Executive Director, Springfield Housing Authority
Throughout Her Career, She’s Been Both Active and Visible
Denise Jordan says she was caught off guard — “blindsided” was her exact terminology — when Domenic Sarno, then Springfield’s mayor-elect, asked her to be his chief of staff when he assumed the corner office in early 2008.
Not just because she had only recently started working for him on the campaign trail, but also because she had no real idea just what a chief of staff did and what this position might mean for her, career-wise and otherwise.
So she researched it the way people research things these days.
“I Googled ‘chief of staff,’” she told BusinessWest with a wide smile on her face, adding that her online search was, for the most part, fruitless. Indeed, about the only material she could find regarding that title related to the military.
Still desperate for some insight into what a chief of staff does, she said she started watching reruns of The West Wing hoping to get a clue.
In the final analysis, she said ‘yes’ to Sarno’s offer without really knowing just what the job entailed and what she would be doing day in and day out. Which turned out fine, because if there was a standard, or traditional, job description for the Springfield mayor’s chief of staff (and there wasn’t, really), Jordan essentially tore it up and wrote her own.
“She was driven, but she also had a great deal of compassion and empathy — and that’s important in this business.”
Indeed, during her more than 10 years in the post, she was highly accessible and visible (something most mayoral chiefs of staff were not) and also innovative and even entrepreneurial in her efforts to serve the city’s roughly 150,000 residents and represent her boss and his plans for the city.
Most everyone remembers how she was front and center after the June 1, 2011 tornado that practically went over the roof of City Hall as it traveled to the south and east across the city, working 45 straight days and assuming a wide variety of duties in an effort to restore order and begin the work of rebuilding.
But in many ways, she was like that every one of the nearly 4,000 days she spent as chief of staff for the Sarno administration, displaying the qualities needed to do that job well, but also being a true leader within the community.
“She was driven, but she also had a great deal of compassion and empathy — and that’s important in this business,” said the mayor, adding that Jordan, now executive director of the Springfield Housing Authority, is recognized as a “voice of leadership” not just for the city but in the region.
This explains why she’s been asked to lend her time, energy, and talents to organizations and causes ranging from Rays of Hope (she’s a breast-cancer survivor herself) to Square One; from the Massachusetts Women of Color Coalition to the United Way of Pioneer Valley’s Women’s Leadership Council.
And when asked for her working definition of ‘leader’ and what separates such an individual from a manager, Jordan offered a response that explains why she is a Woman of Impact.
“Managers tend to the day to day, and they keep things going,” she explained. “Leaders … they chart the path; they’re the ones who hold folks accountable and set the tone for an organization. Leaders are people who other people follow, not because they have to, but because they believe in their ability to lead.”
Stay with us, and soon it will be clear why Jordan certainly fits her own description of ‘leader.’
An Involved Effort
Jordan was at the famous civil-rights rally at the Octagon Lounge in Springfield in 1965. Well, sort of.
Her mother was several months pregnant with her at the time, and she was there, as was her father, Raymond Jordan, later a long-time state representative, who was arrested that day along with many others. Denise said her parents were a huge influence for her growing up, instilling in her the importance of getting involved and serving the community.
“I always tell people that I grew up in a house of service,” she told BusinessWest. “Both my parents were actively involved in the civil-rights movement in Springfield, and they were also very involved in the community.”
Her résumé would indicate that she learned well from her parents’ example. It lists stints as a civil-rights officer with the Executive Office of Health & Human Services in Boston, a variety of posts for the Department of Mental Retardation, starting in 1989, and as a personnel compliance monitor with the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.
But while carrying out those various responsibilities, she was also very active within the community.
“I just recall that, ever since I was young, I’ve always been someone who volunteered to do something,” she said. “When I was young, I did all the March of Dimes walk-a-thons, and just volunteered for anything and everything.
“I’m a product of the Girls Club on Acorn Street,” she went on. “And that was probably the beginning of just being around a lot of nurturing adults who always put us first and gave back. And I think, from that moment, I always strived to be one of those adults when I was old enough to be.”
She said she got her start within the community as a board member for Martin Luther King Family Services, and considered that a springboard to a wide range of service, from chaperone duties for the Martin Luther King Center’s black college tours to a stint on the FutureWorks board; from being a founding member of the Martin Luther King Charter School for Excellence to serving as president of Academic Athletic Arts Achievement Assoc. (5A) Football, a youth football league founded by her father in the mid-’90s.
She served for 10 years on the Election Commission and as chair for six years. Under Mayor Charlie Ryan, she served as co-chair of the Youth Commission.
