Advocate for homeless kicks off common good leadership series

"I was driving back from Boston, gripping the wheel, thinking to myself, ‘Be careful what you wish for’," Mark Swann ’84 said, describing the advent of his remarkable career to a roomful of students at the McKeen Center. While Swann dreamed of being able to make an impact on the most needy, he also knew that by accepting the Preble Street job, he would be throwing himself into an all-consuming task.

Swann was 28 when he travelled from Boston to Portland to interview for an executive position with Preble Street, a homeless shelter that at the time had "daunting goals." Its mission to help the homeless in Maine’s largest city was overwhelming the two-employee, one-room facility with a $110,000 annual budget. When he was hired, Swann, just six years out of college, was asked to transform the way Portland treated its homeless population.

Twenty-four years later, Swann still serves as executive director of Preble Street, which now employs 230 employees and has facilities in Portland, Bangor and Lewiston. Donations and grants have expanded the annual budget to $8 million. Preble Street now is not just a shelter, but also a food source and advocacy group that helps thousands of homeless Mainers each year.

Swann returned to Bowdoin to tell his story to 15 Bowdoin students who had signed up for a new McKeen Center series, "Leading for the Common Good," which seeks to inspire future leaders in the nonprofit sector. He is the first of five guests, four of whom are alumni. The others include Ellen Baxter ’75, Mike Poor ’64 (speaking with Dave Sullivan), Maina Handmaer ’11 and Sarah Singer.

By recounting their stories, the speakers will challenge students to "think about their future in service at Bowdoin and beyond," said Sarah Seames, the McKeen Center director and driving force behind the initiative. Seames said she hopes that by the end of the semester, students will have a better sense of how "to think about all of the different ways to be engaged in a community."

Swann gave students advice about having realistic expectations for fundraising, grant writing and managing a workforce. He illustrated the challenges in coordinating all of the moving parts of a homeless shelter while maintaining its mission. He portrayed Preble Street’s connection with the larger Portland community as it responds to client’s changing needs and adapts programming to economic climates.

Swann compared a career in service to building a cathedral. "Carpenters and architects can spend their whole lives and many times never see the impact of their work," he said. He described "patience and commitment" as integral in understanding that "social or economic justice may not result in his lifetime," but that working on "the path to get to this goal" enriches one’s daily efforts.

Despite outlining the difficulties of a career serving marginalized people, Swann encouraged students to join the non-profit/human services sector. There, he said, they will have "freedom to collaborate, be creative, take leadership and have entrepreneurial opportunities."

While he presented the struggles, Swann also gave students "a clear vision of how to succeed," Alice Wang ’15 said. "He stuck to his personal mission to work in a field he finds fulfilling, which was inspiring as a college student looking forward to the future." Wang said she felt comforted that "he did not know exactly what he wanted to do with his life when he graduated Bowdoin but just followed his passions to a successful and rewarding career."

Students will hear from the other guests throughout the rest of the semester. Ellen Baxter ’84 is the founder and executive director of Broadway Housing, a NYC affordable housing and educational enrichment organization. Mike Poor ’64 is the founder of the Forest Foundation, and Dave Sullivan its executive director. Sarah Singer founded Brunswick Community United, an advocacy group for Brunswick public schools. The series will conclude with Maine Handmaker ’11 who is a local farmer and manager of the Brunswick Farmers’ Market Project.