Don Baker has grown up in Wilmington and is the CEO of the Forum to Advance Minorities in Engineering, affectionately known in and around Delaware as FAME, Inc. Because of his commitment to improving the lives of students of all ages, “K to Gray!” in Wilmington and around the country, he is this week’s #PeopleOfWilmDE! Here’s what he had to say:
“I have lived or worked in the city for the better part of 40 years, and I was actually born and raised in the city of Wilmington. My family’s originally from Philadelphia and moved here in the early 70s. And it’s a very interesting place. I love my city and I certainly enjoy what it’s brought to me and I’m curious to see where things go as we move into the future.
When I think about what was really cool to me growing up in Wilmington, I would have to say the Jazz Fest; it brings people from everywhere. Not just from inside the community where they can walk to see the concerts, but also folks are coming to see international acts. It’s really cool seeing communities and people come together for something that they enjoy: music.
I grew up in Midtown Brandywine. It’s a small little-known community. And one of the greatest joys for me was growing up in a community that had like-minded families and like-minded students.
As kids, we used to walk down Market Street Mall before they put the road in. There used to be an arcade that every kid went to, and right down the street was Al’s Sporting Goods. As a group of kids, it was awesome to go to this arcade and see kids from all over the city. And times were different; there was a lot more pride and in our neighborhoods, and I think we’ve lost some of that.
I’ll never forget those little things growing up, those memories about the city that last. I wonder if other people feel the same way, because there’s isn’t as much walking on the street in Downtown, and everything is much quicker. I’m hopeful that there’s still a collective sense of community.
As a kid, I remember getting encyclopedias or books that really opened me up to Science. Math wasn’t my favorite, but I did well enough that it complemented the things I wanted to do in other classes. Agriculture is something that I’ve always had an interest in. I’ll never forget while I was working for the Wilmington Police Department there was a maintenance worker who said to me, ‘Always put your hands in the dirt, don’t separate yourself.’ It really left a stain on me that it’s critical to understand nature and be a part of it.
Quite frankly, I’ve had a very fortunate path. I had two parents who agreed that education was the ultimate equalizer. So when I took over FAME 11 years ago, I recognized that we needed to do more. We went from being a 7th-through-12th grade organization solely for high-achieving students to now being focused on what we call ‘K-Gray’. So the focus is on ANY student, adult, or non-traditional learner going into the workforce.
A little before the mid 70s, corporations like duPont, Exxonmobil, and others began to really understand that there was a business case for having a really diverse workforce. Fast forward to today, we all know that diversity and inclusion breeds innovation. When you’re talking about engineers, scientists and other critical thinkers, the one thing we know about problem solving is that community or societal problems can be solved differently using new resources. So when you have diverse and inclusive workforces full of different people, things are approached a lot differently. THAT’S where you get innovation. So it’s really critical to understand the genesis of an organization like FAME because it was born out of recognizing there’s a need to make sure that we are in a universe where all solutions are considered: not just for monetary gain, but also for the common good.
Going back to the organization, we were founded in the mid-70s. At that time, we were focused on making sure that young women, Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans, and other underrepresented minorities had a pathway to college. The College of Engineering at University of Delaware was our partner. So high achieving students, like my eldest sister, were selected to be a part of FAME, she was actually the first name on the list to be recruited! That’s how I found out about FAME.
What’s interesting is I think that STEM sometimes gets a bad rap, even though it’s so positive. It’s opened up the world for a lot of people, and certainly allowed us to raise money. What is a negative impact of the acronym is that we begin to categorize people as either ‘STEM people’ or ‘not STEM people’. And quite frankly, we all have different skill sets and different tools that can fit into many STEM environments.
One of the things that I think we should continue to do is to take pride in Wilmington for it being Wilmington, and not try to make it New York or DC, but instead be the best Wilmington that we can be, the safest Wilmington that we can be. We have our own accents and our own flavor and should not always look to bring the outside in, but highlight and support what’s here. Sometimes, folks who have a great idea stay here for 5-10 minutes, and then they’re gone. So those are the kinds of things that I think about. Are we building the community for the community, or just looking for one hit wonders?
The flip side of living in Wilmington is the size is right. It’s small. I think it is really amazing when you have high-quality people around you who want to see positive things happen, and you align yourself with that. It can definitely be beneficial and I think those are some of the biggest benefits to being here. Wilmington is a small place, but you can get things done here that you might not be able to get done in other cities or even states. Wilmington is the economic engine for Delaware, and to be sitting in the economic engine and have some visibility and notoriety certainly goes a long way.
I’ve met a lot of great people older than me, who supported some of the things that I’ve stood for. For example, when I was leaving Delaware for college, they’d say, ‘When you come back home, if you need a job, let us know.’
So part of my job as a human is to do similar things for other people. I look to be able to deliver and pay it forward without any expectation of being recognized for it. I just get satisfaction from being able to look and see or hear positive things about people who I hope I’ve had some impact on. I’m hopeful that there are some things that the city will take leadership on, but at the same time I’m just trying to do what I can do to contribute back to a city that helped raise me and gave me a lot of the successes that many people don’t get to have.
I definitely take pride in knowing that I have helped transform an organization that’s been around for 45 years. Knowing that we’ve impacted the workforce in some spaces has been something I’ve celebrated. I’m also really excited about the purchase of our headquarters on Baynard Boulevard.
A recent honor I received was from the Council of Urban Professionals. It’s a great community of individuals across the US who are driving change in finance, business, and tech spaces. I was fortunate to be one of the first individuals recognized by them as a Technologist of the Year, and first Delawarean to ever be recognized for anything from CUP. It was humbling being recognized for driving change, or stimulating change as we like to say, and providing people with opportunities to connect to jobs, careers, and one another. But I do have to say I just kind of sit back and laugh when I see myself on the screen with a COO from Amazon or whoever. But it just lets me know that I’m doing the right thing and other people recognize that; and it not only makes you feel good, but it also empowers you to keep moving in the direction you’re moving. I tend to do it with my head down to the grindstone. I realize that in most cases, what I’m doing may not immediately impact me, but it’s going to impact other people who are coming behind me.
In terms of the personal things: buying my first home in this city, owning rental property, raising children here, and contributing as a taxpayer and certainly as a person who cares about things that happen here make me proud. I think there’s a bright future for Wilmington and so much more to look forward to and be proud of already.
There are some great opportunities for people to connect and get together in Wilmington. In these times of divisiveness, I think this is the place to create a broader network; it is so small that you can touch people, you can engage with people, and you don’t have to stay isolated in one community on the East Side, on the West Side, or North Side. You can actually reach so many different people just by being engaged. So I would tell everyone, young folk, older folk, continue to make yourself available to learn from one another. Grow with one another. Ultimately, when we listen to one another, we drive positive change.”