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Nikisha Baker recalls the accomplishments of her parents when asked about her inspiration.
The newly named president and CEO of SAMMinistries talks about her parents’ drive to obtain advanced degrees in the 1970s – an unheard-of feat for African Americans in the 1970s – while creating a strong support structure for Baker to thrive and ultimately emulate.
Recalling the hard days, including during her first year of college, when Baker had her family to lean on gives her inspiration, too.
Just a few days into leading SAMMinistries, a nonprofit that strives to prevent homelessness, Baker has prioritized the organization’s Transitional Living and Learning Center and how it helps homeless persons build support systems like those she had growing up.
“Some of the things that I have learned about our clients over the last five years is that so many of them do not have a support system to fall back on when the chips are down,” she said. “And that makes the difference between whether or not they are able to remain stably housed or oftentimes whether or not they become homeless.”
Born and raised in Eatonville, a city near Orlando which was the first all-Black, self-governing city in the U.S., and home to noted author Zora Neale Hurston, Baker fondly remembers her hometown as “the epitome of a small community where everyone knows everyone else and everyone has a hand in helping with the kiddos.”
She was raised in the church, competing in public speaking events at various Southern Baptist Conventions so often that she thought she might want to pursue a career in ministry at the University of Florida, the same alma mater as her parents. In the end, she chose public relations, and the skills she learned in development and fundraising roles with the Orlando blood bank and then the Early Learning Coalition in Orange County, Florida, gave her a passion for grant writing and organizing fundraising events.
In 2011, after her Air Force veteran husband was transferred to San Antonio, Baker started working one evening a week as a child-care volunteer at SAMMinistries, her own children in tow. She balanced this while also working day jobs at TMI Episcopal, then St. Mary’s University, and later the Winston School. She was hired as the development director in 2015, and three months later was named chief development officer in charge of grants and fundraising.
In April, then-president and CEO Navarra Williams announced his retirement. SAMMinistries’ board appointed Baker the chief operating officer and her leadership skills during the coronavirus pandemic have helped SAMMinisteries navigate times that have challenged many nonprofits. But, she contends, the work of SAMMinistries has never been more important.
“We were in the midst of a pandemic that was wreaking havoc both on our clients and our staff in terms of living and working arrangements,” she said. The board’s goal was to ensure a smooth transition to the next leader, she said, and maintain funder relationships and strong operations during the pandemic.
In May, she applied for the CEO position and officially started Sept. 1. Board Chairman Bill Waldrip called Baker “the unanimous best choice” of all the candidates.
“I want to quarterback this team so that we can continue to successfully serve the community,” Baker said. “I have strong relationships that I’ve developed over the last five years with our funders, our community partners, collaborators, and others in the homeless services market that I look forward to building upon.”
In serving the community, Baker’s priority – just like Williams’ was – is creating permanent supportive housing, which has been in greater need since the pandemic started. During the second quarter of the year, SAMMinistries served 500 more households than it did the same time last year.
To support the growing program, Baker is strengthening the organization’s staffing in some areas through hiring and training. She’s also working to increase and diversify income sources for the sustainability of the organization.
“I really want SAMMinistries to become a resource for every family or individual in San Antonio who is experiencing or facing homelessness, and so that means we’ll have to grow our revenue to be able to provide additional services and support for those in our community,” she said. “There’s so much need that presently exists.”
So far, government funding and private donations have shored up the organization’s $10 million annual budget to support people with rent and utility payments and prevent evictions.
But Baker believes the concept of homeless prevention needs to be expanded to serve the growing number of homeowners who can’t make mortgage or property tax payments.
“Those kinds of needs are the places that we’re seeing the most requests from the community,” she said. “[In San Antonio,] we primarily use homeless prevention dollars for renters who are on the verge of eviction. But as we move forward, how do we continue to help those folks who are facing a mortgage foreclosure?”
Baker also is focused on advocating for affordable housing in the community, ensuring that people of color in the community, who have been most affected by the pandemic and likely the financial impacts, have access in proportion to their numbers.
“Affordable housing is so much more than just affordable housing,” she said. “When folks are safely housed, they’re better able to focus on preventative health care, they’re better able to focus on children in schools, and attending schools and receiving the lessons that they need.”
As for lessons to be learned, Baker’s own four children, ranging in age from 5 to 17, have been accompanying their mother to work since before she started at SAMMinistries.
She said they often volunteer there – in the kind of community where everybody has a hand in helping one another like the one she’s always known and hopes others will know, too.