Working to Improve Hartford's Public Housing
Issue   |   Fri, 10/23/2015 - 12:55
The Amherst Olio 1982
Sanderson said the adaptation skills she gained at Amherst proved useful throughout her life.

After growing up in public housing in Hartford, Anette Sanderson is now dedicating her life to making Hartford a better place to live. Sanderson, the executive director of the Hartford Housing Authority, also serves as the chair of Amherst’s alumni advisory board.

Transitioning to Amherst

Sanderson grew up in the north end of Hartford and attended a predominantly black high school located in the inner city. “Going to Amherst was quite a transition to me,” she said. “To go from an inner city environment to a place like Amherst College, which is quite different, [was difficult] for me from a social perspective.”

Sanderson said she appreciates the college’s efforts to reach out to students from different backgrounds, but admitted that she did not feel completely comfortable in this new environment at a point when the college had just become accessible to low-income students.

“There was definitely a division I felt coming from an inner city high school,” Sanderson said. “I felt like an outsider for a while because it was a totally different environment than what I was used to. I felt very different on campus being from a poor urban environment among people who are very much not from a poor urban environment.”

Sanderson said she felt like her gender affected her experience on campus as well. A member of only the third incoming class of women in the fall of 1978, she shared a feeling of alienation with many women in the early period of co-education at Amherst.

Sanderson said that at the time she attended the college, Amherst was still a very male-oriented campus. She said it was amazing to come back to campus and see a student body that is half female — something many students take for granted nowadays.

“I think at this point Amherst is doing a better job of attempting to make students from diverse backgrounds feel comfortable,” Sanderson said. “I think their efforts have improved.”

A couple of students who attended high school in Hartford with Sanderson also attended Amherst. Being around people of the same background eased the otherwise difficult transition for Sanderson. And according to her friend Gary Rhule ’84, Sanderson was the type of friend that made every day a little sunnier.

“Annette is the real deal: bright, funny, thoughtful,” Rhule said. “We have been friends for many years. Whenever the storms of life bring tumultuous waves, she is there to provide advice and to help steer you to shore. Lost your funny bone? Call Annette, she will make you laugh.”

Sanderson says that looking back at her time at Amherst, her friends were her favorite part. “I met some good people,” she said. She also found a great support system in the Black Student Union.

Currently the chair of the Alumni Executive Committee, Amherst’s alumni advisory board, Sanderson has played a role in prioritizing the diversity she commends the college on enhancing today.

As she states in her member bio for the Executive Committee, “Amherst must continue to evolve with societal changes ... Our talented and diverse alumni are a very valuable resource to the college community.”

Adapting to New Circumstances

When I asked Sanderson to identify the most important lesson she had learned during her time at Amherst, she had a very quick answer: adaptation.

“I learned very quickly how to adapt to different situations,” Sanderson said. “I became a very confident person because I had to. Coming from my background, in order to survive in a place like Amherst College, I had to learn to be confident and believe in myself.”

She said the element of adaptation that she found most challenging was traveling back and forth between Amherst and Hartford because “in Amherst you’re acting one way, and when you’re home, you have to learn to act another way.”

“It’s all about adapting,” she said. “Quite honestly, that’s what my whole experience at Amherst taught me.”

She continuously emphasized that her skill in adapting to different situations came about because she had had no other choice but to adapt in order to succeed.

Unlike many of her fellow classmates, she had not come from a background that facilitated an easy transition into Amhers’s challenging academic and social experience.

The challenges she faced at home were completely different from those in college, but her willingness to adapt to this new environment allowed her to be equally successful in college as she had been in high school.

Public and Private Sector Jobs

After graduating from Amherst in 1982, Sanderson attended University of Connecticut’s School of Law and graduated in 1985.

Upon graduation, Sanderson first worked in the public sector at the Connecticut state treasurer’s office and then transitioned to the private sector to work in investment management at Cigna. Sanderson also had her own law firm and worked as general counsel for the city housing authority before taking her position there as executive director, a position she has held since 2012.

The Hartford housing authority owns and operates public housing in the city of Hartford.

Sanderson, who has benefited from public housing in the past, is very passionate about providing the basic need of housing to the city’s most needy.

After having a number of jobs in the public and the private sector, Sanderson confirmed that her current job is her favorite.

“This job is the best thing I’ve ever done career-wise because it is the most personally rewarding,” Sanderson said.

“With housing, we’re feeding a basic need of society to the neediest of people.”

On Working in the Public Sector

Sanderson has continued to use her skill in adaptation in her various jobs in the private and public sectors.
She is dedicated to giving back to the city of Hartford, where she has lived for the majority of her life. She now lives there with her husband and 16-year-old son. In spite of the city’s successful business sector, 30 percent of the families in Hartford live below the poverty line.

When I asked Sanderson what the biggest challenges of working in the public sector were, implying that some consider it to be an incredibly challenging work environment, she showed her passion for these issues in her response.

“I love my job, I love what I do every day; I mean we’re providing housing for very poor people,” she said. “Some of the challenges are that there is just not enough housing [or] not enough resources to meet all the needs. That is the biggest challenge: not having the resources we need to help everyone that we’d like to help.”

Even so, she has certainly helped a great deal. The Hartford Housing Authority provides housing for 35,000 people in Hartford, which is about a fourth of the city’s population.

The Hartford Housing Authority seeks to provide more than just housing. Sanderson works to improve the quality and expand the supply of affordable housing and better the working environments for employees. By striving for these goals, the authority seeks to strengthen the fabric of their community and be a “catalyst for change,” as they say in their mission statement.

An adaptive person seeking to bring change to her home, Sanderson said, “I want to make the community I grew up in a better community.”