All that work within the community caught the eye and the attention of Sarno. Jordan says she knew him, but not personally or very well when he called early in 2009 and invited her to a meeting, at which he revealed his plans to run for mayor and asked for her support.
He got it, and after the election that swept him into office, he named Jordan co-chair of his transition team. Not long thereafter, he had a different role in mind.
And as noted earlier, one of her first priorities was to make the chief of staff visible and accessible — to a host of constituents, but especially city employees.
“It’s been said that the doors of City Hall were really opened under the Sarno administration,” she said. “I remember my first week at City Hall … there were employees who had been in the building 25, 30 years, and they had never seen the chief of staff’s office the whole time they had been working there.”
Twists and Turns
Just to be clear, there is an official job description for the chief of staff’s job at the mayor’s office. The list of duties is rather extensive and includes everything from representing the mayor in dealings with constituents, city officials, and the business community to overseeing commission and board appointments, to being the mayor’s first point of contact for 2,800 municipal employees.
“Managers tend to the day to day, and they keep things going. Leaders … they chart the path; they’re the ones who hold folks accountable and set the tone for an organization. Leaders are people who other people follow, not because they have to, but because they believe in their ability to lead.”
But during a decade-long stretch that saw the tornado and a host of other weather events, a natural-gas explosion that damaged several city blocks, and a seven-year-long effort to bring a resort casino to the city, the position demanded that its holder provide real leadership, and Jordan did just that.
Especially in the hours, days, weeks, and months after the tornado tore a path across Springfield seven and half years ago. To Jordan, it seems like only yesterday, and the memories of that period remain etched in her mind.
She has vivid recollections from the moments just as the tornado passed almost directly over City Hall, such as gathering in the basement of that structure and later seeing what she described as “mass pandemonium” in Court Square and the area to the south.
She also remembers instinct kicking in as she hailed a passing police cruiser and directed the officer to take her to the city’s emergency command center on Carew Street.
“It was a like a scene out of a movie,” she recalled. “You literally jump in a car, and the sirens are going, and you’re driving down State Street trying to get where you need to go. To me, it was so reassuring to see the leadership qualities of the department heads of the city of Springfield; we had never had a disaster like that, but folks just knew what to do.”
Sarno said Jordan was one of those leaders, visible as always, doing whatever needed to be done, and acting with that aforementioned blend of drive and compassion.
“Boots on the ground, literally — that was her,” the mayor recalled. “She was out there in the days and weeks after the tornado, going to door-to-door in all the neighborhoods in that heat and humidity, talking to residents, assessing damage, helping however she could.”
Jordan was brand-new to the Housing Authority position when she talked with BusinessWest. In fact, it was her first day on the job.
She said she would approach it the same way she’s approached everything during in her career — by making full use of her strong listening skills, being visible and accessible, and putting those she’s serving first.
“Every job I’ve had, I’ve been paid to serve people,” she explained. “When the Housing Authority position came open … I didn’t see myself there initially. But the more I talked to people about the skill sets needed and things like that, I decided that this was something I wanted to pursue, based on the fact that it still put me in a position to help people.”
Soon after Jordan started her work with Sarno’s team in 2008, friends and colleagues threw a party to mark the occasion — specifically her becoming the city’s first African-American chief of staff. And as her time with the mayor was winding down, many of those people decided it was time to throw another party.
But Jordan, thinking another celebration wasn’t really necessary, decided to transform the event into a fundraiser for Rays of Hope, which this year celebrated its 25th anniversary (she was one of the event chairs).
Her goal was $5,000. When she talked with BusinessWest, she had more than tripled that, and checks were still coming in.
“I’m beyond excited and overwhelmed … it’s good to be able to give back to an organization,” said Jordan.
And she should know; she’s been doing it her whole life.
Jordan told BusinessWest that she had to give up her leadership post with 5A Football about a year after becoming Sarno’s chief of staff.
As she recalled, her time watching football was devoured by city residents making various requests and demands.
“I was too accessible,” she said with a laugh. “Every game, somebody wanted a job, or they wanted to complain about their taxes, or they wanted me to get their kids into a certain school … after a while, it became too much.”
‘Too much’ isn’t a phrase you hear Denise Jordan utter very often. Her career has always been marked by her willingness to take on more, do more, achieve more, and be more of a leader within her community.
That’s the job description not for a chief of staff, but for a Woman of Impact, and that’s why she’s a member of the inaugural class of 2018.
By the way, she didn’t have to look that title up on Google. Her career’s work defines it perfectly.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]