Sandra Brooks Henriquez,
CEO of the Detroit Housing Commission
They are determined to use their experience, influence, and positions to help make their business, organization, and world a more inclusive place. They are breaking barriers—and then reaching back to help those behind them overcome the same hurdles. They are mentoring students or younger colleagues, hiring diverse candidates, offering opportunities, and ensuring that employees succeed and are promoted so that their workplace and their communities reflect the richness and talents of the country’s increasingly diverse population.
Sandra Brooks Henriquez arrived at BU in the late 1960s from upstate New York, where she’d graduated near the top of her high school class. As a freshman, Henriquez had aspirations of becoming a physician.
“I think less than 2 percent of the student body was African American at the time,” recalls Henriquez (CAS’72). “So it was not unusual for me to be the only one on campus, and in the dorms.”
As things turned out, Henriquez found her calling in the realm of public service and affordable housing. After graduating from BU with a degree in psychology, she began her career as a property manager in a racially mixed housing development in Brighton, Mass., in the mid 1970s. She went on to work for the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), one of the nation’s largest public housing agencies, the state of Massachusetts Executive Office of Communities and Development, and a real estate property management company that oversaw affordable housing.
In 1996, Mayor Thomas M. Menino (Hon.’01) named her administrator and chief executive officer of the BHA. Henriquez turned what had been a struggling agency into a national leader among public housing authorities. Under her watch, the BHA created programs to help the homeless, introduced “green” policies to its property management, construction, and development, and redeveloped isolated pockets of deteriorating public housing into vibrant, mixed-income neighborhoods. In recognition of her work to desegregate public housing, YWCA Boston created the Sandra B. Henriquez Racial Justice Award, given to individuals who have significantly advanced civil rights and worked to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace.
In 2009, President Barack Obama’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Shaun Donovan, tapped Henriquez to serve as HUD’s assistant secretary for public housing and Indian housing. The first woman to hold that post, she oversaw an office with a $27 billion budget and public housing and rental assistance programs that serve 3.2 million low-income families. She also had responsibility for housing programs run by 566 federally recognized Native American, Native Alaskan, and Native Hawaiian tribes.
“After I was sworn in, the first thing the secretary said to me was, ‘Are you ready to change the world?’” Henriquez says. “I said, ‘Yes, my rose-colored glasses are on so thick.’”
Since 2019, Henriquez has been CEO of the Detroit Housing Commission, and she runs her own affordable-housing consulting firm. After more than four decades in the field, she describes public service and affordable housing as her vocation and her avocation.
She recalls a woman who approached her years ago at a BHA ribbon-cutting for a newly renovated senior housing development in the South End, to thank her. “She said to me, ‘I’ve lived here for 10 years and I’d never invited anybody into my apartment or to this building. None of my friends has ever been here. But since you’ve done this remodeling, I’ve asked people to come join me for coffee or for dinner or whatever all the time. I’m finally proud of where I live.’ That was so satisfying to hear.”
Bostonia talked with Henriquez about her experience at BU, about what it was like to start her career in public housing in Boston in the tumultuous 1970s, and about race, racism, and people’s perceptions of her as a Black woman.
With Sandra Brooks Henriquez
Bostonia: You’ve said that in Spencerport, N.Y., where you grew up, yours was the only Black family. What was that like for you?
Sandra Brooks Henriquez: I’ve lived a very sheltered, blessed life. My dad worked for Eastman Kodak for 42 years. He started out as a machinist and he ended up in HR doing recruiting. On top of his full-time job, he always had one or two part-time jobs, usually janitorial work. A lot of the time he was also going to school part-time so he could learn something work-related. My mother worked at Eastman Kodak for awhile, but after she had me, and then my brother, she was a homemaker. My dad told my brother and me, “You’re Black, you have to work twice as hard to get half as far.” That was drummed into us by both our parents. It still sticks with me today: you do your job to the best of your ability. Whatever it is, you have to be the best.
I went to a high school with 900 students and I was the only Black student. From first grade to graduation, I can count the number of racial incidents on one hand and still have fingers left over. There was no name-calling or anything like that. I probably had an unusual experience.
Bostonia: What was it like in the late 1960s, going from your high school to BU?
Sandra Brooks Henriquez: I went from a small suburban town to a university in the heart of a major city. The city and the freedom of college were a real change for me. I came out of a place where I’d been the only Black student in my high school, so coming to an all-white university was just an extension of that…. I met a woman in my dorm from Connecticut who said she had never met a Black person who wasn’t a gardener or a maid or someone in service to her family. At the time, I never thought about what that really meant, except that I found it strange that Black people knew of lots of white people in all walks of life, but white people did not know us in the same way. In fact, I knew Black people as teachers, doctors, lawyers, people in every profession and walk of life. White students at BU were not dismissive of me. I was a curiosity. At the same time, though, faculty treated me as if I was just another student.
I had a ball at BU. I was involved in student government, in the life of BU. It was the 60s and 70s; we marched against the war in Vietnam. It was my junior or sophomore year, I think, when BU began recruiting more students of color—especially Black students. And I found myself, with some of those students, being seen as not Black enough. Our experiences as Black people were very different. For a long time, I was on my own personal journey to figure out, who is Sandra Brooks? Where do I fit in? What do I call myself? Am I Black enough or am I too white? Do I like myself? It probably took me until my early 20s to think, I’m a good person and if you don’t like me, it’s your loss. It took awhile for me to figure all that out, as a woman, and particularly, an African American woman.
