Della Britton Baeza

Leveling the Playing Field

As head of one of the nation’s most successful minority scholarship
and mentoring programs, Della Britton Baeza ’78 builds on a hall
of fame legacy

By Lila Byock

Winter 2010

As a young girl growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, Della Britton Baeza ’78 was a swimmer and a cheerleader. “There weren’t many options for girls’ athletics,” she explained recently in her sunny SoHo office. But as the only sister among five athletic brothers, “there was always the drive to be able to compete and interact with my brothers.” Her role models weren’t pop singers or matinee icons; they were women who had scaled the peaks of male-dominated fields—Constance Baker Motley ’46, the first black woman appointed to the federal bench, and Golda Meir, whose photo graced a poster in the office of Baeza’s mother. The poster’s caption read:
“But can she type?”

These days, as president and CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which grants scholarships to high-achieving minority youths, Baeza frequently finds herself attending star-studded benefits with the likes of Bill Cosby and Derek Jeter, but she remains unfazed. “When you go back to work the next day,” she says, “it’s about that daily process of doing what you do, and doing it as well as you can.”

The foundation aims to foster leadership; to this end, students receive mentorship and life-skills instruction through college and beyond. A new initiative called Extra Innings supports those students who go on to pursue graduate or professional school. Ninety-seven percent of scholarship recipients earn at least a college degree—more than twice the average graduation rate for minorities. In addition to excelling academically, the foundation’s scholars must also perform substantial community service. Baeza is fond of quoting her organization’s namesake, who said: “A life is not important except in its impact on other lives.”

Baeza comes by this credo naturally. Her father was a drug rehabilitation counselor, and her mother, a social worker, eventually became Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary of welfare. “I have a vivid memory of my mother putting away groceries, and my father coming in and taking one of the bags and beginning to fill it to take it to one of the centers where he worked,” Baeza says. When her mother protested that she had
six children to feed, her father shrugged and replied, “There are some people who
need it more.”

After college at Princeton, where Baeza was a member of only the third graduating class to include women, she enrolled at Columbia Law School. “Not a day goes by that I don’t draw on my fundamental legal training,” she says. Her career trajectory has been enviably eclectic—she has been a corporate litigator at Covington & Burling, an attorney for ABC News, and a music business executive, not to mention a mother of three—but Baeza credits her background as a lawyer with helping her navigate the increasingly complex nonprofit sector. “There is a direct parallel between generating clients in a corporate context and generating donors in a nonprofit context,” says Baeza, who is now in the throes of a campaign to build the Jackie Robinson Museum in New York City to further extend the baseball icon’s impact.

More and more Jackie Robinson Foundation scholars are pursuing nonprofit careers right out of school, a trend that Baeza reports with evident pride. “We want them to be ambassadors of Jackie Robinson’s legacy and of the values he embodied,” she says. The students, she adds, very often remind Baeza of herself. “These young people learn at an early age: To whom much is given, much is expected.”

Lila Byock is a member of the editorial staff at The New Yorker.

Photographed by Patrick Harbron