and experience, Sanderson decided to branch out and start her own legal practice. Soon after, she earned the responsibility of acting as the Housing Authority of Hartford’s outside counsel, a contract-based position that she held for four years. As is the randomness of life, it was only when the previous executive director was struck by illness that Sanderson was asked, to her surprise, if she would be interested in taking the position in an “acting” capacity. She agreed and, “long story short,” has now been in the role for nearly 10 years.
Putting Roofs Over Heads
While it may have begun under uncertain circumstances, Sanderson’s time as executive director of HACH has proved fruitful — both for the city of Hartford and for Sanderson herself. Coming into the role, Sanderson already held a sincere appreciation for the necessity of public housing. She also understood, from her own experience on the other side of things, the difficulties involved in the process of obtaining and maintaining residence in public housing, and she brings this perspective to her leadership.
“I try to instill in every employee here that we are serving the poorest of the poor, and they may not be truly understanding of what the requirements are, and it’s our job to help them work through these processes,” Sanderson told me.
Sanderson’s thoughtful approach has yielded concrete results. During her tenure, HACH has taken down and is in the process of rebuilding nearly 1000 units of “dilapidated” housing built in the 1940’s. It’s Sanderson’s mission to make sure that the housing provided by HACH is not only cost-effective, but also “decent and safe” for the residents.
Even during the especially trying time of the Covid pandemic, Sanderson’s cool-headed leadership has guided HACH through. The organization was forced to shut its doors to the public, while still attempting to serve those in need of housing in Hartford. Repairs during the pandemic had to be limited to only the most essential emergency situations. And to deal with the matter of processing paperwork without an open office, the agency shifted to the implementation of drop boxes. Sanderson and her team were ready for whatever adaptation was necessary.
“It was a significant adjustment. But I believe that, through this all, we’ve learned that we can be more efficient in our operations — but it has been a learning experience,” Sanderson said of the organization’s time during Covid.
But of all the Covid-necessitated changes, the disruption to the sense of community in public housing seemed to bother Sanderson most. Out of health concerns, the agency has been forced to shut down community rooms in the buildings where residents live. This means that the residents are no longer able to “get together, to watch television together, to play bingo and other board games” and build the connections that can be fostered by living in close proximity to each other. Sanderson also lamented that her organization’s direct interaction with the people it serves has been disrupted. Nevertheless, as a result of Sanderson’s calm and considerate leadership, the Hartford Housing Authority has been able to overcome these numerous challenges.
Reflection and Moving Forward
Having paired her ability to deftly deal with difficult situations and her interest in helping others, Sanderson seems poised for a long run in her current role with HACH. She shows no signs of slowing down, especially as normalcy gradually returns and the pandemic cools off. With this continued success, Sanderson can truly be looked at as someone who has taken full advantage of her Amherst education.
And while Sanderson’s time at Amherst wasn’t always the idyllic experience you might find enshrined in an admissions brochure, she maintains that it prepared her, in many ways, for the path that lay ahead. “While I was at Amherst, at times, it was very challenging, in many respects. And those four years really shaped me as a person. And I know that after going through Amherst College and the challenges that I dealt with there, I can deal with most challenges in life.”
Sanderson was optimistic about recent advancements in diversity and inclusivity at the college. “It appears that the administration has recognized some of the challenges that students from diverse backgrounds face. I do read the information that’s coming out of the administration about their attempts to make Amherst a more diverse and welcoming environment. And I’m glad to see that there’s a recognition that change needs to be made.”