I think something happens with all young women, regardless of color, where we have self-esteem issues, and I went through that. A friend still sends me affirmations every day about my being good enough. Because there are times when you have self-doubt about how you present to the world. And you need, or at least I need, to be reminded that I am enough.
Bostonia: Can you tell us what it was like to start your career in Boston in the mid-1970s?
Sandra Brooks Henriquez: I always thought that racism and racist behavior existed only in the South. Shame on me, right?
I love Boston most of the time, but back then I thought, I’m up North and it’s not racist up North, there are no racial issues up North. So then when something would happen that was based on color, I had to spend time thinking, did that just happen? Let me run the tape back in my head. And then it was, okay, now how do I react to that? Am I righteously indignant? Do I say anything at all? What do I say? And by the time I process all of that, the moment is gone. And I’ve now internalized all of it with no outlet.
Bostonia: You’ve mentioned the bigotry in Boston in those days. What was an example of one of the times when something happened and you had to rerun the tape in your head?
Sandra Brooks Henriquez: I walked into a store [in Back Bay], with branches across the country—I won’t name it because they’re still in business today—to buy a Christmas present. There are three salesmen and they’re all talking to each other. I’m the only client on that floor and as I walk in, they look up. I go to the counter and see a pair of gloves I want to buy. I clear my throat and I look up. They don’t look at me. So I clear my throat again. I say, “Can someone help me over here, please, I’d like to see these gloves.” And one of the salespeople says, “Oh, we didn’t see you.” And I say, “Oh, yeah, like Ralph Ellison and Invisible Man.”
He takes the gloves out and I say, “I’ll take these and I’d like them gift-wrapped, please.” I open my wallet because I’m going to pay with cash and I purposely let some bills fall out on the counter because I wanted them to know I could afford this. The gloves are all wrapped up and I walk to the door. Then I play the tape in my head. And I walk back and I say, “Excuse me, I don’t want these.” That was 1972, and to this day I have yet to buy one item of clothing or merchandise from that store.
Another time I went shopping in the supermarket. I’m putting my groceries on the conveyor belt and the cashier looks at me, and I can’t figure out why she’s not ringing me up. I ask, “Is there a problem?” And she says, “You have to separate your food from your nonfood items.” And I say, “For what?” And she says, ”You’re paying with food stamps, aren’t you?” And I said, “Food stamps? No, I’m not.”
Then I replay the tape and I say, “Excuse me, could you call your manager over here for just a moment, please?” The manager comes over and the cashier is right there, and I say to the manager, “There is nothing wrong with paying with food stamps, but you shouldn’t make assumptions about who is using them based on what they look like. Not everybody who looks like me pays with food stamps. And you should train your people so they don’t make that assumption.”
When I was working for the Boston Housing Authority in the 80s—the first time I worked at the BHA—there were two of us of color, myself and a gentleman, and we were part of a group taking a tour of a property in South Boston, and we heard people calling out, “Shoot them, shoot them.” So they just hustled all of us right out of there. That was a difficult time to be in South Boston.
In the 1970s, I worked for a private, for-profit affordable housing company that was on the second floor of a building overlooking State Street near City Hall Plaza. And I remember there was a big antibusing demonstration one day and people were marching across the bridges from South Boston. I’m the only Black person in this company, which was perfectly fine, and we’re watching from the window.
And someone says to me—because sometimes, you know, if you’re the only Black person, you’re asked to be the spokesperson for all the Black people in the world—“Sandi, what would you do?” I can sometimes be very sarcastic and snarky—nicely. And my response was such that I was never asked another question about how I felt as a Black person again.
If I said what I really wanted to say a lot of the time, I probably would have been jailed many times over. My parents, in particular my dad, taught me and my brother at a very early age, you have to learn to play the game in order to change the game. Sometimes there’s a subtlety or nuance you need. Sometimes I think I learned that lesson almost too well, because it took me a while to find my true voice and figure out that there are appropriate times when you do have to come in and shake things up immediately, as opposed to just being nice and taking in the landscape.
One of the things that has struck me in all the past four years, and now with the election of President Biden and Vice President Harris, is that when I think about how much Black people have put up with, suffered, struggled, been beaten down, and killed—you name it, we’ve suffered it—sometimes it seems to me it’s been a systematic genocide. And yet we are the same people, in exercising our franchise to vote, who saved this country. We still bail out this country in hopes that it will do the right thing by us, eventually. We love this country and so we keep voting in record numbers because that’s our hopefulness showing.
Bostonia: You’ve spent more than four decades in public service and housing. What drives you?
If I can make someone’s affordable housing work for them so that they can be safe there, so their possessions are not going to be stolen, and the plaster is not going to fall on their heads because there’s a water leak, then they can move forward with their lives. They can go out and find a job and get a promotion, get an education for themselves and their children, all the things we take for granted. I think that’s the way communities get lifted up. For me it’s a matter of equity.
Bostonia: You’ve talked about wanting to encourage college students to consider careers in public service. What would you like to say to them?
You won’t make a lot of money, but you will be able to see the fruits of your labor. If you’re working in housing and urban planning, you will see how the transformation of the landscape actually changes people’s lives.
Do you know BU alumni, faculty, and staff who are opening doors or breaking barriers themselves? Email Cindy Buccini at firstname.lastname@example.org and recommend them for our series “Opening Doors.”
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